Voices: The fuss about Meg Ryan’s appearance makes us all look ugly

Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman. Take, for example, the furore over Meg Ryan’s recent appearance at a screening of the Michael J. Fox documentary, Still.

Ryan, you might remember, was a romcom mainstay in the 1980s and 1990s and, although she’s worked ever since, nowadays she mostly keeps out of the limelight. Recently, though, she attended the Still screening to support her friend, Fox.

According to The Daily Mail, the screening was Ryan’s “first outing in six months”. But that wasn’t all that was said about it. You might think her attendance was small fry: so, Ryan’s gone out to an event to support her mate – a minor appearance at a relatively minor event – and yet she’s managed to make major headlines.

Why? Did she say something outrageous? Is it an insightful comment on Fox’s documentary? Is she working on a new, exciting project? Don’t be daft. The answer is all too predictable – and depressing.

Apparently, in photos from the event, Ryan, who’s 61, looks “unrecognisable”. Yet the truth is, as anyone can tell you, the term “unrecognisable” is code that a high-profile celeb has either had noticeable cosmetic surgery, gained weight – or has just aged and no longer looks exactly as they did 30 years ago.

And while Ryan certainly looks different – she may even have had “work done”, who knows (or dare I say: cares?) – I have to ask: isn’t it our interest in her appearance in the first place that’s the problem?

The pursuit of a beauty “ideal” is complex. It’s rooted in decades (if not centuries) of socialisation, of societal expectation and the capitalisation of women’s insecurities through commercialism: just look at the indomitable rise of the make-up industry, the fashion industry and our notions of what is “beautiful” plastered all over billboards.

We are all, to some degree, slaves to the desire to look younger, fitter, prettier. And that goes for men, too. It’s perhaps no wonder that the number of people having Botox has increased (in 2021, the estimate was that 900,000 injections were carried out a year in Britain).

Some may offer the argument that if you change your appearance, you will be looked at. It’s part and parcel of what you “should” expect.

But if we’re all “doing it” (to greater and lesser degrees) then why the massive focus on people like Ryan? She’s hardly alone, or doing anything wrong. And it’s not just Meg Ryan. Recently, images of another 90s Hollywood icon did the tabloid rounds: Bridget Fonda, star of classics such as Single White Female and Jackie Brown, was pictured going about her daily chores.

Once again, the headline “unrecognisable” accompanied the images. Fonda is retired from acting and has shunned the limelight for years. She’s no longer the ultra-glam 30-year-old we might remember from the red carpets – but then, who is? Do you look exactly like you did, 10 or 20 years ago? I don’t.

What I object to is this persistent intrusion into women’s private spaces; the horrible sensation of being followed and photographed and pored over, without your consent. It even happens to non-celebrities: just look at the recent “mean girls” doxxing of women who appeared in the background of a viral video.

And, it seems, I’m not the only one who’s sick of it.

TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp shared an article about Ryan’s “unrecognisable” appearance on Twitter, along with the comment: “It’s called ageing you remorseless f***ers and it’s articles like this which push women in the public eye to extremes. This kind of thing boils my blood!”

On this issue, I’m with Kirstie. My blood is currently at scalding temperature.

Women, it seems, can only be celebrated if they remain perfectly maintained and ageless. The Jennifers manage this impossible illusion as best they can.

Skin must appear like a slab of Thornton’s toffee: smooth, tanned, even-toned, even during middle-age. Long, gloriously swooshy, shimmering caramel hair should be disciplined into a shiny, honey-toned curtain or beachy, sunlit waves, with not so much as a hint of grey.

Our celebrated middle-aged women appear effortlessly youthful and glamorous. But it takes a lot of work to look that effortless. It takes a lot of time and money to maintain the golden, gleaming surfaces of their bodies – an impossible combination of soft and angular.

To remain nonchalantly sexy, and cellulite-free, in cut-off jeans, startling white vest and large silver hoops in your mid-fifties is no mean feat; to retain that perfect, frustrating illusion of accessibility – just the right distance between unobtainable and possible.

The pillorying of celebrities whose cosmetic work has proved unflattering, or who haven’t kept their heightened muscle-tone through pre-dawn workouts and a rigid diet, functions as object lessons for other women.

This, they say, is failure. This, they say, is what you should and shouldn’t look like. Women should be specimens frozen in amber – petrifying the age process to “look great for their age.” There’ll be tweakments, of course.

Oh god, there’ll be so many tweakments, but under no circumstances must there be any evidence of surgical intervention – beyond perhaps a nose job performed decades ago to correct a “deviated septum”. Because one of the unspoken rules is that women must never, ever admit to any surgical interventions.

While pre-fame photos may show that celebrities have become polished, honed, glossed, firmed, gilded and transformed – the conceit of idealised femininity is upheld by the celebrities who pretend their wrinkle-free complexions are all down to using olive oil as a moisturiser.

Or their blinding “glow” is thanks to being happy – because true beauty comes from within. We’re sold the dummy that any of us has the potential to become red carpet worthy with the right products, the right discipline, the right attitude.

Yes, some women choose to have work done. Yes, it’s important to acknowledge women’s choice and agency – and complicity – in maintaining wildly unrealistic standards of beauty.

But the crowing over shots of people who don’t uphold those standards also adds to the pressure on women to have tweakments and surgical interventions to feel – and be – socially acceptable.

Like I said, sometimes it is hard to be woman.