in the eye of the beholder: shame + beauty + the face of kim novak



“You’re still going to get criticized, so you might as well do whatever the fuck you want.” — Kathleen Hanna

Shame researcher and bestselling author Brene Brown writes about her sense of panic when she realized that her TEDxHouston talk was going viral. The “quick and global spread” of her work exposed her to the less-than-charming side of Internet culture. Comments like:

How can she talk about worthiness when she clearly needs to lose 15 pounds?

Less research. More Botox!

She may believe that she’s enough, but by the look of that chest, she could use some more.

If I looked like Brene Brown, I’d embrace imperfection too.

Keep in mind that Brene Brown wasn’t trying to make a living off her looks. She doesn’t act or model. She wasn’t even claiming to be pretty.

She’s a freaking shame researcher. (Researchers — and writers, for that matter — are not exactly known for The Sexy.)

And of the 12 “shame categories” (appearance and body image, money and work, motherhood/fatherhood, family, parenting, mental and physical health, addiction, sex, aging, religion, surviving trauma, and being stereotyped or labeled), she says the “primary trigger” for women is – how we look.

We are shamed (by men and other women) for not being beautiful enough, thin enough, or young enough.

I thought of Brene Brown when I got online this morning and saw the fallout from yesterday’s Oscars. It wasn’t about Best Picture, or John Travolta’s sudden head of hair, but the wave of reactions to 81 year old actress Kim Novak’s altered face.

(This, I think, is becoming an Oscar tradition. Last year, the appearance of Renee Zellweger also came under fire for being “frozen”. )

Brene Brown points out that it’s not enough for a woman to be beautiful, she has to seem effortlessly beautiful (otherwise she’s superficial and vain). At the same time, women are expected to invest in their appearance – spending the necessary time, money and energy on all that natural beauty. It’s expected that an actress like Catherine Zeta Jones would use fillers and plastic surgery to stay youthful (“more Botox”) even as she’s criticized for her use of them at all (since they are neither natural nor effortless).

If a woman hasn’t made that obvious investment in looking youthful and thin, she’s accused of letting herself go.

Kim Novak, in short, was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t.

In more than one Facebook thread I saw someone ask if Kim knew how she actually looked — why hadn’t anyone told her?

And I think of something that Joan Rivers – herself no stranger to plastic surgery – said in response to similar questions. Joan knows that she looks odd. She just prefers it to the alternative.

In this culture, words like crone and hag are rarely intended as compliments.

I once posted a picture of the artist Beatrice Wood, who inspired the character of Rose in James Cameron’s TITANIC, on my Facebook page. I quoted her as saying that the secret to her longevity was “chocolate and young men”.

“What she didn’t mention,” a man quickly commented, “was that she cooks and eats those young men!”

I’ve seen the word hag applied to writer Elizabeth Wurtzel, still in her 40s. The commenter disliked her and wanted to cut her down to size – but instead of taking apart her writing or her lifestyle or her history of depression and addiction or her apparent narcissism or anything else, he targeted her looks. He went after her for not being young enough.

Perhaps Kim Novak and women like her do seem to take their faces to a certain extreme. But instead of mocking them or treating them as objects of pity or accusing them of being feeble, addled, clueless, or victimized by their doctors, I wish people would remember the definition of a double bind. Writer Marilyn Frye describes it

“as a situation in which options are very limited and all of them expose us to penalty, censure, or deprivation.”

It might be better to take a big step back. It might be better to discuss, instead, the system these women are in that makes their choices nothing more than the logical outcome of what this culture expects from and values in the female gender.

When all our options suck, we do the best we can. We choose the compromises we think we can live with – and hope that amid the inevitable criticism, we might find some compassion.

Don’t destroy the players.

Change the game.

Mar 4, 2014

14 comments · Add Yours

I agree with you, but look at your cover photo. You are very much a part of the game. Not blaming, but pointing out that all the words in the world go against the visual wave of *other women*, often proclaimed by feminists like yourself, applying sexualization to their professional appearance. To their intellectual work.
Because I am also prone to hypocrisy, I genuinely believe that her hideous brown shirt is not doing her any favors. In a washed pastel with some lipstick, she’d look pretty good.


When my grandmother was approaching Kim Novak’s age, I wouldn’t have wanted her (granny) to look like she did when she was 24. Everything in my upbringing told me that the look of age was also the look of wisdom and experience. What a shame it is that women, especially actresses and others in the public eye, are expected to look like young runaway models. What a shame it is that we expect them to.



@no way! Yes, I like glam and edge. I don’t buy into good girl/bad girl bullshit, and I am actively against the demonization of female sexuality. Sexuality/sensuality does not preclude intellect. That’s a whole other post.


Thank you for addressing the nastiness and hypocrisy that was aimed at Kim Novak for her appearance at the Academy Awards. She agreed to appear at this event (and was probably nervous) and then got torn to shreds afterward for her effort. What’s worse is that so many people feel the need to tweet their nasty, one-shot jabs at her. Kim Novak isn’t a set up for their joke, she’s a human being that our culture has ensnared in a “no win” situation.


@justine musk

Thank you both for the post and for this comment, Justine. Because yes to all of it.


@no way!

A feminist is someone who wants equality for women. A third-wave feminist includes other axes of oppression, including racism. How does this preclude being sensual or beautiful or anything else? (And what is wrong with being sensual or beautiful or anything else? We are sensual creatures living in a sensual world.)

And more importantly, would you have said that to a man with a nice cover photo?


When Kim Novak came on stage my first thought was: Why isn’t the audience giving this Hollywood legend a standing ovation?! They stood for many others of lesser accomplishment, yet apparently didn’t think the actress of Picnic, Bell, Book and Candle, Vertigo, and so many other classics wasn’t worthy of one.

As for Ms. Novak’s face work (as opposed to her impressive body of work) you put it so well, Justine–damned if you do and damned if you don’t.


To Botox or not to Botox, that’s the question; only on minds of women from very limited zip codes. I work in a public hospital and the typical woman I see is not thinking whether to fill her “fine lines” or not, she thinks whether to fill her child’s prescription or buy her some food. If you ever contemplate much about appropriate degrees of sensuality/sexuality or dermatological treatments, I suggest you take a trip to a public hospital or hospice care. That should entirely solve your dilemmas. Wrinkles won’t kill you; if you want to write about the problems of aging, write about the real problems real aging women are dealing with, things like diabetes or hypertension, thing that really affect your daily life in a major way. I thought I know suffering, having had a few scattered painful events in my life, until I met an old woman who had to poop through her belly in a bag since she was 17, and was never asked out on a date; or a woman with breast cancer recurrence after double mastectomy who could not put on her clothes, since she couldn’t move her arms out of pain resistant to any medication. Then I don’t worry about Novak too much, you see.
You say women who do botox are accused of being shallow, well, sorry to inform you it IS shallow to remain on the surface of things, literally. While the conundrum of snobby spoiled women might be the relationship between their sensuality and their appearance, it never passes the minds of the 99 percenters who are family providers and care takers. Sorry that I got a little too passionate about the subject, I just think that a writer with your intellect and caliber, can do a lot more for those women by writing about them, and leave the hollywood controversies to much less qualified writers.


Some of those so-called “spoiled snobby women” would be my friends, and you would be surprised by the depth of intelligence and humanity they possess. It’s easy to project everything we’re taught to despise about women onto “bimbos and trophy wives”. But life is not reality TV.

It’s not about Botox. It’s about the 14 yr old anorexic, or the girl who is secretly cutting herself, or the girl who gives blowjobs to boys because this culture has taught her to confuse sexual attention with love/affection, or any woman who has been divorced from any real connection with her body because she’s learned to perceive it as an object that must be shaped and cut to fit someone else’s standards or else she won’t be loved. Where do you think these ideas get generated, formed, and disseminated? How do you think they spread through the culture — or, for that matter, get exported to other cultures?

You can’t separate a woman’s relationship with her body from her relationship with herself. You probably know this better than most.

Imagine a culture where girls and women were genuinely valued and respected for who they are, not for what purpose they serve. Imagine that aging was celebrated in a woman – a sign of experience and wisdom. Imagine that the female body was held as sacrosanct. The impact of that would be far-reaching, even to women who aren’t shopping at Nieman Marcus.


Stacia L Brown makes a very nicely worded point:

“We know how hard those actresses had to work to get it, know how many low-budget straight-to-DVD flicks they made to keep themselves visible, how many blond wigs and gold teeth and fishnets they had to don and exactly how much of their bodies they had to bare — just for the opportunity to be seen…

Because this is our sisters’ lot in all of the American workforce. We are offered little, we earn less, we hustle harder and stress more — all in response to the idea that our appearance and ideas and work are not as marketable as a white colleague’s would be. Why should Hollywood be different?”


@no way! Feminism is about choice. If Justine wants to post a pic of herself wearing sackcloth and ashes, or a dress made of newsprint, it should be a choice she made. The point of the article is that Kim Novak, and other actors like her, and even lesser-known women in public life, are not being given that real choice. The societal pressure to appear thin, young, and effortlessly beautiful comes from too much of womens’ worth being placed on those apparent traits, rather than what’s in her head or coming out of her heart.

@Rose The suffering of everyday women is not diminished by the focus on women in the public eye. #firstworldproblems are still problems because they have long societal reach that makes life more difficult for all women. And creating societal solutions to those problems often opens doors to raising standards for women outside the distorted social mirror of Hollywood.

Actress Kate Winslet has said, “As a child, I never heard one woman say to me, ‘I love my body.'” Wouldn’t it be great if our daughters could grow up and not have to say that? It would be because the women on TV started acting like it, and the women in public positions would echo that. The more people who see confident women rejecting the idea that appearance has a shame-hold on them, the less control appearance-shame has over every woman’s everyday life. Women who love their bodies take care of them. They listen and get checked out when something doesn’t feel quite right. It matters.


I like it when I see a beautiful woman. But women don’t exist for me to look at. What am I, 12?


Women are shamed if they have wrinkles and shamed if they decide they want to do something about them. They are shamed if they are overweight and shamed when they are underweight. They are shamed for dressing “too sensual” whatever that is, and shamed for not dressing with taste or not well enough. They are shamed for their vaginas and shamed when they modify them. They are shamed for expressing their sexuality and they are shamed for being frigid. They are shamed for spending too much time working on their fitness/body and shamed for not doing enough. They are shamed for their assertiveness and shamed for being a doormat. They are shamed for having a baby too young and shamed for getting abortions.

What is worse is that we stand on a superiority pedestal and think nothing of expressing our opinions on what other women/men do. These are personal choices that can be made as informed decisions. We need to step back and examine our judgmental stance and ask if our opinion is needed on an individual basis. If a woman asked for your opinion than give it through your paradigm but if you aren’t asked, then reserve your opinion to yourself.


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