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Renee Zellweger's new look reveals the pernicious demands we make of all women

Renee Zellweger at the Elle Women of Hollywood awards in 2009 (left) and 2014 (right)
Renee Zellweger at the Elle Women of Hollywood awards in 2009 (left) and 2014 (right)

All Renee Zellweger did was what we told her to do: look different.

Do a Google search for "Renee Zellweger squinty eyes." You'll draw up more than 3,000 hits, most of them critical of the actress' appearance.  "Is it normal to think Renee Zellweger is so ugly that it is distracting?" one especially cruel commenter asked, describing her look as "real pasty and chipmunk cheeks."

At a recent Hollywood award ceremony, Zellweger complied. She showed up looking different. Really differentMaybe she had plastic surgery, maybe she didn't; Zellweger hasn't said. All she's said is she's happy about her new look. "I'm glad folks think I look different!" she told People magazine in a statement Wednesday morning. "I'm living a different, happy, more fulfilling life, and I'm thrilled that perhaps it shows."

But online, Zellweger is getting flayed. "Is that really you, Renee?" one writer at the Atlantic asked. "Is everything okay?" She did what we asked, and now we're tearing her apart for a difference that we can definitely notice.

There's a constant refrain: You should look different

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Society delivers a constant and consistent message to women: You do not look right. You should look different.

You should look different. It's what I hear whenever I make an appearance on a cable news network. Any spot — even a short, 30-second hit to deliver a one-sentence answer on Obamacare —  mandates 30 minutes in a make-up chair so that I can look different. My hair gets curled, my blemishes covered up, and my lips glossed over. Cheekbones I don't have turn up, created by a make-up artist. A weird dimple on my left cheek disappears, caked over with foundation. As any of my family members or friends who have watched can tell you: when I turn up on television, I look different.

You should look different. And so we do. Forecasters think that the global "beauty-care" industry will grow to $265 billion by 2017. In the United States alone, the cosmetics industry has an estimated $58 billion in annual revenue — roughly equal to the amount America spends on pets.

You should look different. And a lot of people will get very rich making you look different. Luxury cosmetic chain store Sephora has had incredibly fast growth. And, at the core of the products it sells — from a $449 laser hair removal kits to a $199 'big hair' blowdryer, both on the best-seller list — is a promise of looking different.

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Renee Zellweger at the Cannes International Film Festival, shortly after the release of her 2000 hit, "Bridget Jones's Diary" (Dave Hogan / Hulton Archive)

You should look different. Even if it hurts. Even if it's dangerous. Even if it's expensive. Spending on plastic surgery has rebounded in recent years; in 2013, it came back to pre-recession levels — that's a quicker recovery than, say, the job market. In 2013, 11 million Americans used plastic surgery to make their bodies look different.

The nearer you are to the public eye, the worse it gets. There are the celebrity blogs suggesting various actresses who need to lose a few pounds, the magazines circling the cellulite in beach photos, the late-night comics making jokes about new hairstyles. You should look different. If you don't, we're going to notice.

I've seen it, in a small way, every time I've done TV. I have had C-SPAN viewers — those watching me discuss Medicare policy at 8 a.m. — suggest the very specific ways that I need to change. My voice sounds too much like a "valley girl," one especially memorable viewer told me via email. "I suggest you find a speech coach."

My voice wasn't good enough, a complete stranger from Atlanta felt the need to tell me.  It needed to be different. I still have that email. And you can bet I've been more self-conscious about my voice ever since I got it.

But not too different

Even as we demand that every women look different, we also demand that they don't look too different. The unnatural changes — plastic surgeries, cosmetics, moisturizers — need to look natural. "Maybe she's born with it, maybe its Maybelline," the ubiquitous slogan goes. That is the different we want. The type that lets us forget we've demanded any difference at all, and chalk changes up to an impressive feat of self improvement. Changes that look artificial will spark an unending chorus of criticism and mockery. Those kinds of differences simply won't do. The women who go in for them are superficial, desperate, weird.

You can see that cruel edge come out as we've dissected and discussed Zellweger's new look. She looks too different. She changed too much. There's a fine line we've apparently set between improvement and overhaul. The first is demanded, the other derided. Whatever Zellweger did to change her appearance, it crossed the boundary.

Renee Zellweger did what we asked. She looked different. Except, she did it in a way where we couldn't write it off as a natural, God-given change. And now we are furious at her, because she makes us face ourselves. We don't like ourselves for asking her to be different. We don't like feeling bad about what we are really asking women to do.

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