Why American Women Hate Their Faces and What They Could Learn From the Brits

In this image released by PBS, Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess Grantham, is shown in a scene from the second season on "
In this image released by PBS, Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess Grantham, is shown in a scene from the second season on "Downton Abbey." The 78-year-old actress, who portrays Lady Grantham in the popular PBS series, told ?60 Minutes? that she hasn't watched the drama because doing so would only make her agonize over her performance. She said she may watch it someday. (AP Photo/PBS, Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE, Nick Briggs)

One cannot watch the Oscars -- or any grand Hollywood event -- and not be swept up in the fashion, the pageantry, the suspense, the... cringe-worthy sport of seeing just which aging actress has ruined her face.

Seriously, I sit and watch these things and wonder out loud: "Why do American women hate their faces so much?" Because they must, right? They would have to be filled with such loathing to make the inexplicable decision to take what we typically call our "calling cards" -- our faces -- and mutilate them to the degree so many do.

Do these women (and, lately, more men) not have mirrors? Are they under the influence when they have consultations with their plastic surgeons? Do they not see how just how not better they look by virtue of whatever cosmetic facial readjustment they've wrought upon themselves?

I'm assuming not. Because when they end up with visages that no longer look like them, no longer look particularly human, no longer look young, and certainly --gasp -- no longer look attractive, just what was it they were going for? What was the goal? If this is the achievement, dear God, we really do need to rethink our view of beauty and the inevitability of aging.

This query of mine was certainly piqued while viewing the recent award season, looking at one face after another that made me shake my head in puzzlement and -- I'm not kidding -- a certain sadness: sadness that we live in a culture that is so f*cking fixated on the currency of YOUTH (is there any way to make that word bigger??) that some of our most beloved film and TV icons have been compelled to trade their uniqueness, their quirks and characteristics, their endearingly aging faces for that Face. The one with the capital "F"; the one with implants and tightenings and Botox and collagen and those really weird lips and odd eyebrows and bizarrely puffed cheeks and chins. You know, that Face, the one that is now so appallingly familiar and ubiquitous that no one who's "had work done" can even pretend to hide because it's all so generic and obvious. It's obvious, folks! We can tell. And we don't like it.

It was the night after the Oscars that I happened to have "The Blacklist" on (love James Spader!) and the glorious Dianne Wiest showed up as a guest star. Looking fit, healthy and very much her age, she filled the screen beautifully as an actress who knows who she is and embraces it: her softening jawline, her wrinkles; her sags. I loved her all the more for having the wisdom and grace to accept herself and show her face -- front, center and in high definition -- with no embarrassment, no shame, no apology. As it should be. I hope Hollywood casts the hell out of her coming up because I, for one, would like to see more women who look like real women on my film and TV screens.

I mention the Brits in comparison on this issue but I should probably use the more inclusive "Europeans"... even "internationals." Because one cannot enjoy the abundant offerings of our current film and TV landscape without noticing the distinct differences between the faces of our counterparts across the various ponds and the sinewy, panicked faces over here. Watching "Downton Abby" with Maggie Smith's delightfully craggy face and the aging -- and ageless --women who make up both the upstairs and "down"; "Broadchurch" with Olivia Colman's unglamorous and oh-so-human and weary eyes; "The Bletchley Circle" with its "four ordinary women" (truly); Dame Judi Dench in... anything. There's the Swedish versions of the "Dragon Tattoo" trilogy that come with the pockmarked, wrinkled, very real faces of their skilled actors not afraid to be seen as who and what age they are. The unique, everyday faces of the men and women in Steven van Zandt's loopy and very Norwegian "Lilyhammer." The gritty offerings of pretty much every other country that casts actors and actresses who look like real people with unperfect faces and bodies who, therefore, truly represent the unperfect audiences watching them.

Here in the States? We have men and women who clearly hate their faces so much that when any hint of age makes itself known, it's cut away like so much loathsome debris. Perfection is the goal; age is the cancer.

And it seems the misguided young turks at the helm of all visual media -- print, TV, film, photography -- have determined that what Americans want is the perfection of youth; they want that unnatural, unreal, unattainable "fountain" that demands that dewy-faced, drop-dead beautiful, forever-young men and women are the only representations of the world we should have to see; models, dammit, are the ideal. So FBI agents are cast with model-pretty men and women, all "moms" are fit as fiddles and look like they've just come from makeovers; young businessmen have six-packs and wives as pretty as the models being cast as FBI agents; every police, fire or lawyer person -- male or female -- looks like they stepped out of a Ralph Lauren catalogue. You know... pretty much what we see every day, right?!

But, of course, age and humanity being what it is, those standards for even the most perfect can only hold for awhile. We all age. Even that 3-year-old is aging. And certainly that jaw-droppingly gorgeous 20-something is creeping toward obsolescence; that 30-something is tapping on the coven door. And once the jaw starts to soften, the laugh lines stop being funny and the lips settle into their less-Jolie form, it's all-out triage. CALL A PLASTIC SURGEON... STAT!

God, it's all so exhausting, isn't it?

Look, I love youth; I love looking at gorgeous young people doing whatever it is they're cast to do. Beauty is beauty and we can all appreciate the particular beauty of the young. And hey, I used to be one of the young; my jaw was tighter, my eyes wider, my cheeks up where they started. I see pictures of myself these days and wonder who the hell that is and where did my other self go... I get it. I can't imagine having a camera shoved up my nose and having to hear, "Oh my God, look how old she got!!" on a regular basis. It can't be easy. I understand the impulse to do whatever it takes to stave off those gasps for as long as possible. But here's where they make the mistake: people are still gasping... just for different reasons.

I don't have to name names; we all know who and what we saw at the Oscars (male and female) who took our breath away for all the wrong reasons. We've all seen one famous face after another tumble down the rabbit hole of peer pressure, cultural expectations, show business demands, sheer vanity, fear of death, revulsion of aging and the simple miscalculation -- pummeled and propagated by the media and culture -- that the only beauty is youthful beauty. It's a heavy burden.

And it's simply not true. Youthful beauty is one kind of beauty. There are other kinds; the beauty of grace, acceptance, feeling at ease in your skin. The beauty of wisdom, life lived, experience gained. The beauty of Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Dianne Wiest; any man or woman who hasn't panicked, doesn't resent their years, hasn't put themselves under a knife to carve away their familiar, beloved and well-earned features to be replaced with the replicant, reptilian, repetitive faces of fear we see all around us these day. That beauty, that fearless beauty, is the kind that sticks till the very end.

We see it elsewhere... dear American Culture, can we please see more of it here?


Follow Lorraine Devon Wilke on Facebook, Twitter, and Rock+Paper+Music. Details and links to her other work at www.lorrainedevonwilke.com.