I was watching a trailer for an upcoming film quite recently when I found myself utterly dumbstruck by what I was seeing. I wasn’t thrilled by the plot or acting or anything related to the technical craft of cinema. Rather, I kept wondering what had happened to one of the lead actor’s faces. They looked so different from how I remembered them, so smooth-skinned and wrinkle-free. It wasn’t just that. They seemed to be struggling to convey basic emotion, and this evolved façade of pore-less glamour seemed utterly at odds with who this character was supposed to be. I did some googling and Twitter searching to see if I was alone in this confusion. I wasn’t, and I even had a couple of friends share the same concerns. This actor, we all agreed, had had some pretty major work done.
I won’t name the actor because we all know where such accusations will lead to. But it did make me think again about something that’s plagued my mind for several years now. I have long grown used to seeing some of the most recognizable faces in the entertainment industry freeze in time or become malleable well beyond the natural changes of aging. Cheekbones have gotten more prominent, noses thinner, lips thicker, jawlines sharper. Websites write fawning articles over how 50-year-old women are as wrinkle-free as they were two decades prior, and how men in their 60s have the astounding muscular physiques of someone half their age. They shill for magic creams, excellent concealers, and Men’s Health cover stories emphasizing the magic of chicken breasts and pull-ups. Fans declare their favourites to be so unproblematic that the passage of time cannot impact them. To even suggest that, shock horror, a celebrity might have had some help in this process is tantamount to treason. The biggest open secret in the business has been shielded by a collective delusion and media-maintained lie that has forever fractured our standards of beauty. So, why the fuck can’t we talk about it?
Well, the obvious answer to that is misogyny. Who the hell wants to add further fuel to the sexist fires that have engulfed generations of women just trying to mind their business? It often feels like the media is incapable of talking about such topics without descending into giddy cruelty. Just check out the way Madonna is discussed and has been for decades, sneered at for rejecting the normal manner of aging that we’ve been told repeatedly is to be avoided at all costs (remember, she was being called ‘grandma’ at the age of 35, and derided as manly for having muscular arms in her 40s.) In a sexist and ageist society, there is no way to ‘age gracefully’ and whether you reject fillers or openly embrace them, you’ll be judged for it. The only mildly acceptable way to age is to ‘do it naturally’ but still not actually look your age, to have that veil of plausible deniability that becomes the lie agreed upon by the press and fans alike. I grew up in the 2000s and remember the plague of scorn faced by women in the public eye, with slight bulges of perfectly normal body fat being circled in photographs and deemed unforgivably hideous. Why bother exacerbating that hell?
That’s the main reason not to talk about it. But what about the reasons to actually discuss it? We talk so often about how social media has given us a warped sense of our own bodies and how generations of young people are struggling to combat the self-hatred cultivated by the likes of TikTok, influencer culture, and the vast capitalistic forces mining them for profit. It’s not uncommon for me to see posts of people in their early 20s talking about getting ‘preventative Botox’, a concept I find ghastly and exploitative beyond measure. Actors show off their 17-part skincare routines to Vogue for advertising purposes, with many shilling their skincare lines as the miracle solution for us schlubs. Everything is for sale, but so much of the truth of the product isn’t. there comes a point where you hear a 50-something celebrity with flawless skin that barely moves telling you their secret is olive oil and you want to scream into the void. There is a lot of money involved in maintaining the illusion of perfection and then selling it back to you with only half of the story told.
The entertainment industry has never adhered to beauty standards that could ever be classified as even remotely reasonable. The goalposts of acceptability are also in constant flux. Heroin chic was in, then the appropriation of Black women’s bodies. Buccal fat removal is the cool new thing, but only until another procedure comes along to tell us how wrong we look. Rita Hayworth had to undergo agonizing electrolysis treatment to push her hairline back to be ‘white enough’ for Hollywood. Various men have broken down in tears describing the cheat days they were permitted amid months of physical training and dietary restrictions to achieve the overtly muscled form that is the default mode for on-screen heroes. It’s no wonder that mere mortals cannot even begin to keep up with this ceaseless flux, but when it’s sold back to us, that cannot help but feel like rubbing salt on an open wound, especially since the lies are so open and pervasive. We watch 50-something actors who can no longer move their foreheads, thus impeding their work, then read about their phony routines to maintain it, all of which you can buy from their exclusive line of serums and gummy vitamins!
To call out the lie is to face a near-impenetrable corporate force of misogyny, ageism, racism, and plain old greed. It’s near-impossible to divorce this one aspect from the firestorm of discourse, and that’s before you even get into the reality of people just being able to do whatever the hell they want with their bodies. Yet these individuals aren’t operating in a bubble. None of us are. Not a single human being is impervious to the capitalistic hordes of beauty culture, no matter how hard we try to divorce ourselves from it. For those in the public eye, those who are crucial in selling the fantasy we’re all coaxed into buying, at what point do they or we call foul? When it impedes their ability to do their jobs, how can we keep pretending it’s business as usual? We’ve been here before, discussing the perils of Photoshop or Instagram filters, as well as the many fad diets that polluted the media before being rebranded as ‘wellness.’ Awareness of the lie doesn’t make it any easier to refute, not when the pressure to maintain the façade is so overwhelming. The cycle goes on, and so does our collective madness.
(NOTE: I’m using Madonna as the header image because she’s so often positioned as the most famous celebrity to be scorned for her changing appearance. This is not a callout or mockery of Madonna. See, I spent a whole article talking about this and still feel the need to note that. This topic is tough, guys!)