By Valerie Monroe
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.
I CAN’T REMEMBER how many times I’ve had to look up Maggie Gyllenhaal’s last name before spelling it, but that won’t stop me from making a couple of beauty-related observations about her extraordinary new movie, The Lost Daughter, which can be seen on Netflix.
You can read a grouchy analysis of the film here. I want to say something about two of the film’s faces—faces Gyllenhaal’s camera examines, caresses, and bumps up against in a way that often feels disturbingly intimate and intrusive. Inevitably, this line of thinking will lead me to a point about faces that have not been majorly manipulated by aesthetic interventions, which is by now an old story, but still worth a minute.
To you in the back row muttering, “Why must we always talk about women’s aging faces rather than their accomplishments?” I offer up first, the man. Seventy-one-year-old Ed Harris plays a guy who’s spent 30 years in the blazing Greek sun blowing cigarette smoke through his nose—and has the skin to prove it. But is he something or what? (I’m also 71 and am grateful not to have his face, but rather a more . . . tended one, as we all know our culture is tougher on women than on men about what’s attractive as we age.) He dances like there’s no tomorrow, probably a good idea considering his chances of developing skin or lung cancer. But he is old—and his face, unblemished by youth, tells us he is full of, I don’t know . . . loneliness? It feels both shocking and refreshing to see a face so ravaged by expression and exposure.
All I want to say about Olivia Colman’s face is: Olivia Colman’s face.
Almost all I want to say. She spends nearly the entire movie with wet hair and the kind of makeup that’s meant to look like no makeup. With the camera two inches from her cheek, she is ravishing—at 47, she’s far from Western culture’s aesthetic ideal and, remarkably for an actress, seemingly untouched by intervention. Yet we can’t take our eyes off her. Why? Because her face, too, tells a story, a complicated story, and in the telling elicits a compelling desire in us to know it. What is that desire but attraction?
I think maybe Gyllenhaal, in an unintentional side gig, is beckoning us toward a beauty culture that—instead of fetishizing youth and sexuality—values and evokes, as great art does, presence, compassion, vulnerability, longing, curiosity, even a search for meaning.
I often urge you to learn to look at yourself without objectification. Bottom-line, that exercise allows and encourages you to let your face tell your stories, to recognize and welcome the character you’ve learned to conceal or obscure with a placid, pleasing expression, or with makeup, or with other, more intrusive aesthetic interventions.
Please take up your mirror now. Look into your own eyes. Can you see the story of a life in your own face? Can you find your own ravishing attraction?
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