Renee Zellweger And The Fallacy Of “Total Abstinence.”

Ceci n'est pas Renee Zellweger.

Ceci n’est pas Renee Zellweger. And Our World Is Rocked.

So apparently we should be paying attention to the fact that Renee Zellweger has further fucked up her face. Whatever she did this time—and there are a million writers out there trying to scratch out a measly buck tracking down doctors willing to speculate about what it was—clearly it wasn’t the first time she commissioned knife and/or needle against herself. She’s been bingeing on Botox for years.

A lot of the publications that are running this shit have surprisingly venerable histories. I mean The Atlantic published Emerson, Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson and Mark Bleeding Twain, for godsake. What the hell are they doing? Playing vulture to the carrion of our voyeurism. We wrote snarky shit about her Lemon-Head face and that made her fuck herself up, and to top it off it makes you read what I’m writing now, because don’t you wish you had her life? etc.—this is how Big Media make their money.

I used to read Time Magazine when I was a kid (it was practically the only non-religious publication, besides the Pittsburgh Press, that used to come to the house—and we got the Press rather than the Post-Gazette because Dad liked their sports columnist Bob Smizik). That was back in the 1970s, when the magazine first spun People off its “lifestyle” pages, since Time, Inc. was no longer publishing Life. Way back when, for chrissake, Time used to publish James Agee. His novel A Death in the Family and his nonfiction account of southern tenant-farmers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, were books whose language and commitment of their author (admittedly ill with alcoholism and probably more besides) shaped my idea of what it meant to be a writer: You had to do a good job, not just for yourself but also for your sources, for your readers, and for the writers who had come before you.

Now nobody owes anybody anything. It’s a free-for-all—market laissez-faire.

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Let Us Now Praise Famous MenAgee had been under contract with Fortune to write a piece about cotton sharecroppers, but after spending time with the impoverished “Gudgers” he found he no longer had it in him to use these poor people as tools to produce the shiny happy piece that Madison Avenue required, so he said Fuck It: I’ll make a book instead. You know how many copies he sold?—1,000. In nine years. The publisher waited nine years before putting it out of print. Today a sales record like that wouldn’t last six months.

The 1960s civil rights movement resurrected the book, and it hasn’t been out of print since then. Because its excellent language and deep integrity speak for themselves. They teach people how to be human.

By the same token, the headline for the Time story about Zellweger’s latest cosmetic “fix” lacks integrity—”Leave Renee Zellweger’s Face Alone!” It’s a manipulative, “hurry-up-and-wait” kind of line: Hey everybody, I’m gonna set fire to myself, so DON’T look at me!

But what pisses me off so much about this Renee Zellweger “story,” if you can call it that, has nothing to do with Renee Zellweger herself but with the fact that the media perpetuate this self-destructive thing that women do to ourselves—this compulsive looking in the mirror, the constant examination of ourselves, a fixation on self. Which is one of the roots of addiction: selfishness, self-centeredness. Obsessive self-reference. My bro David Foster Wallace wrote in “This Is Water”:

And the so-called Real World will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along on the fuel of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self.

We read about Renee Zellweger but we’re really thinking about ourselves. You can bet that next week her face will be on the cover of People. We might read People in the grocery store line and go home and eat a big bowl of ice cream, because even if Renee Zellweger has fucked up her face, she’s rich-and-famous and automatically has a better life than we do. Automatically. Then sometime in the not-too-distant future we (automatically) go to the doctor and ask for Celexa so we can be not-depressed, or we steal or cop some Adderall so we can lose some weight and regain our “concentration.” Or whatever.

If you have kids in your life, and if any of the kids are American girls, you have been watching the progression of true insanity from generation to generation due to this kind of snowball effect between the media and its consumers. I mean until the 1970s, at which time society had sustained a 15- or 20-years’ barrage of Twiggy-style ad images, anorexia presented only in isolated cases. If the media produce this garbage, there will be huge audiences to eat it up; the audiences won’t stop buying it (will they?), and Time, Inc. will definitely not stop producing it if they can “brand” and sell it. The same with Kraft, Inc. If they can produce this “pasteurized processed cheese-food,” otherwise known as “American cheese,” they will create a market for it, and we will eat it up.

The same with the drug companies. If they can brand and sell this stuff—the drugs—they will create a market for it, and we will eat it up. “Got PMS? Ask your doctor for Sarafem.” Or whatever.

A couple weeks ago I told my first-year students to read David Foster Wallace’s essay “This Is Water” and to write an essay exploring ways they had become enslaved by some attitude. It shouldn’t have surprised me (but it did) that so many of the women wrote about their obsession with their weight or some other aspect of their appearances. With “beauty.” The few men I have in this class wrote about their obsession with “success.” Plus ça change, and all that.

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Recovering Body_smallWhen I sat in front of an audience of 1,000 a couple weeks ago to talk about my new book and took questions about physical recovery from addiction, the first was from a woman who wanted to know how I “deal with food”: I have put into print my compulsion to eat sugar, and the questioner wanted to know how I manage to feed myself. We can quit drinking alcohol, the logic goes, but human beings can’t just starve.

In mulling this question over it has occurred to me that in fact I am not completely abstinent from all drinks—just mind-blowing drinks. And that includes soda. … I can’t be completely abstinent from all food or drugs—but I can choose not to put food or drugs in my mouth if they’re going to change my reality (in other words, the truth). If a shot or a beer distorts the truth for me, then should I never drink ANYTHING, even water? If sugar screws with my head, should I not eat ANYTHING?

I can’t quit eating or drinking altogether, but I can quit putting into my body stuff that hurts me—stuff of all kinds, including the smorgasbord of “stories” that tempt me to Feed My Head, telling me how to think about the ways Renee Zellweger has fucked up her face.

I can’t abstain from the mirror. But I can choose to stop talking shit about the person I see when I look there.

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