Why do we care what celebrities have done to their faces?

Did Kate Middleton have Botox?

The question was hardly surprising. The ways in which famous women enhance or alter their appearances is a source of intense fascination: Instagram accounts such as @celebface are devoted to deconstructing celebrities’ faces, magazines regularly run "then and now" spreads, and countless online articles speculate about celebrity plastic surgery.

If the Duchess of Cambridge, pictured with her sister-in-law the Duchess of Sussex, did have botox, why do we care?Credit:AP

But what drives our scrutiny of the faces and bodies of female celebrities? Why are we so obsessed with the "work" they have had done?

Zara McDonald and Michelle Andrews, who analyse pop culture on their podcast, Shameless, believe the interest arises from the policing of women’s bodies, and the value placed on women’s beauty.

“We are taught from the youngest age that our currency lies in our aesthetic,” McDonald says. “If someone looks conventionally attractive in a way that stands out above the rest, we have this innate interest in why they look the way they do.”

We are all subject to such intense pressure to achieve a beauty ideal that we both admire and resent those who manage to do so. We critique celebrities’ faces and bodies, both to feel better about ourselves, and to knock the celebrities from their pedestals.

“I think the average woman finds it comforting to know that celebrities 'don't just look like that' by winning some sort of genetic lottery,” says Andrews.

“The revelation that a celebrity has potentially achieved their looks 'unnaturally' is met with a sigh of relief from most women … It’s a great leveller that tells us, 'Yes, she feels the exact same pressure you do, and this is her way of coping with it.’”

As we age, we become subject to a new cultural standard: flawless, ageless beauty.

The age-defying faces we see in the media can make our own wrinkles seem somehow shameful, as though succumbing to gravity is a personal failing. We analyse the photos of older celebrities for reassuring signs of cosmetic intervention, engaging in the very same judgement of female bodies we abhor. We are stuck in an endless cycle of scrutiny. We are part of the sickness as we seek the cure.

What is the answer? Would full disclosure about cosmetic procedures break the cycle? Would it help to subvert the fiction that lips and breasts can magically inflate, and that one can defy age merely by using sunscreen and drinking water?

Well, not necessarily. As McDonald says, “The moment a high-profile or influencer discloses having work done, they do run the risk of glorifying and normalising cosmetic surgery, which I think can be equally as unhelpful for young women, who may grow up and assume they need to get work done, because everyone else is.”

Therapist Ashlee Bennett, who specialises in body image, explains that transparency will not necessarily undermine pervasive beauty standards.

“Research has shown that even when we know an image (or person) has been enhanced or manipulated, it doesn’t buffer against that high standard of beauty,” she says. “The image has already become an aspirational object.”

Andrews believes the onus is on the individual to look at the celebrity world with a critical eye and be aware of the forces behind it.

“I've come to the conclusion that the tentacles of the cosmetic procedure industry touch almost everything and everyone, and I reiterate that to myself whenever I look at images [of celebrities].”

Bennett agrees that our obsession with women’s appearances stems largely from the beauty industry: marketers create insecurities by creating and demonising flaws (eg large pores, thin lips, wrinkles, uneven skin tone) in order to sell products, or "solutions".

She believes the answer lies in body positive marketing, which focusses on the capacity of products to nourish your body, rather than changing its appearance.

But what can we do in the meantime? I ask her. How can we break from the vicious cycle of scrutiny, and feel better about ourselves without analysing others?

Bennett believes we can start in our own groups.

“When we come together and socialise it is typically over our flaws,” she tells me. "And that is reinforcing the pattern. If we can talk about this issue and open a dialogue about why we do this, it can help to break the cycle.”

I think of how many times I whinge to my friends about ageing, and how much scrutiny I turn on myself, as well as others. I think of my resentment of the pervasive ideal of beauty, and my simultaneous desire to achieve it. The cycle feels endless, and pervasive.

Talking about it feels as good a start as any.

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