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  • Writer's pictureMaia Dunphy

The Uncanny Valley

“The uncanny valley” - a term coined to describe the unsettling feeling of looking at a human face that doesn’t look quite right; think computer generated character, shop mannequin or Donald Trump. It elicits a feeling of unease, much the same as using a mirror or photo app to make your face perfectly symmetrical. The result is usually eerie and more than a little comical, as the brain struggles to process what the problem is (except in the case of Trump where it knows exactly what the problem is).

Cosmetic surgery can have the same end result. Sure, some of us would love lips like modelling balloons, perfectly matching eyebrows and a nose as straight as a ruler, but in reality, many aesthetic procedures result in people looking just not quite right.

Renée Zellweger tiptoed quietly back into the public eye recently after a hiatus of many years. A woman who seems genuinely shy and uncomfortable in the limelight, her arrival heralded a barrage of speculation about what she had done to her face. Apparently it looked completely different. But fast forward to a few weeks ago and an appearance on a chat show to promote her new movie, and people had done an about turn.

“Has she had a reverse facelift?” one person tweeted.

“Did she have lines put into her forehead? said another.

It was awful. She had been accused of ruining her face a few months previously, and now she was being criticised for somehow not having done enough, or – wait for it – having the audacity to appear older than she had several years ago. Renée must have wished she’d stayed away. Is this really the best we can do when a much-loved actress makes a welcome return to our screens?

Twitter was also ablaze with such talk of Nicole Scherzinger.

“Her face doesn’t look right but I don’t know why.”

“What has she done?”

“It’s like someone made a replica of Nicole, but over-polished it”.

Tuning in to the X-Factor one evening, I saw it too. It looked like Nicole Scherzinger, only not quite, as if I was staring at her whilst wearing somebody else’s prescription glasses. At 38 years old (or maybe 40 depending on who you believe), people assume that Nicole must have Had Work Done. The former Pussycat Doll publicly denied that she’d had anything done to her beautiful face, and that her fresher look was down to drinking more water and extra sleep.

Now here’s my issue with all of this. I don’t think anyone - man, woman or museum exhibit – should feel they need to tell everyone they meet if they’ve had a nip, tuck or lick of paint. It’s quite simply no one’s business. But if someone should ask, then I believe it’s disingenuous to put it down to a silk pillow or upping your water intake by three glasses. Saying nothing at all is better than lying. Why? Because it has the potential to make other people feel shit. I’ve lost count of the women selling perfect hair, perfect skin and the perfect body but conveniently failing to mention the hair extensions, the Botox and the boob job. Of course, we’re not stupid, but in the real world where most of us are overworked, overtired and time poor, we always hope there’s some little miracle or life hack we may have missed. It’s easy to feel bad about the lines on our foreheads, but it’s easier to feel much worse if no one else has them and tells us it’s down to avocados. We feel like the unwitting star of our very own Truman Show, where we’re the only ones not in on the secret.

I work in the television industry where many people still believe that older women “don’t rate on TV”. Wrong. What doesn’t rate is anybody who is shoehorned into a role that doesn’t suit them or a genre in which they have no interest and where they are simply regurgitating someone else’s words and opinions. It makes as much sense as a hairdresser working on a butcher’s counter. Presenters for hire (male or female) need to be aesthetically pleasing, we all get that, but experts, actors, opinion makers and genuine broadcasters should be allowed to get older once they still have something worth hearing. If Clare Balding was replaced with a buxom 21 year old model with zero interest in sport, we’d all be up in arms.

I worked with a woman whose face became shinier and tauter with every year that passed, until she eventually resembled features drawn on a dinner plate. One night, after a few drinks, a few of us plucked up the courage to ask her what her secret was; “Oh, it’s botox and fillers” she replied without hesitation. Her honesty was appreciated, if for no other reason than it didn’t make us feel inferior for having lines on our faces when someone the same age didn’t.

Women on screen - or in any industry - shouldn’t be dividable into two groups: crows’ feet or cleavage. Let’s allow women to do what they’re good at irrespective of their date of birth. And we really don’t want a world full of women with faces like dinner plates.

Originally published in Image Magazine, November 2016

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