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Madonna Faces Old Age, Flinches

All the money and fame in the world could not stop her from destroying her face out of fear of aging
Screen Shot 2023-02-08 at 2.57.39 PM

The other night on Twitter, somebody posted a photo above, and asked if anybody knew who it was. I did not. Then somebody answered, "Madonna."

It's true!


Remember Madonna? She used to be a thing. Then when she was no longer a thing because she quit making music people wanted to listen to, she turned herself into a dirty old lady. And now, at 64, she's gone down the Michael Jackson route of turning herself into a plastic surgery cautionary tale.

This is how she looked in her "Vogue" video from the early 1990s:

She used to be quite beautiful. I bet if she had let herself age naturally, she would be beautiful now, though in a different way. But she chose to freakify herself. Incredibly, writer Jennifer Weiner in The New York Times for some reason praises Madonna for the wreck she's made of her face. She writes, in part:

In the wake of the Grammys, people complain she no longer looks like Madonna, but which Madonna comes to mind? She’s been a blonde and a brunette, butch and high femme. She’s worn castoffs and couture. She’s adopted and abandoned an English accent. She’s shown us her roots and her underwear, deliberately putting the hidden parts on display. Every new version of Madonna was both a look and a commentary on looking, a statement about the artifice of beauty, and about her own right to set the terms by which she was seen.

“I have never apologized for any of the creative choices I have made nor the way that I look or dress and I’m not going to start,” she wrote on her Instagram on Tuesday. “I am happy to do the trailblazing so that all the women behind me can have an easier time in the years to come.”

... Is it possible that Madonna has been so blinkered by her fame and wealth that she’s lost the ability to see herself objectively, like Michael Jackson pursuing an ever-thinner nose or Jocelyn Wildenstein doing … whatever it was she was doing? Yes, but whatever her intentions, the superstar has gotten us talking about how good looks are subjective and how ageism is pervasive.

In the end, whether she meant to make a statement or just to look younger, better, “refreshed,” almost doesn’t matter. If beauty is a construct, Madonna’s the one who put its scaffolding on display.


Oh, please. In all her chameleon-like past versions, Madonna still looked recognizably human, and beautiful. Weiner favorably quotes Madonna praising herself for doing the "trailblazing so that all the women behind me can have an easier time in the years to come." Um, I don't think it's a good idea for women to believe that getting older requires or justifies filling your face full of botox, silicon, liver paste, or whatever the hell else she's jabbed in there. What on earth is Weiner thinking, praising Madonna for getting us talking about how "ageism is pervasive" when the washed-up pop star exemplifies the worst possible response to the cruel cult of youth? Is she trying to say that Madonna, a world-famous celebrity who is worth many millions, is some kind of victim? The mind boggles.

One thing Madonna has certainly done by destroying her looks: proved that beauty is not entirely a construct, but is rather an innate quality. This is something I've getting into in the chapter of my re-enchantment book I'm now working on. The subjective, constructed part of beauty comes out in Madonna's different hairstyles and looks over the years. Yet she has remained beautiful throughout her many changes, because her face remained proportionate. Even if nobody knew who Madonna Louise Ciccone is, and what she once looked like, anybody could see her walking down the street looking like her head was constructed from skinny balloons, and consider that freakish and unnatural. Nobody looks like that without a great deal of surgical and chemical treatment. I saw a woman getting out of a fancy car near my apartment in Budapest a couple of weeks ago, and it looked as if someone had stapled pork tenderloins where her lips used to be. Nobody finds that beautiful.

The late architect Christopher Alexander taught that beauty inhered in buildings, in nature, and even in faces insofar as certain rules of proportion and design were followed. You could compares buildings that people find beautiful, from simple African huts to European palaces to Manhattan townhouses, and you will find that despite their surface diversity, they all adhere to the same design principles. Here's a link to an analysis by someone else of proportion in beautiful faces. You'll see that whatever their ethnicity, women that most people regard as beautiful share proportionality.

Leaving that aside, don't you find it ridiculous to see men and women going to extreme lengths to avoid looking older? Years ago, there was an older man in an office where I worked, a guy who had a terrible toupee. It was the first thing you noticed about him. It signaled weakness -- the opposite of the effect he wanted! After a lot of time had passed, I ran across a photo of him online. He had ditched the toupee, and was all bald. He looked great. No cringe. Look, most of us are insecure about our bodies one way or another, but I hope as I age (I'll be 56 next week) that I am never tempted to think that doing this or that intervention to look younger will improve the impression I make on others. Dying one's hair is one thing (far, far more forgivable in women, if you ask me), but surgery and injections of botox, filler, and what not? Are there any people who look at an unnaturally smooth face on somebody over age 50, and think, "Wow, what an improvement!"?

It is certainly true that we, as a culture, are insane about aging. It's a Boomer thing. Discomfort with the body's failings as we age is perfectly human. But the challenge we all face is how to accept the limits of age with grace. It would certainly help if we did not exalt the supposed wisdom and superiority of youth, but that's how things have been since the Me Generation (Madonna's tribe) flopped down in the center of American culture and set the tone for everything that followed. I suppose Madonna's face is a kind of nemesis for aging Boomers.

The best model for aging with style and grace that I can think of is Nancy Vinci, who will be familiar to you who have come to Walker Percy Weekend in the past. Nancy must be in her mid-eighties by now, but honestly, I don't know; I'm just guessing based on my own age. It's hard to tell, because she is so naturally youthful. I grew up with her being a grande dame of our town, and always remember her looking smart and elegant, whatever her age. She never forces it, always looks chic, in that seemingly effortless way that French women do, and always, always keeps up with the best of what's going on in culture. She has this uncanny way of carrying with élan the authority she has earned with age, while never seeming old. It's a rare thing, but I have to believe it used to be less rare than it is today.

When I was packing to move to Hungary last fall, I ran across in my files a publicity photo that someone took back in the 1990s, best I can tell. You can see what age will do to a guy:

I wish my beard weren't white, and I didn't have half-moons under my eyes, and I damn sure wish I could fit into the trousers I wore back then. But if Madonna's surgeon came along and said he could restore even half of what I used to have, I would run the other way. Fact is, I kind of like getting older. It's interesting to see life through older eyes, and to experience it with an older body. I say that as I'm sitting here on a stool at the airport, wincing at my bad back, and wondering how long it's going to take my knees to recover from my jaunt yesterday across the bizarre limestone field in the Burren. Still, I'll roll with it. The alternative is ... Madonna's face, or Truman Capote going to Studio 54 in his fifties, or the poor sap in my former office -- who, come to think of it, was the age I am now when I first met him and the roadkill raccoon he rested atop his head.

UPDATE: Weiner's point is like highlighting a teenage girl who has had her breasts amputated, her uterus removed, and gone on testosterone, as a creditable example of highlighting the persistence of sexism in society.


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We talked about Madonna here before, when she was still in her 50s trying to play Hot Young Thing. This has definitely not improved any with age. As for her music, I can't think of anything she's done that I liked (at least to dance to) in twenty years now.

On old people trying to look younger: not a new trend. See: Elizabeth Tudor (who as queen could command people to tell her she still looked young, with her wigs and face paint). Last month I lost an elderly friend-- a man who died after a mercifully brief struggle with bone cancer. He was 85, had a good heart and had lived a full life-- his funeral had the usual sadness of course, but also a strong sense that he was well loved and honored and he had had a full life (and was now reunited with his wife who has passed a year before). But his one vanity was that he too wore a ridiculous hair piece. I only saw him twice without it, both times in a hospital bed. Well, it was almost a trademark thing for him and I don't think anyone begrudged it to him. Meanwhile, as I may (or not) have mentioned I lost six front teeth in a mishap last summer-- and as of this week I finally have a dental prosthesis to correct that. I don't think that's a age-defying vanity, though yes I'm certainly happy not to look like some meth-addled brawler from a dilapidated trailer park.
schedule 1 year ago
    Rod Dreher
    Rod Dreher
    Good Lord, Jon, I had no idea! Of course your dental prosthesis is not vanity. I'm glad you are sorted now.
    schedule 1 year ago
Maclin Horton
Maclin Horton
Even more than Madonna's weird appearance, what strikes me most in this column is the abysmal fatuousness of the NYT writer. I sort of want to say something more specific but am paralyzed by gloom.

I saw a picture of Dolly Parton the other day that was almost scary. Apparently she's gone as far as Madonna or farther in this direction.
schedule 1 year ago
It is hard to get older... bad knees, bad posture, painful joints, etc.. Walking everyday wasn't enough to keep the aches and pains at bay, so I've added a 22 minute stretch routine now. Classical Stretch by Essentrics, with Miranda Esmonde-White (recorded off Create TV or PBS) is fantastic and quite beneficial. It made the aches go away and helped me to heal for a few bad injuries. Americans deserve better information on how to keep themselves healthy without the need for a lot of medical intervention. Aging shouldn't be so problematic. (Walter Willet's books on the Mediterranean diet are great, btw. They helped me to lose over 100 lbs, without feeling hungry. I totally recommend them.)

Madonna was beautiful, back in the day. https://youtu.be/G333Is7VPOg
schedule 1 year ago