Skip to content
#Open journalism No news is bad news

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support The Journal
Voices

Justine Bateman: 'Men’s older faces have always signified power, but for women that means a loss of power'

The US writer, producer and director shares an extract from her new book, Face: One Square Foot of Skin in which she explores the pressure on women to maintain their youthful looks.

Image: Justine Bateman

Face is the backlash to cosmetic surgery that we didn’t know we needed. It is a book of fictional vignettes that examines the fear and evolutionary habits that have caused women and men to cultivate the imagined reality that older women’s faces are unattractive, undesirable, and something to be “fixed.”

Based on “older face” experiences of the author, writer, actor and director Justine Bateman, and those of dozens of women and men she interviewed, the book presents the reader with the many root causes for society’s often negative attitudes toward women’s older faces.

In doing so, Bateman rejects those ingrained assumptions about the necessity of fixing older women’s faces, suggesting that we move on from judging someone’s worth based on the condition of her face. She argues that a woman’s confidence should grow as she ages, not be destroyed by society’s misled attitude about that one square foot of skin. Here is the book’s introduction and a short story from within…

WHEN I WAS a smooth-skinned and plump-faced teenager, I really wanted to look like the older European actresses I saw in the Italian and French films of the 1960s and ’70s. Chiselled cheeks, dark circles under their eyes, loose skin on the jawline, crow’s feet framing the eyes

To me, these facial markings were the hallmarks of complex and exotic women, women with confidence and attitude and style, women who had no use for whatever you might think of them.

Unfortunately, I was too young to have any of these interesting characteristics on my face. I longed for Jeanne Moreau’s under-eye bags, Charlotte Rampling’s sharp cheekbones and hooded eyelids, and Anna Magnani’s deep and dark creases extending down from the inner corners of her eyes.

I felt that if I had a face with those markings, people would immediately know I was interesting and complex; there would be no question.

Differing views of ageing

I then grew older and I became more myself, with more of the traits I had admired about those older actresses. As luck would have it, my face changed accordingly. I was elated when creases emerged across the tops of my cheeks when I smiled when I saw the promising beginnings of small bags under my eyes when the skin loosened on my neck.

One summer, I even noticed a real bonus of “cleavage creases” on my upper chest from the sun. I was finally beginning to look like the kinds of women I thought were the most interesting, and the most attractive.

You can imagine how surprised I was to find that many people disagreed. I was taken aback to find that quite a few people had taken to Internet chat sites to passionately complain that “Justine Bateman looks horrible now.”

ca-the-kingdom-world-premiere Bateman has had a long career in TV and film. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

How was it possible that they didn’t see what I saw on my face: the indication of a complex and exotic woman? How could it be that they saw the opposite of what I saw in my face?

This was confusing to process. (You can read more detail about that nauseating experience in my book Fame: The Hijacking of Reality.) But, on the other side of that process, I wanted to understand just how that passionately negative perception of an older woman’s face exists in our current society.

Millions of other women have been eviscerated in this same way I was, via the loud and verbally violent criticism of ageing actresses, models, musicians, and politicians. This criticism filters down to all women, both in and out of the spotlight.

For those in the spotlight, a panic can develop to surgically alter the ageing face in an attempt to escape this “older, terrible face” criticism. For those out of the spotlight, there can be a bit of horror in watching those who were once lauded as some of the “most beautiful people” among us, publicly ripped to shreds when their faces age.

Some of the thinking follows that if those “attractive” people aren’t exempt from the criticism, and can now be drawn and quartered for looking older, what lies in wait for those with more “ordinary” faces?

Distorted thinking, embedded shame

A special terror is transmitted to younger women, teenagers, and girls.

Yet still years away from experiencing any facial wrinkles or loose skin themselves, they can clearly see their trajectory in society as pigs-to-the-slaughter. Every year they inch closer and closer to being attacked themselves for their naturally ageing faces.

After all, not a week goes by without a girl hearing comments about older women like, “She used to be a looker, but she’s really let herself go,” “She looks like an old hag now,” “Good thing she married before she lost her looks,” etc.

Comments like these constantly reaffirm that the girl has worth with an unlined and pretty face, but once that goes, she will be led into the slaughterhouse, like all the other older piggies.

Unfortunately, when the girls look to the older women to see whether they are folding under that verbal pressure, or if they are instead boldly defying it with self-confidence, the girls more often see older women folding and rushing to surgically “fix” their faces.

With few confident older female role models to counteract all the noise about their faces, one can hardly expect a relaxed attitude from any young female about the prospect of eventually looking older.

While I was still processing that “older face” criticism I personally experienced online, I wove in and out of adopting shame about my face when I interacted with others. And I noticed many other older women also looking shameful.

justine bateman Face: One Square Foot of Skin is Bateman's new book. Source: Justine Bateman

Perhaps I was seeing shame in their eyes about something else in their lives, but it seemed too prevalent among a multitude of women of similar ages for that to be true. Averting the eyes when looked at, holding the mouth in a defeated angle, and even presenting a resigned posture appeared to be common among the older women I saw.

I especially saw the shame because that was how I myself was feeling, or rather how I had decided to feel because others claimed my older face was “horrible.” I was disturbed that not only had I bought into other people’s critical idea of my appearance, but also that many women around me seemed to have done the same thing.

I hated the idea that half the population was perhaps spending the entire second half of their lives ashamed and apologetic that their faces had aged naturally.

Patriarchal indoctrination

For me, it felt like a ploy to somehow shut me down, to get me to hide, to be quiet, to erase myself, all at the exact moment in my life when I had gained the most intelligence, the most wisdom, and the most confidence. What an easy way to try to make sure that I stopped accomplishing anything further.

To keep me from enrolling in college, from writing books, from writing scripts, or from directing and producing films (all of which happened in the post-face-criticism years). 

In fact, what a perfect way to make sure this book never existed to tell you that the perception that your older face is “horrible” is just a lie you may have absorbed, and nothing more.

When observed at this angle, the focus on the female face seems to do nothing but severely distract females from achieving everything they were meant to.

Traditionally, men’s older faces signify power, and women’s older faces signify a loss of power.

What if this societal signalling has nothing to do with the idea of older men’s superior ability to wield power, but has everything to do with women not sitting in their rightful places of power because they’ve folded under the weight of comments that they’re no longer young and pretty looking?

chanel-artists-dinner-tribeca-film-festival-2018-in-new-york Bateman asks why women have faced pressure to stay forever young. Source: DPA/PA Images

After all, we’ve long allowed the “pretty” compliment to be the ultimate female award, and in doing that we established that to be called “old and ugly” is the ultimate in female failure.

With that sense of “failure,” which older women are going to comfortably and confidently seek and sit in the power positions? On the surface, it may seem a small and silly reason for women to shy away from accomplishing things as they grow older, but a longer look will reveal it to be a pernicious distraction that has permeated seemingly every female fibre.

Do we naturally think this way about women’s older faces, or is it taught? If the definition of female “attractiveness” is tied to an unconscious, evolutionarily based desire to procreate and continue the species, then one can understand that the smooth, unlined faces that usually accompany women in childbearing years would be more “desirable” than creased faces, as the creased faces may indicate that a woman is in menopause and unable to breed any longer.

Intellectually, we can see this, but with our population at over 7.6 billion people, and growing, wouldn’t this be an outdated, vestigial concern in society? And it still doesn’t explain the volatile emotions experienced by the older women, and by those who criticise their faces. Why the shame and why the anger?

Role of media

I believe there are a multitude of causes for that shame and that anger, and very little of it rational. Face exposes some possible reasons and generally asks why we should ever find an older face “horrible” to begin with, and why would we feel compelled to “fix” it? It’s a question that has been overlooked as society has become almost expectant about women employing the many means by which an older face can be “fixed.”

Decades ago, the media, and women’s fashion magazines, in particular, used to reflect a society that looked askance at older women (and men) altering their faces with plastic surgery.

There was a level of disgrace associated with it, and those who got their faces “lifted” were assumed to be desperate and vain. Aesthetically, plastic surgery results were rather obvious and the procedures were relatively uncommon. Years later, when other facial procedures became more prevalent, like fillers, Botox, and chemical peels, the magazines then started printing articles asking “should we or shouldn’t we” use these methods.

The decision seemed to fall heavily on the “yes, we should” side of the debate, and then gave way to a new discussion over exactly “which” techniques we should use. Once that was settled, informed primarily by the safety records of any given procedure, the new discussion developed as to exactly “when” to start using these methods.

It was as if employing face-altering methods, now including the use of needles, knives, lasers, and acid was the necessary responsibility of all women, and the only question left was, “Should you start employing these techniques around age 40, or should one start earlier, for the sake of ‘maintenance,’ at 30, or even at 20 years old?”

There were few, if any, simultaneous discussions in the public forum about the ethics of hammering women about the repellent nature of their naturally ageing faces. No, this “fix it” position was presented to society as a fait accompli, and more than a little fuel in the women’s fashion magazines by the pages and pages of ads purchased by an increasing number of facial-altering services, and “anti-ageing” cream companies.

As we were busy leaping from information about one “breakthrough, face-altering procedure” to another, the one discussion that never took place was why did we think that older women’s faces were something that needs to be fixed at all, and what do we think “fixing” them will accomplish? And that’s the discussion in which I’m most interested.

Actresses are represented here in larger numbers because they are the most common, and most violently subjected, targets of this negativity. Of course, there exist different attitudes toward women’s faces ageing, due to cultural or socioeconomic backgrounds, but drilling into those particular differences was not a focus of the book.

Rather, Face focuses on that universal blanket that is laid over all older females related to their faces, regardless of whether that blanket affects a women-only lightly, or completely smothers her ability to see herself properly.

#Open journalism No news is bad news Support The Journal

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support us now

The stories expose some of the unspoken reasons there is so much hatred, from within and without, about women’s older faces. My hope is that in exposing these reasons, they can wither and die in the light of day.

Because, in the end, there’s nothing wrong with your face…

Anne. 35. Music Teacher.

“I can’t let you in because you’re as old as fuck . . .”

She couldn’t hear the rest of the line, the rest of the line that the nightclub doorman was saying in the film to the woman. To Leslie Mann, the actress, playing the woman whose name Anne couldn’t remember.

“You’re old as fuck . . .” Leslie Mann’s face was completely unlined. She was maybe 32?

Anne couldn’t really tell.

“Old as fuck . . .” The doorman didn’t know her, but he was looking at her. Looking at her. Saying this because he was looking at her. “Old as fuck.” Leslie Mann looked younger than Anne, younger by five years, ten years. Younger, but “old as fuck.” Anne felt shame bloom in her, in a rush.

Involuntarily, she turned slightly from her friend, there next to her in the movie theatre. Simone, relaxed in her red, plaid flannel shirt, slouched in the burgundy, velveteen-covered theatre seat. Probably smiling to herself or chuckling a little at the scene. Anne didn’t want to look, didn’t want the light of the screen to catch her own eyes as she grabbed a furtive, sideways glance to see if Simone, even Simone, was laughing, smiling, amused by the scene.

Anne felt a little nauseous. Too much popcorn or she shouldn’t have let that tall concession guy put on two layers of butter (or artificial butter, she didn’t know anymore), or she shouldn’t have eaten the almost burnt, crunchy kernels at the bottom of the tub like she always did. Her tongue started patrolling her teeth at the thought of that, in search of an errant kernel shell between them, or one carefully wedged in the gum line like a stem in a Japanese flower arrangement.

“Old as fuck . . .”

Maybe the bouncer said something else after that, something conciliatory, something to soften the blow or to excuse it, but Anne couldn’t hear the dialogue anymore. Leslie Mann was sitting on the curb now? Crying about something? Crying about her “old as fuck” face?

Anne felt angry. Leslie Mann playing the sibling. The one who can give advice to her newly pregnant sister. And because she’s not younger than the newly pregnant sister, because she’s not a teenager, she’s “old as fuck”?

Anne was missing some of the plot that followed; her head felt noisy, like a radio not quite tuned in to the station, like on a road trip when you’ve driven out of range of the stations in the town you just left.

Anne was gently crushing a found kernel shell between two of her teeth on the right side of her mouth when Simone suddenly nudged her and laughed at something else on the screen, in the dark movie theatre, with other people laughing at this thing, this new thing in the film.

Anne smiled gamely back and as she did, she wondered, for the first time in her life, if she looked “old as fuck” doing that, smiling gamely back. Did she look that way to Simone there, or to the tall concession worker who pumps too much butter on the popcorn, or to everyone she’d seen in the past year?

She now hated this film’s writer, this director, these actors, this scene for taking her there, for “informing” her, for making everyone around her—she was convinced now—think that someone with a face as unlined as Leslie Mann’s was “old as fuck.”

To condition them to think that. And Anne, with more than a few more lines than Leslie Mann, was then more than “old as fuck.” At 35, her well had been poisoned.

Extract from Face: One Square Foot of Skin by Justine Bateman, out now, copyright 2021 by Justine Bateman, used with permission of the author and Akashic Books. Bateman is a writer/director/producer/author with an impressive acting résumé that includes Family Ties, Satisfaction, Arrested Development, and many more. She has earned a Golden Globe nomination and two Emmy nominations. Her best-selling first book, Fame: The Hijacking of Reality, was published in 2018 by Akashic.

VOICES LOGO

COMMENTS (7)

This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a comment

     
    cancel reply
    Back to top