“After criticism lost his glasses, he discovered that he did not need them anymore. His focus is less acute, but he can see the whole picture better.”
–J. Ruth Gendler, The Book of Qualities
When I saw actress, Renee Zellweger’s new look, I noticed how peaceful she seems.
And when I heard a clip of Monica Lewinsky’s recent speech, I was astonished by her courage.
Renee Zellweger’s face has changed drastically. For years many people have made fun of her unique, but beautiful looks. And then recently she appeared at a celebrity event with a face most of us didn’t recognize, which she attributes to aging and being happier in life.
Monica Lewinsky, who was in an affair with President Bill Clinton while she was a White House intern nearly 19 years ago, has been living a very private life due to the relentless shaming directed at her. And then recently she entered the public venue by speaking on Cyber-Bullying at The Forbes Under 30 Summit.
And the backlash toward these two women has been galling.
“She destroyed her once beautiful face,” one person wrote about Zellweger. And another: “She might as well change her name to unrecognizable one.” And finally, ‘LOL Butterface.’
Sadly, most of the comments about Lewinsky are so vulgar I wouldn’t print them. I searched the Twitter account she recently opened and comments following her recent speech. I was revolted by how base many of them were.
Criticism is a mirror that reflects our own defects. Criticism allows us to turn others into scapegoats, cloaking them in our shadow. Anciently, the proverbial scapegoat was in fact an actual goat that villagers symbolically cast their sins onto and drove out of the village believing the goat could carry away what the individuals weren’t willing to face in themselves. Such “elimination rites” are an apt metaphor of online communities as shaming forums. If we’re criticizing others we can avoid taking our own inventories.
Monica Lewinsky’s willingness to come forward and speak candidly about her own past was directly connected to reading about the Rutgers student, Tyler Clemente, who killed himself in 2010, after his roommate secretly videotaped him kissing another man and released it online.
Lewkinsky said that she nearly “disentegrated” after the ongoing public humiliation she suffered when embarrassing details of the affair with Clinton became common public knowledge nationally.
“Quite sadly, the trend of being humiliated to death online has only continued,” Lewinsky said in her speech last week. “No one is immune.”
“Fear is the issue underlying most criticism,” Connie Honer, a psychotherapist in Portland, OR, told me. “Quick societal reactions arise when people feel threatened in some way, and want to distance themselves. Reactions are just that, reactions. They have nothing to do with the facts or truth at hand.”
Connie offers an invitation to respond versus react: “Response vs. reaction demands a willingness to sit with, listen to, be curious about, and attend to what arises in the part of our self,” which is triggered by another person’s actions, both negative and positive.
Criticism arises from judgment, which is an emotional state that robs us of feelings of love and peace. We can’t judge or criticize without being affected by the acidic pain ourselves.
Judgment and criticism are opportunities to explore our own vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Our own shame is casting its shadow when we criticize instead of offering compassion. This is true not only with others, but with our self-criticism. Each of us has suffered terrible lapses of judgment in our early years, but they didn’t result in fodder for the international press, and scrutiny by the entire U.S. Congress.
Returning to Zellweger’s new look, no matter how it came about, it is relevant in reminding ourselves how vulnerable we feel about our appearance in a culture that worships at the altar of beauty and youth. It was difficult for me to publish the photo of myself holding my granddaughter in my last article. My eye was drawn to the loose skin beneath my chin and my unkempt hair that day. The bigger picture was that I got up one morning, just put on my jeans and my favorite writing shirt and went to the woods with my family!
It is so much easier to project onto another’s face what we don’t want to face in ourselves.
Yes, Monica Lewinsky was reckless. But what the general public has failed to see is the profound imbalance of power that existed in her relationship with a man old enough to be her father, and in fact, one of the most powerful men in the world at the time. The onus was on him, because of his power, to take control of the situation instead of taking advantage of it. Just imagine if she was your daughter. Isn’t this modern day Hester Prynne entitled to a second chance, to a life beyond her past? Aren’t we all?
And whether it was plastic surgery or a miraculous state of bliss that altered Renee Zellweger’s face, isn’t her face her choice? Perhaps we doubt that a different face can bring someone happiness, perhaps that is why the zingers and one-liners are flying. But what if the process behind it, the choices she decided to make for herself contributed to a more empowered sense of self?
And there is a very real reason why Zellweger would want a whole new face: as a culture we were all incredibly mean to her old one, which was beautiful in its uniqueness.
“Pointing, gawking, and screaming about it says more about our media, our vanity, and the type of society that would lead a star to completely rearrange the most personal part of her body than it ever will about Renée Zellweger,” wrote Brian Moylan in his article “Leave Renee Zellweger’s Face Alone,” in TIME magazine online.
I like Lewkinsky’s invitation to a “cultural revolution” to address what she calls, “a compassion deficit, an empathy crisis.” Maybe eventually it could lead us to let go of our ‘Scarlet Letter’ mentality and to think in new ways, like these lines from poet Robert Bly.
“Think in ways you’ve never thought before . . . When someone knocks on your door, think that he’s about to give you something large: tell you you’re forgiven.”