Amy Brenneman
Amy Brenneman

October 22, 2014

Jane and Gloria and Frances

I don’t want to write about Renee Zellweger. Or rather, that’s not all I want to write about.


I got off a daylong flight and checked what the world was chatting about. Twitter and Facebook: our modern village gossip sites. Amid Ebola and Isis, there was quite a lot of talk yesterday about a recent appearance of Renee Zellweger, where she appeared to have altered her face in ways that are becoming pretty familiar. There were arguments and counter-arguments – the pressure of Hollywood! low self-esteem! body dismorphia! – but nothing from Ms. Zellweger herself until this morning. Apparently her rebuttal was: I like the way I look. I am happy in my life now. It’s not anyone’s business but mine.


Touché, Renee.


So I don’t want to write about Renee Zellweger but about the interesting discussion her recent appearance inspired. This is indeed a confusing time for all of us – men, woman, old and young – in the arena of self-image.

But not for Gloria and Jane and Frances.


As you readers of my blogs may know, I recently attended a talk about Jane Goodall’s work with the chimpanzees of the Gombe preserve. Jane Goodall turned 80 this year. Here is what she looks like:




Another hero of mine turned 80 this year, Gloria Steinem, who I’ve been lucky enough to meet and who’s trailblazing has bettered my life (and probably yours too) every day. Here is what she looks like:




These faces are glorious to me. Granted, both women must have phenomenal genes (“Oy! The bone structah!” as my first agent from Queens would swoon) and we can assume that both have tried to stay reasonably healthy in their lives. But there is something more. To me they are lit from within, nourishing themselves on vision, passion and service. You don’t get to look like that at 80 any other way.


I don’t mean to dismiss the real pressures we all feel when it comes to aging and beauty; the fervent discussions about Renee Zellweger’s red carpet appearance underscore this. But it’s not just aging actresses and those in the public eye who suffer. I recently heard a doctor discussing eating disorders and body dismorphia in young men who live far from Hollywood. These guys starve themselves and take steroids in a vain attempt to achieve the look in magazines that are created from air brushing and nothing else. It’s like killing yourself to look like the Mona Lisa; that image was created on canvas, it is not something that a three-dimensional human – a human who eats and farts and gets zits and grey hairs and whose face is crooked when she laughs really, really hard – can ever replicate. Why would we want to? We are the real deal; the photos are facsimiles of us.


Frances MacDormand, recently interviewed in the New York Times, had a much more forceful way of putting it:


“We are on red alert when it comes to how we are perceiving ourselves as a species. There’s no desire to be an adult. Adulthood is not a goal. It’s not seen as a gift. Something happened culturally: No one is supposed to age past 45 — sartorially, cosmetically, attitudinally. Everybody dresses like a teenager. Everybody dyes their hair. Everybody is concerned about a smooth face.”


She goes on: “I have not mutated myself in any way,” she said. “Joel and I have this conversation a lot. He literally has to stop me physically from saying something to people — to friends who’ve had work. I’m so full of fear and rage about what they’ve done.”


“Joel” is her husband, Joel Cohen with whom she worked on her Oscar-winning role in “Fargo” as well as other projects. She says: “I’ve been with a man for 35 years who looks at me and loves what he sees,” she said.


Ah. That’s the secret: being loved for who you are.


I have a husband like that too. Brad would dump my ass in a New York minute if I fell permanently into Narcissus’s’ seductive pool. We once saw a beautiful actress who had obviously gotten a ton of work done. Brad couldn’t fathom that she would’ve chosen to this, so he theorized she’d been in some kind of accident – a fire perhaps? – and had no choice but to change her face. “No honey,” I said, “She had a face lift. By choice.” He looked genuinely perplexed — a child being told there was no Easter Bunny.


We don’t all have partners like that. Some of the most phenomenal and beautiful men and women in my life are single. So maybe we as a community can be one another’s mates, seeing each in loving, supportive eyes. Maybe we can mirror back our collective beauty when we are crying or laughing or aging or farting or happy or not. Maybe healthy cultural self-esteem flows from the inclusion of our humanity and our acceptance of flaws. And maybe that way we can prevent more adolescent girls from cutting themselves and grown women from paying surgeons to cut them as well – permanently and yes, sometimes beyond recognition.


We are beautiful when we are loved.


We are beautiful when we are filled with purpose


We are beautiful when we are part of community.


A friend told me a story of a woman she’d met in an exercise setting. This woman was adamant about self-love and jumped on my friend when she made an offhand derogatory remark about herself. “Don’t DO that!” the woman cried out, with the passion of a zealot. “You got to stand UP for yourself! And LOVE yourself!’


My friend then realized this woman had two prosthetic legs, which she used with seamless agility. She told my friend the story about how she used to be driven by a desire for physical perfection – fillers, Botox, hair extensions – these pursuits ran her day. It led her to a “butt injection party” where, much like Botox parties, women would go to get injected at rock bottom prices. This woman got a serious reaction to whatever she was injected with – apparently there was caulking material in the syringe – which led to an infection. She lost both legs, but not her life.


When this woman preaches about the perils of self-hate, she is not fucking around.


I’ll be musing about these things for many years to come, I’m sure, as I traverse my own middle age and my daughter’s adolescence. There are no easy answers, but in moments of doubt and darkness I will think to think to myself: what would Jane and Gloria and Frances do? When Jane Goodall has a bad day, does she get a butt injection? Or a hug from a chimp?


Come to think of it, some of those chimps have quite the booty. Nicki Minaj, watch out.