Fashion & Beauty

‘Good Genes and a Lot of Money’

February 6, 2022

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More an art project than an accurate representation of Jane Fonda. But it is, after all, Jane Fonda, so there was a lot to work with. / Harper’s Bazaar.

By Valerie Monroe

For nearly 16 years Valerie Monroe was the beauty director at O, The Oprah Magazine, where she wrote the popular “Ask Val” column.

If you’re interested in feeling happier about your appearance—especially as you age—you might like reading what she has to say about it. For more of her philosophical and practical advice, subscribe for free to How Not to F*ck Up Your Face at valeriemonroe.substack.com.

JANE FONDA. I’m preoccupied with her at the moment. For many of us, she clearly exemplifies our conflicts about aesthetic choices as we age. Among the women I know, Fonda—unlike other cultural figures such as Kris Jenner—is fiercely defended for her decision to have multiple surgeries. Why? Likely because she represents a bright, vulnerable, emotionally intelligent, politically active, sexy, forthright, professionally gifted woman. She’s all that with the beloved Lily Tomlin in this clip. What’s Fonda’s beauty secret? “Good genes and a lot of money,” she says.

Can’t get enough Valerie Monroe? There’s more at valeriemonroe.substack.com.

Still, I sense a problem—and I confess I’m a little reluctant to get into it, because when I wade through these particular waters, sometimes they’re clear and sometimes they get so murky I can’t see where I’m stepping. I hope I’m not the only one who feels this way. Diving in:

We see so many images of movie stars like Fonda—and other often-photographed women—in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s looking at least 20 years younger than they are. (Or just a whole lot better than we think we look.) In real life, for the most part, they don’t look like their photos. Photoshop, social media filters, makeup and props all contribute to an idealized public presentation. We know that at 83 Fonda is a miracle of talent and grit and great genes—but if you believe she actually looks anything like this, you’re mistaken. That’s a character she (and the photographer, makeup artist, hair stylist and other stylists) created. It’s fun! It’s interesting! You might even think of it as performance art. But when people say she looks great, that she’s a role model for looking good as we age, I find that disturbing.

Gazing at an image of someone who’s my age (or more than a decade older) who appears to look 20 years younger makes me feel very competitive. I mean, I don’t want to be the only 70-year-old who doesn’t look like she’s 50, do you? The thing is, in real life, we’re not. It’s been said before but bears repeating (and repeating): The Internet and media, in general, support a false narrative about how women look, which is often not much of anything like how we really look. In other words, the bar has been set so high that it’s out of reach for almost all of us. Is it possible to see these images without feeling challenged to aspire to them? Do you feel challenged to aspire to them?

That’s not to say we should be limited in our choices about how much we invest in our appearance—nor that we don’t want to look healthy, attractive and, yeah, even ensorcelling.

One of the questions I want to ask is this: Is it Fonda’s face that makes her beautiful? Watch her vulnerability (in the excellent and revealing documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts) when she’s talking about giving up agency while married to Ted Turner, or when she’s being snarky and hilarious in another conversation with the snarky and hilarious (and 81-year-old) Lily Tomlin, or when she’s speaking out for the rights of restaurant service workers (she gets going about 31 minutes in).

Gorgeous. But not because you can’t see her jowls. Gorgeous because she’s open, engaged, forthright, present, unafraid to speak her mind and take up space. I’ll defend to the death Fonda’s right to her choices, but I don’t approve of the culture that nurtured her need for them by serving up unhealthy portions of unrealistic and infeasible objectives. A steady diet of that is toxic.

What can we do about it?

A wise old Buddhist nun and a few younger ones came upon a huge boulder. “Do you think that rock is heavy?” asked the old nun. The younger ones replied, “Of course!” The old nun laughed. “Not if you don’t pick it up,” she said.

For an exuberant romp with a few more wise old . . . birds, check out Tea With the Dames.



7 thoughts on “‘Good Genes and a Lot of Money’

  1. Diana Bulger says:

    Well written. I adore Jane Fonda. She is beautiful, smart and funny. If having surgery makes you feel better about yourself, I am all for it. I also believe that she does keep herself in great physical shape through exercise. Thank you for this story.

  2. Nancy G says:

    Jane Fonda has always been one of my celebrity heroes. Not only because of what she looks like, but because of who she is. Clearly she takes care of herself in terms of weight and exercise (remember her workout videos), but she also has never given up on speaking out for what she believes in, whether you agree with her or not. Add to that, in recent decades at least, her ability to not take herself too seriously, something we all need as we age. On the other hand, having money and good genes is a good way to keep the wrinkles at bay.

  3. Pat says:

    Great article, thanks….. would still like to look like Jane Fonda, character or not!

  4. cynthia tilson says:

    I think it might be more illuminating to explore some of the subtexts buried in this essay – feeling competitive with Jane Fonda, or anyone your age who looks younger, for instance. To me the antidote for a society that values youth is to learn not to play that destructive zero sum game. However, women supporting women – and that includes the personal choices we women make regarding our own bodies and lifestyle – is to celebrate freedom of choice…always a healthier alternative to projection of personal insecurities.

  5. Val Monroe says:

    Thank you, Christine!

  6. Christine says:

    Thank you for saying this.

  7. Christine says:

    Love this.

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