10/28/2014 02:16 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2014

Reeling in Renée: The Power Behind Our Radical Reactions and Collaborative Commentary

A boundary was crossed. The reaction to Renée Zellweger's face is neither an aversion to plastic surgery nor an expression of shock towards what people are calling an identity change. 1 Society is setting the standard for what is considered unacceptable and outside the social norm in cosmetic surgery. We live in a culture that readily accepts and in some cases glorifies the before and after of plastic surgery procedures. 2 Renée's transformation goes beyond body maintenance and anti-aging. It scares us because it suggests there was something wrong with her to begin with and that maybe there is something wrong with us and we just haven't realized it yet. How many of us saw ourselves in the characters she played and in the pictures of magazines we flipped through? It is not a criticism of plastic surgery or anti-aging anxiety or female vanity bashing, but a concern for the slippery slope of what is acceptable for us, our daughters, and beyond. A boundary was crossed and we're talking about it. A lot. And that's a good thing.

Appearance is developed and produced within social context. 3 In any social situation, there are two main types of gossip that occur: backstage and frontstage. 4 Backstage lacks an element of self-monitoring and usual social politeness, whereas frontstage is diluted by professional and social constraints. In gossip terminology, the Internet is pure backstage action. The commentary towards Renee's surgery exemplified a major shift in how women have the power to sculpt and change social norms. Within hours we went from commentary that was competitive and snarky 5 to one that was cooperative 6, exploring the danger in overly criticizing another female's beauty and expressing a sense of empathy towards her decision and clear insecurities. Renée's new look has not only delineated what is and is not acceptable for the amount of plastic surgery one should get, but it's reinforced the need for self-regulation where procedures have become much more affordable and common. Furthermore, it's demonstrated the power of female solidarity towards saying "no" together, which is a social capital we are just starting to realize. While the internet will continue with its backstage rant, the reality is that something beyond the trivial debate over Renée's transformation has occurred; the shift away from female competition to cooperation, gaining peer support and a new model for speaking out on social norms we can have control over.

(1) Kuczynski, A. (2014, October 26). Why the Strong Reaction to Renée Zellweger's Face? The New York Times.

(2) For example, the hit television reality shows, Swan or Extreme Makeover

(3) Dolezal, L. (Spring 2010). The (In)visible Body: Feminism, Phenomenology, and the Case of Cosmetic Surgery. Hypatia, Inc., 25(2), 361-362.

(4) Guendouzi, J. (2011). You'll think we're always bitching': The functions of cooperativity and competition in women's gossip. Discourse Studies, 3(29), 30, 43, 46.

(5) TMZ Staff. (2014, October 22). Renée Zellweger: Let's Face it, Something's Different.

(6) Helen Petersen, A. (2014, October 21). What's Really Behind the Ridicule of Renée Zellweger's Face.