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10/22/2014 08:01 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Way We're Talking About Renee Zellweger's Face Needs Some Major Work

Frazer Harrison via Getty Images

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Renee Zellweger looks so different recently that it seemed unethical to even write about the photos. She trended on Twitter on Tuesday, and the comments ranged from salty to cruel. But while Zellweger's appearance may have changed since "Jerry Maguire," the media's cringe-worthy response is nothing new in Hollywood. Whether Zellweger got surgery is not the point -- and she's never admitted to that either. (On Tuesday, she told People Magazine, "I'm glad folks think I look different! I'm living a different, happy, more fulfilling life, and I'm thrilled that perhaps it shows.") The way we're talking about this change brings up the sinister reality of aging in the limelight: We push female celebrities to get work done and then criticize them for doing so.

In her piece for Buzzfeed, Anne Helen Petersen touched on plastic surgery shaming. "It’s not that women shouldn’t get plastic surgery," she wrote. "It’s that they should make every effort for that surgery to be invisible, seamless, unnoticeable." But why is this the case?

It can be confusing to say we "encourage" plastic surgery, because it is never done in explicit ways. We don't say someone needs Botox, for example, but somehow it's totally acceptable to relish in the fact that they have "aged miserably." Instead, the push toward making these changes comes from a set of Western beauty standards that defy physical and psychological health. Celebrities are expected to meet these ideals and look approximately 21 for the entirety of their career.

While we subscribe to these standards, getting work done to achieve them is taboo. We treat plastic surgery as though it is meant to be kept secret or even actively criticized. Very few stars are open about it, and more often they speak out about how unnatural it is, despite the fact that it often becomes a necessary part of meeting the Hollywood expectation. (Rene Russo is a rare recent exception: "I've held out on Botox forever," she told the Los Angeles Times. "But I just did some literally last year and I have to say, I love it.") But unless the illuminati has a Dorian Gray-style deal set up with the devil, plastic surgery is the only plausible way to achieve faux agelessness.

So, why do we shy away from acknowledging that the world of "Nip/Tuck" exists? It seems the noticeable effort is what makes us uncomfortable. That stigma extends beyond injections. For example, we also often criticize dieting or excessive working out as "overdoing it" or "caring too much." Plastic surgery only ups the ante. Ultimately, the clash between our ageless beauty standards and the work required to achieve them is irreconcilable. Maybe that's why we'd like to do a whole lot of magical thinking about everything being the result of "I woke up like this" effortlessness.

Put plainly, the double standard at play here is obvious. But that kind of paradox is part of a sexist reality that all women are constantly bombarded with. It's embedded in the architecture of a society that sends up ideals and then makes them impossible to meet. Female celebrities are really just a hyper-visible version of those inherent contradictions. The sad fact is that there's a long way to go before this changes, but it's certainly more valuable to talk about than whatever is going on with Renee Zellweger's face.

Follow Lauren Duca on Twitter: @laurenduca

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