I have been thinking a lot about the Friends reunion.
Not, I should probably add, because I watched it. Friends debuted the fall of my first year in university and I did not spend much time in front of a television set that year, or for many years to come, though I’ve seen my fair share of episodes during reruns and more recently on streaming.
What caught my ear, is what seemed to catch the eye of many of my friends who did watch, namely, how much “work” some of the actors had had done to their faces (not perhaps news to anyone who watched the Morning Show). Depending on who I was talking to, three had let themselves age, or two had. (Lisa Kudrow seemed to fall on the pro let age have its way with me side, which is notable in so far as we tend to ascribe “work” to women, when it’s increasingly becoming clear this is less frequently the case.)
Here in New York, as we move back to somewhat normalized socializing (or FOMO, as New York magazine, aptly captioned it) I’ve been to more than a few dinner parties where the conversation has turned to ways in which we as women are dressing, and ways in which we will absolutely definitely not be dressing going forward. No more heels, is an assertion I’ve heard more than once. A year of flat- footing it around appears to have forced a lot of us to consider the appeal of back and foot pain and there is none. No more underwire bras, is another. As Bustle said the other week “Good Luck Getting Us To Wear Real Bras Again!” If you are a bra maker, now might be a good time to consider getting in on the wireless bra market, based solely on my anecdotal research of cocktail party conversations in the last two weeks. People might be eager to get out of their sweats, but I’ve not yet encountered anyone eager to get back into anything requiring spanx. Meanwhile, women are rhapsodizing over the beauty of their Covid hair.
These are all conversations, of course, had amongst women who are able to exercise some control over their appearance. I was reminded of this during a picnic last weekend when a friend who was shifting to in-person teaching at an Ivy League college for the first time this fall was considering what wardrobe she should invest in. For the past year she had only required enough for the Zoom frame: a small variety of earrings and a tailored jacket. I asked her whether she couldn’t just stick with that and add, say, a pair of leggings? Not a chance, she said. Students would not find that acceptable and much of her salary was based on student reviews. (No doubt, men are held to the same professional standards, it’s just that, and I am not exactly revealing anything new here, men’s professional wardrobes are comfortable.)
Women, as anyone with an internet connection knows, have shouldered the burden of the pandemic. I’m not even going to go over the numbers because it’s Friday in June and if you are a woman you probably don’t need to be reminded of how bad it’s been (if you are a man, read the above link). The only thing they might not have been asked to do is shoulder it in high heels and spanx. As we make a return to the world, women, and this goes double for women of color who are up against white assumptions about what “professional” should look like, are coming up hard against cultural expectations vs what they might actually feel comfortable doing.
Which brings me back to Friends. It is not considered feminist to remark harshly on the decisions women make about their appearance. Particularly women in the public eye. And yet, I have been struck again and again when I turn to my screen to watch stories of strong women, or aging women, or powerful women, the story I am also absorbing is the story of fillers. It’s reached the point where I find I can no longer enjoy Nicole Kidman or Jennifer Aniston on screen no matter how good the writing or acting because their faces are so distracting (and I love you Kate Winslet, and no doubt one of the reasons Mare is getting so much attention is the unfiltered nature of its heroine, but all this natural talk is a bit much). I’m fairly certain half the reason I enjoyed Nomadland is because Frances McDormand was such a relief on the eyes.
And so, even as I walk around the East Village on a hot Saturday afternoon surrounded by young women in loose attire with nary a seeming nod to trend beyond comfort, I cannot escape the fact that the professional world of my screen shows me only women who have so visibly internalized some belief in the value of youth? The male gaze? Patriarchy? Their faces have been deformed by it. And I don’t just mean women over forty worried about their necks! I mean I watched Unzipped the other day, the iconic nineties fashion film, and my biggest takeaway was that all the supermodels were so normal looking compared to the filled faces of today’s Kardashians and Jenners and Hadids. Imagine ever thinking Naomi or Carla were normal looking.
It’s not shocking that after a year of gazing at our faces up close on zoom we might be eager to erase some reality. Nor is the desire to appear younger new. But as we are raced back to the office and into life, and into systems which increasingly punish women for being women, it might be worth considering what changes we are willing to put our money and energy towards, and why, and who is benefitting and who is being punished for it in the end.