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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Spencer Rendahl: New Face

Sadly, my mother-in-law’s health has declined and she isn't aware of much these days. But recently, while going through boxes stored in our attic, I came across a photo of her taken in the late 1950s. Her smile was radiant and her eyes were bright. I showed it to my husband. “Wow,” he said. “That must have been taken before her nose job.”

Now, I didn’t know that my mother-in-law had changed her face nearly a half century ago. She came of age just about the dawn of second-wave feminism, a movement where women declared that choices about their bodies – and lives – belonged to themselves, not society. If my mother-in-law wanted to reshape her face, she could, and apparently she did. But while I celebrate her availability of choices, I also find it sad that my husband never got to see the face his mother was born with.
Enter the controversy over Oscar award-winning actress Renee Zellweger, who a few weeks ago showed up on a red carpet looking beautiful, but radically different than the Renee Zellweger everyone remembered.
Zellweger denied having plastic surgery. Nonetheless, her apparent transformation became the talk of the internet. Even The New York Times weighed in.
Zellweger of course works in Hollywood, which places a premium on youth and good looks.
I take Zellweger’s apparent transformation especially to heart, though, because she’s 45 and I’m 44, leaving me to wonder if I may be just one year away from needing radical reconstruction.

A long time ago, I contemplated the same choice as my mother-in-law, because I have my own mother’s pronounced nose. After suffering years of teasing while growing up, I had actually considered surgery.
But I concluded that altering my face would make me look less like my mother and children and change part of who I am. Fortunately I live far from Hollywood and as my own wear and tear from aging creates deeper etchings in my face, my own mother is my positive beauty role model. When I look at her - now in her mid-60s - I see lines of joy, concern, generosity, and love. And I see our matching noses as just one more thing that bonds us.
A couple years ago I attended my 20th college reunion where I spotted one of my freshman roommates. Back then I thought she was only superficially attractive. Now she’d clearly aged, but to me she looked grounded and made far more beautiful by the strains and joys of raising her four children.
And the first words she said to me in two decades were “You look exactly like your Mom.” It was one of the greatest compliments she could ever have given me.

Suzanne Spencer Rendahl is a former journalist whose work has appeared in publications including the Boston Globe. She lives with her husband and two children in Plainfield, NH.
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