The Internet broke out in celebration this past week over Jennifer Aniston's recent comments about Botox.
"There is also this pressure in Hollywood to be ageless," the actress told makeup artist Bobbi Brown in an interview for Yahoo! Beauty. "I think what I have been witness to, is seeing women trying to stay ageless with what they are doing to themselves. I am grateful to learn from their mistakes, because I am not injecting shit into my face.”
She continued: "I see them and my heart breaks. I think, 'Oh god if you only know how much older you look.' They are trying to stop the clock and all you can see is an insecure person who won’t let themselves just age."
While Aniston’s decision to embrace the natural effects of aging is noteworthy in the greater context of Hollywood, her comments fall in line with a larger cultural problem: Why, when praising celebrities who do not conform to anti-aging norms, must we simultaneously criticize those who do?
The practice of age-defying procedures exists in a culture that idolizes young women. One need only to look to contemporary media to see the evidence: Advertisements and runway shows almost exclusively feature teenaged to 20-something models. The Center For the Study Of Women And Television reported that women over 40 made up just 30 percent of all characters in the top 100 grossing films of 2013. What this first tells us is, on a practical level, female celebrities who don’t keep up youthful appearances will likely be out of a job. But the lack of representation for older women also has important implications on a larger scale.
The types of people we see represented on television, in magazines and on the Internet help to inform the types of people that we as a society come to find valuable in real life. Contemporary media’s narrow representation of only young, thin, normatively attractive females comes to influence actual women’s lives in a very concrete way: The younger and more traditionally attractive one looks, the more social capital she has.
In this environment, placing blame on celebrities (or any women, for that matter) who undergo anti-aging procedures effectively punishes individuals trying their best to hold on to some semblance of power and social worth in a society that systematically oppresses women. Calling out older actresses who get Botox as being “fake-looking” or “insecure” only serves to distract us from focusing our energies on the actual larger, structural misogyny embedded within our culture.
It’s all well and good to appreciate celebrities, like Aniston, who resist the pressure to conform to such stringent standards, but only to the extent that their abstinence calls attention to the greater unjust pressures women face. Staying away from age-defying procedures is not “better,” and is not a requirement -- it is taking an extra, risky step. It is not women's responsibilities to shirk the few tools they have at their disposal to continue to hold power in an unequal climate. Instead of implying that it is, we should expend our energies creating an environment in which women of all ages and appearances are highly valued.
The fact that when celebrities do take measures to look more youthful, they only face more criticism, albeit of a different kind, just serves to underscore the larger problem at hand. If women who don’t remain young-looking are dismissed as old and “over the hill,” and women who attempt to do so with artificial measures are labeled “plastic” and “desperate,” there is no safe path for women to take as they age. This damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario is all too commonplace in spheres that dictate the requirements of women’s appearances: Women are supposed to be thin, but are considered shallow if they watch what they eat too closely. Women are supposed to look "flawless," but are taken less seriously if they wear or show interest in makeup. Our cultural standards have set up countless situations in which women literally cannot win.
Media coverage of Aniston’s quote largely focused on her proclamation to not put any “shit into her face.” But what we actually need to focus on is on her suggestion that there is an unjust pressure in Hollywood -- and in our greater culture -- to be ageless, and then proceed to work towards eliminating said pressure. The actress had it right when she called on the industry to increase representation:
“I think fashion people need to start incorporating all ages, not just these 20-something perfect people, or not just for anti-aging [ads],” she said. “Represent beauty in all ages! You know what I mean?”
Yes, we do.
By acknowledging structural barriers to women's successes, and by increasing representation of not only different ages, but also of different races, sizes, and all kinds of appearances, we can begin to expand the notion of what it means to be a valued and valuable member of our society. We can begin to open up some of those impossible boxes, and reduce discrimination against those who fall outside the very narrow culturally endorsed norm.