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Facing Up to Fears, 1

What does Renee Zellweger’s face have to do with my getting married?

Nothing. And everything.

On the off chance you’ve missed the approximately 24,372 (make that 24,373 now) articles, blogs, and tweets on the subject, actress Renee Zellweger made the news recently when photos of her taken at the ELLE Women in Hollywood Awards revealed some changes to the 45-year-old’s visage. Zellweger, most famous for her turn as the title character in the Bridget Jones movies (personally, I thought her most fabulous in Chicago), has been out of the public eye for much of the last four years, and her recent appearance–in all senses of the word–has lit up the internet for days with speculation (and castigation) about the reasons behind her altered look. I’ve hesitated to throw my hat in the ring (it protects against sun-damage, you know), but this FsFTB is ready to lay a few things bare.

Two thoughts. The first (A) is about perspective, in a fairly literal sense. As someone who has been in front of a camera a fair amount, having performed for much of my life and taken up modeling in my later years, I can see that some of the apparent differences in Zellweger’s appearance are quirks of lighting and angle, combined with the fact she’s wearing minimal makeup. The one shot that is getting the most airtime, the one in which folks are exclaiming she looks “unrecognizable,” is simply an unflattering picture. In other recent photos, some taken at the same event, she is recognizable. Yes, her eyes appear a bit wider, her brows less sculpted, and there are some crow’s feet in evidence, but she looks fine.

As a photographer friend of mine has pointed out, our bodies are living matter in motion, our faces and expressions dynamic and ever-changing. A photograph, in contrast, captures an isolated moment, one second of stillness in a lifetime of movement. Sometimes the result is an accurate reflection of reality; sometimes it is idealized; and sometimes it’s just…not. Most of us have had a picture taken that surprises us, and whether you love or hate that photo depends on the nature of the surprise: did the photographer catch a moment of heightened beauty–a just-right tilt of the head, a bold, happy laugh–or click the shutter the second your lip curled sideways and your left eyelid twitched shut? Even stunningly beautiful people take ugly pictures. Ask someone to follow you around and take 50 random photos as you walk, laugh, sing, etc., and see if there isn’t at least one that makes you say, “I don’t look like that!”

Yes, you do.  Or at least you did during the split second the camera caught your mouth half-open and that weird shadow bisected your face, making one nostril look like a black hole.

Not to mention that so many of the “It’s so shocking!” comparisons show Zellweger’s recent photo next to ones taken of her six and eight and ten years ago. Seriously, do you look the same as you did ten years ago?  If I put a picture of myself from ten years ago next to a current photo, my first thought is, “Hey, gravity works.” My second is, “I look happier.”  Most days I consider that more than a fair trade.

So that’s (A). (B) is more complicated, and more important.

(B): It’s her face.

It’s nobody else’s business what Renee Zellweger does or doesn’t do with her face. If she wants to get a 3-D tattoo of a monarch butterfly appearing to land on the end of her nose for all of eternity, she can. I can’t say I, personally, would find it an attractive choice. But it’s her face.

Why am I obsessing about this? Because gravity does work, and quite well, in fact, as I can scarcely forget when every bridal magazine and wedding website flaunts the smiling faces of blushing young brides, with their taut, smooth skin and well-defined chins. I’ve been toying with the idea of whether–before we pay lots of money for lots of wedding pictures–I might want to do a little something to counteract its forces. I’d like to think that if I decided I wanted a little Juvederm or a laser peel or some other cosmetic boost to my forty-something face (and confidence) before my wedding day, my friends would shrug and say: it’s her face. But I’ve heard people not only express shock and anger at the pressures society places on women like Zellweger to maintain an impossible ideal of eternal youth and beauty–a fair target of their wrath, and a concern I share. I’ve heard just as many criticize and judge Zellweger herself for, as they see it, caving to those pressures. It makes me wonder what kind of censure or disappointment I–whose ability to be competitive in my profession does not, thank god, depend on the definition of my jawline–might engender were I to make a similar choice.

Why can’t I–she–we–just grow old gracefully? Believe me, I want to. I want to accept my aging self with all its puzzles, pleasures, and idiosyncrasies, physical and otherwise. But what do we mean by “growing old gracefully,” anyway? Does working out regularly fall within the parameters of “graceful”? What about hiring a trainer? If your motivation to get fit is as much about maintaining your youthful figure as it is maintaining your health, is that a little less than graceful? What about wearing sunscreen, or dyeing your hair? Using anti-wrinkle cream? Getting a chemical peel?  An injection? Liposuction? An eyebrow lift or a tummy tuck?  Where exactly does one cross the line from aging gracefully, to tripping up occasionally, to full-on fisticuffs minus concern for health or dignity?

I’m not considering going under the knife, and honestly, even the idea of Botox freaks me out a little. I’ve never had anything beyond a basic facial, and I’m still debating whether I ever will. But I was deeply disturbed by the responses to Zellweger’s photos. In her profession–as saddening and maddening as it is–getting work done is often a savvy business decision. The fact I hate that does not make it any less true, and condemning her for “selling out” doesn’t solve the real problem. It’s particularly distressing to me that some of the same women who fight for a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her uterus are equally quick to tell her what she can and can’t do with her face. I know the anger comes from a good place–a desire for a better world, a world in which  women are treated as whole humans.  And it’s true that when women like Zellweger take dramatic measures to prolong the appearance of youth, they perpetuate unattainable and unrealistic ideals of beauty and perfection, distorting our idea of what a real woman’s body or aging face looks like. Those distorted ideals are genuinely damaging, and I, too, have wished more celebrities would allow themselves to age naturally, be role models, and reduce the pressures on us all. Perhaps if they did, eventually, we’d rid ourselves of those unattainable standards altogether.

It’s a beautiful dream. And it is a lot to ask.

Yes, women in the public eye are role models, whether they like it or not. They have power to inspire change. AND they are also individuals with agency, and if I’m going to argue that a woman’s body is her domain, then her face is in country, too. On the one hand, I would love it if women in the business of beauty would take a stand to create a world where real, natural beauty was accepted and admired, aging faces and bodies respected and revered. On the other hand, I don’t think I get to insist that Zellweger sacrifice her right to make choices that might extend her career or bring her more confidence as she navigates a world that’s less than welcoming to the middle-aged. Feminism is about choices, and…it’s her face.

The problem is not her face, or mine, or gravity. The problem is that we live in a world in which women are dismissed if we aren’t youthful, thin, and beautiful, and shamed if we take too many (obvious) measures to become or remain so.  Our faces and bodies, far too often, are battlegrounds, political pawns, fodder for the next news cycle. They are regulated and legislated. The least we can do for one another is to refuse to add to the daily barrage of messages that declare our bodies are not ours to determine. The least we can do is claim our bodies, our faces, our crinkly crow’s feet and wise smiles, for ourselves.

It’s a gorgeous, sunny autumn afternoon, perfect for a walk.  Now, where did I toss that hat?

What’s Age Got to Do With It?

So, after someone asks, “After all these years, how did you know?” you focus first on the “how did you know” piece. After the third or eighth or seventeenth sales clerk/prospective vendor/random person in public sees your forty-something self with wedding-related items and assumes you are the mother of the bride instead of the bride-to-be, you start thinking more about the “after all these years” piece.

Is it possible to laugh out loud while grimacing in rueful recognition? Ladies and gentlemen, Garfunkel and Oates, in “29/31”:

Lest you’re wondering, no, I’m not 29-and-holding; in fact, I’m quite a few orbits past 31-and-kvetching. (Well, okay. I cop to the kvetching.) Actually, it amuses and bemuses me every time I hear a news story about how the average age of marriage has risen dramatically in the past few years. To 27. Of course, that is an average. Just doing my small part to blow the curve.

I don’t know that I ever felt as confident and glib as “29,” though I definitely shared her naivete–especially the bit about how love and partnership “just happen.” I didn’t hit “31’s” wall of angst until I turned 36. Forty was closer than thirty…when did that happen? Suddenly I saw with clarity how the trajectory of my life, in terms of readily available dating opportunities, had progressively and steadily narrowed: the wide-open spaces of college in a big city when most everyone my age was unmarried and so “available”; grad school in a slightly smaller city, where the increasing demands of school and teaching meant I mostly met men in my department, a good third of whom were already attached; then my first full-time job, even more demanding, at a small college in a tiny Georgia mountain town with a charming square, great festivals, and six eligible bachelors. Okay, maybe seven.

The year I celebrated the pivotal 36th birthday, I’d moved to Virginia and broken off a relationship that distance proved to be a mismatch. Over the next five years I had two revelations: (a) If I wanted to meet people (not just potential partners, but anyone outside work) and see the world, there was no time for or sense in waiting; I was going to have to go against my introverted grain and, to quote a mentor, “make my own luck.” And (b) it was entirely possible that despite whatever efforts I made or adventures I embraced, I wouldn’t find a lifetime partner (unless felines counted).  And whether I did or not, I was going to be okay.

More than okay, actually. I was going to be awesome, because I could choose to live an awesome life, whether I lived it alone or with a partner. Or alone or with a partner with cats.

Not long ago, NPR ran a great piece on Morning Edition I wish I could have heard many years ago: “For Single Women, ‘An Infinite Variety of Paths’.” The piece ran as part of their current series on “The Changing Lives of Women,” and focused on an interview with Rebecca Traister, author of Big Girls Don’t Cry. My favorite comments from Traister’s interview are those the title is drawn from: “…we make a mistake when we create a binary between, you’re either married or you’re unmarried. Once you lift the imperative that everybody get married at age 22, what you get is an infinite variety of paths. It’s not simply some argument that single life is inherently better than married life. The fact is there are all kinds of married lives and all kinds of single lives, and more people are now free to go down a variety of paths.”

“An infinite variety of paths.” Which may be walked (or strolled, or skipped, or stampeded down) at an infinite variety of ages. Remaining single at 31, or 36 (or 43 or 55 or or or) doesn’t mean life is “over”; getting married at any age is simply the start of another exciting (and, for me, as yet uncharted) path. Not all who wander, as they say, are lost, and if we’re lucky, we’ll have the chance to experience many different paths within one lifetime, each with its own challenges, riches, and joys.

Some of them have annoying sales clerks.  But some of them have cats.

The “Anti-Bride” and Me

Within two days of arriving home after our Virginia Beach engagement, I found myself standing in Barnes and Noble, staring at shelf upon shelf of books for brides-to-be.

There were planners and checklists, do-it-yourself decorating tips, weddings-on-a-budget books; thick binders and skinny hardbacks and sleek spiral-bound volumes of all shapes and sizes (weirdly, a bit uniformly pink in bookshelf1hue–really, are we twelve?). All claimed they’d help me plan the wedding of my dreams. And I hadn’t even gotten to the magazine section, where a row of strangely serious, sculpted women, all angled elbows and white lace, brooded out at me from the covers of at least ten different glossy tomes.

I was mesmerized. And a little horrified. Continue reading

Will YouTube Marry Me?

Everyone’s first question, as soon as you sport a ring on your finger, is “How did he propose?”  The available answers seem to grow increasingly complex: a quick internet search reveals choreographed dance routines with professional performers, day-long scavenger hunts where the couple’s friends pop up with clues, private rooftop dinners accompanied by string quartets or even salsa bands. Websites abound offering guidance on creating the “perfect proposal,” and there are event planners whose sole focus is designing not weddings but “proposal packages.” The “Plan Your Proposal” button on one such site leads to a menu that not only strongly encourages hiring a pro to document the event but also includes a “Book a Flash Mob” link and an “Ask the Expert” option, where you can “run your proposal ideas” past a “proposal expert” and get a response in three days.

Um, how exactly does one qualify to become a “proposal expert”?

Bold public proposals or creative, extravagant approaches are genuinely romantic when they fit the couple. My brother proposed to my sister-in-law in front of a crowd packed with friends and members of an organization that had changed his life; they were the very people who’d encouraged him to live large and dare initiate the relationship in the first place. ❤ And if you’re a professional actor wooing a producer, it makes sense to stage an actual live lip-dub street production to pop the question! But so many “big” proposals seem less an outgrowth of a couple’s personal history than a product of growing social and market pressures to manufacture a “perfect” but artificial moment. After all, most of us aren’t professional performers, and how dreamy is it, really, to purchase someone else’s pre-packaged idea of a romantic gesture, or, for that matter, to tell not only your friends but also a roomful of random flash-mob dancers that you want to marry Susie before you tell Susie herself?

Somewhere along the way, proposing marriage has become a kind of competitive spectator sport. The big proposal now rivals the big wedding. Full of flash and splash, scripted and staged, it’s a public performance of your commitment, recorded for posterity. Because, of course, someone is always there filming these über-events.  Otherwise, what’s the point?

Continue reading

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Kiss Me, Karma

One year from today, lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I will don a wedding dress, pick up a bouquet, and walk down the aisle to marry my mid-life love Steve. Those last few stately steps will total just a few yards, but it’s taken me nigh onto forty-five years to stroll, saunter, sprint, and sweat my way to that moment.

I figure it’s my own fault. And not just because of a few questionable decisions made and frequent detours taken along the way, though those have certainly played a role. No, when I was young and particularly dumb, I inadvertently threw the universe a karmic challenge. And the universe, I think, felt it had no choice but to teach me a lesson.

The summer I was eighteen, I worked part-time as a student assistant in the Math and Science division of Gainesville College, then a two-year community college located in northeast Georgia. My father Garry had taught chemistry there since the year before I was born, so I’d grown up conducting science fair projects in his lab and selling Girl Scout cookies to his colleagues. Even before I enrolled as a student for my freshman year, I’d become acquainted with many of the department professors: the married Mayhews, environmental biologists always dressed in Birks and khakis; the mustached John Hamilton, an A&P prof who seemed to burst with kinetic energy; lab coordinator Linda B., whose bold laugh echoed down the terrazzo-floored halls. Once I started working in the division office, I got to know more about them: mathematician Dee Fuller always had a joke at the ready, and ex-Marine Dr. Rogers, geologist, department chair, and dead ringer for Ernest Hemingway, could shift from stern to smiling so quickly you thought you’d imagined feeling intimidated.

I particularly admired Christy Gregory, a tall, willowy math professor who’d painted her office bookshelves periwinkle. A color aficionado myself, I appreciated the pop of purple and the streak of independence it implied. Still, she puzzled me: obviously smart, beautiful, friendly, and genuine, Professor Gregory remained single. For my romance-obsessed teenage self, that equation was harder to understand than any that required solving for X.

Then, one afternoon, not long after she’d celebrated her fortieth birthday with a cake and cards from the staff, I was tending the front office phone while several faculty members chatted by the counter. Professor Gregory came in wearing a million-watt smile. After dropping off a handout for me to copy, she turned to announce she was engaged: she’d been active with the singles group at the local Methodist church, and she and the pastor had fallen in love. She was getting married!

I’d like to say I felt pure joy, that the only thought in my mind and thrill in my heart was for her happiness. But as my mouth smiled and said “Congratulations!” my brain was seized by that naïve self-absorption that is the special purview of the young. Oh, my god! it exclaimed in horror. I hope I don’t have to wait until I’m forty.

And as hugs were passed all around, the universe nodded sagely: Hey, kid, no problem. Happy to make alternate arrangements.