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.