Messages About Beauty

For the most part, People Magazine’s a breezy read. I’m a longtime subscriber and I keep my copy where it belongs—in the bathroom. Amongst the things my People habit have done for me are to maintain one area of go-to knowledge for my dear husband’s crossword puzzle obsession (want to know who plays a Desperate Housewife on that show neither of us has ever watched? I got you covered) and made me quite adept at celebrity sightings (in New York City, at the Northampton Athletic Club, you name it). My loyal readership has granted me glimpses at the Snuggie and every pet to come into celebrity fashion. I might not read every article, but I tend to at least look at all the pictures. That said I found it hard to get through an article last week about Heidi Montag’s mega-plastic surgery.

Who’s Heidi Montag? She’s a self-described aspiring starlet, whose claim to fame (thus far) is that she appeared on a reality television show called The Hills, and eventually married another of the young and aspiring-to-be-SOMEONE-FAMOUS participants. So, what was her latest ploy to remain noteworthy? The 23 year-old had ten plastic surgeries performed on her in one day. Eyebrows were lifted, ears pinned back, breasts enlarged and on and on… People got an exclusive peek at her diary about the surgery and photos of the process, including of the swollen young woman recovering.

In the article, Montag maintains that she’s doing what everyone in Hollywood does—and denies doing. She explains that having so much surgery, if that’s what it takes to look the way she wants, has been her dream and so she’s saved up (cost was at least $30,000 and obviously, the real bills ran much higher, factoring in the five-day stay at an exclusive facility geared to exclusive surgical aftercare) and rambles on about how her physical transformation is making her feel so much more attractive, sexy, confident and happy. Already, she’s planning to have more breast enlargement surgery, and she’s sure she’ll have multiple surgeries to ensure that she age gracefully.

While it’d be easy (so, so easy) to let it rip about how vapid she sounded during the interview and while it goes without saying that she is not more attractive as a surgeon-molded example of a Nip/Tuck style character, what disturbed me was not so much Hollywood or Heidi Montag, even, it was the trickle-down effect (and I do believe, however ridiculous her exploits seem, that there are tangible reverberations).


A few weeks ago, a friend asked Diana Cerutti, whose business is called More Than Skin Deep which treatment she believed was best for someone’s skin. Diana answered without hesitation that her signature (and, I have to add, sigh, incredible) scalp and foot massage (Head Over Heels) qualified. “I really think skin benefits from a person’s deep relaxation and improved circulation,” she explained.

I’m betting Heidi Montag would disagree.

And, just to be clear, I’m vehemently unopposed to grooming (I love my hot, fragrant baths and I love my Sonicare toothbrush). I have a 14 year-old boy, and will confirm that there is an inevitable hygiene learning curve to a male adolescent’s onslaught and there is angst in the form of I-don’t-like-how-I-look (lest some of you think only girls do that to themselves, the short answer is, you’re wrong).

So, I’m not terribly amenable to the idea that Heidi Montag’s starlet-preparedness turn is benign, that’s for sure. While there’s a quantum leap from toothpaste, shampoo and deodorant to breast implants and eyebrow lifts, I think it’d be naïve to assert that any young teen worried about his or her looks is unscathed by the airbrushed era they are growing up in these days. I can cite a nearly endless litany of examples but I’d let Lauren Greenfield’s sobering documentary Thin stand alone, because the women she profiled in treatment at the Renfrew Center for eating disorders certainly were not struggling with these very serious issues solely because of women aspiring to be perfect in front of the cameras and paparazzi; their illnesses all had deeper roots and much more complexity than simply wanting to look a certain way. That said, image plays a significant role and I would venture that over time—or in these times—perhaps it plays a more significant role than it once did, as the pressures on those in the public eye are ever more rigid (even our own lefty idol, Rachel Maddow, submits to makeup and contact lenses for her MSNBC stint).


The Heidi Montag story got me thinking, as I often do, about my nearly two year-old daughter, Saskia, and how little girl clothing seems to play up pretty and cute and even sexy in ways that feel upsetting to me (and although you may not believe me, I do like kids’ clothing a great deal, I like finding it and I very much enjoy my kids’ unique senses of style). Again and again these past couple of years, though, I’ve just found myself with jaw on floor: bikini, size three months? What about the one-shoulder look? I think the most egregious single item of clothing was an onesie for an infant that read like a personal ad (bachelor wanted around the crib, potty trained preferred).

On the bright side, Saskia, when left to her own devices, has so many clothes and shoes (thanks, Amartya and Arella!) that she (and we) put them together in kind of quirky style, stripes, more stripes, lavender gloves worn around the house along with striped cap and her favorite (mine, too) orange clogs (although the shiny red go-go boots are currently running a close second). Remy, age seven, with long hair and a strong sense of clothing’s visual aesthetic, as well as a need for soft clothing without annoying tags, rocks his outfits, too; these days, along with his clothes, he accessorizes: painted pasta necklace, rust-colored terrycloth wristband often with a mitten clip attached clipping round a pen he tucks into the wristband (so handy).

When Saskia is wearing a pretty dress—or her cacophony of stripes, for that matter with orange clogs—it’s hard not to comment upon her looks. I feel strongly—and the literature backs me up, especially for girls—that I don’t want looks to be the leading thing to comment upon about any of my kids (or anyone else’s either).

The Heidi Montag story also got me thinking about my hair, which I let go grey on purpose, after a decade plus of dying it, about two and half years ago (I am so not going to make it in Hollywood). I let it go for a few reasons (I do plan to write all about this one of these days), but chiefly that I couldn’t really justify the time, the disconnect between my green-leaning ways and pouring those chemicals into the water stream each month, or the money, but mostly that I felt uncomfortable becoming someone I really was no longer: a brown (or by then, kind of brassy reddish brownish) haired woman.

Now, I thought I was trying to look all kinds of things, like younger, but in fact, I was trying to conform (and not have more grey than my mother-in-law, but you know what? I have more grey hair than my mother-in-law; I am, after all, my mother’s daughter in this regard, and she’s got gorgeous white hair I look forward to inheriting). Honestly, sometimes, I wish my hair just were brown still, for real. But I wish lots of things (and always have, not always in the realm of attainable for me, like for another six inches and a totally different body type and the ability to sing). But more of the time, I don’t mind, or even like, my grey hair because I feel like I have more integrity by not hiding it. And even if people are bound to wonder whether I’m the grandmother dropping Saskia off at school in years to come, I think I’m modeling something better this way; I’m showing her that I’m happy in my own skin—and hair. I do think that’s the most attractive way to be.


Before you’re in your forties and decide that you’re ready to go grey or whatever else you do or don’t do about your appearance, you have to endure being 14, and that isn’t easy. If I could venture a wish for my kids (and yours, and what-the-heck, for you and for me, too), it’s that for every moment of acute insecurity, they quickly discover something wonderful about themselves until those “I’m awesome” messages to self outweigh all others. Now, that would be beautiful.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser's work has appeared on the New York Times, Salon, and the Manifest Station amongst other places. Find her on Twitter @standshadows

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