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Opinion | Margery Eagan

A pretty little double standard

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Amy Schumer’s new movie, writes Amanda Hess, is based on a “pretty little lie: Looks don’t matter. It’s what’s inside that counts.”

Of the many critiques of “I Feel Pretty,” the one by Hess of The New York Times comes closest to truth.

Hess writes that pressure on women to look young, thin, and stunning has never been higher. “It’s just become taboo to admit that.” She cites the new book, “Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal,” in which Heather Widdows goes further: Looking good is no longer just a superficial pursuit. It’s become an ethical one too, a moral virtue.

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You don’t look good enough?

You don’t try hard enough.

Don your Spanx. Get thee to Sephora or SoulCycle, at $30 a class, by the way, plus $3 for shoes.

Depressing? Let me add, as I slide into my own “woman of a certain age” phase, the pressure rarely eases. It begins at age 12, or sooner. It doesn’t stop in your 20s. Or 30s. Or when you get married. Or when your kids are grown. Or in your 50s or even 60s, if you’re a woman working a competitive field.

Almost every hard-driving, postmenopausal working woman I know, myself included, is afraid to let her hair go gray.

“I’d become irrelevant, be treated differently,” said a fellow journalist. “My opinion wouldn’t matter. Already if I make any kind of cultural mistake, I’m too old. If I go gray? It’s over.”

Lots of professional women I know look suspiciously smooth and taut for 55, even 65. Few confess their secrets. But many, myself included, readily admit fears of losing position, even our jobs, as we age.

“I used to look like their mothers,” said an academic, who is a lifelong athlete. She’s nipped this, tucked that, Botoxed the other. Still, as the oldest woman in her department, she fears getting booted to pasture. “The other day one of my students told me I smelled like her grandmother!”

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The reasons for this high anxiety are obvious.

Many women can’t afford to retire and gratefully let it all hang out. Many are divorced. Fragile egos are battered on Match.com. Women have to keep up with other women.

If none of us bleached our teeth or liposuctioned our love handles, we could all go to seed together. Instead, we have ever more choices, from peels to dermabrasion to fillers to eyelifts, and such lifts cost no more than a week at Disney World. Plastic surgery has been normalized. CNN reported last week on free apps for kids where they can be virtual plastic surgeons, making incisions and stitching up sliced skin. Your 9-year-old just did a nose job!

It does make one pause: Whatever happened to the women’s movement’s goal of judging women more on brains than beauty? Apparently, we’ve gone backwards.

Of course, you can dismiss all this as petty vanity, the pathetic obsession of privileged white women with money. There’s truth in that. But that’s not the whole story. Aging women are marginalized, in love and life and at work. Meanwhile, aging men — fat or bald or sporting under-eye bags big enough to land small aircrafts — are far more likely to prosper professionally, ditch you, and run off with Ms. 30-Something.

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No one wrote about this unfortunate turn of events better than the late Nora Ephron in “I Feel Bad About My Neck.”

She detailed ever more time-consuming battles with threading, plucking, waxing, and tweezing; with sandpapering dried-up feet. She threw it all at her neck: glycolic acid, StriVectin-SD, pricey La Prairie and La Mer creams. Alas, old necks stubbornly remain wattled, crepey, stringy, saggy, flabby, or turkey gobbly.

She gave advice to women Amy Schumer’s age, which is 36. The neck starts going south at 43. Stare at it lovingly. Everything else soon follows. Be grateful for your strong body while you have it. This is as good as it gets.


Margery Eagan is cohost of WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio.”