You likely know Justine Bateman best as Mallory on Family Ties — the 1980s sitcom in which she played the superficial sister of buttoned-up Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox). Her life has taken some interesting detours since then. She enrolled in college in her mid-40s, to earn a degree in media management and computer science, and is now a screenwriter and director; her recent film, Violet, was shown at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.
One thing Bateman, 55, hasn't done — and never will do? Get plastic surgery.
In her new book, Face: One Square Foot of Skin, she argues that American society has long equated the signs of aging on a woman's face with unattractiveness. But she also asserts that women need not participate in such prejudice by accepting and internalizing it.
In her own case, she writes, she didn't mind seeing the beginnings of creases on her face and even the start of bags under her eyes in her early 40s — she actually kind of liked them. But nobody else did: “You can imagine how surprised I was to find that many people disagreed.” Online critics complained, “Justine Bateman looks horrible now."
The book is a compilation of 47 stories based on interviews with women about their own experiences with ageism; she calls it “creative nonfiction” because the stories are all true (some are her own), but she's added some “cinematic” details.
They include a young American in France who marvels at a supremely stylish older woman, then realizes that it's the woman's maturity and confidence that make her so stunning. In another, a 42-year-old photographer, Tara, has a heated argument with a female friend who's just had a face-lift: “Why didn't you just deal with the insecurity instead of cutting your face?” Tara asks, frustrated, angering the friend.
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We talked to Bateman about Face and her passionate feelings about the subject.
The first negative reactions to her aging face surprised her
When I was in my early 40s and I saw those comments online, I swear, that was the first time I really thought about it. I don't know why. I was really famous until the mid-'80s, so it wasn't part of our conversation.
Women have told her they feel “invisible” after a certain age
What's interesting to me about that is that women have participated in the idea — it's a real sort of evolutionarily based idea — that you're no longer as useful once you can't produce a baby. Which is tied to the assumption of sexual attraction, really, on a base level. So, when women are saying, “I feel worthless, or invisible, or I don't matter anymore, because I'm a certain age,” what they're really saying is, “I'm participating in the idea that I don't matter."
She wants women to set their own standards …
What messed me up is that I participated in the funky logic. That, to me, is more the problem than that the logic exists at all. I'm going to decide I look great. By any standards. I don't care what the standards are.
… and examine their logic
Let's say you're 20 or 21 and you're trying to get the bartender's attention, and he isn't paying attention to you. You say, “Oh, well, maybe he didn't hear me,” or whatever your position may be. But then what if when you're 50, you're in that exact same situation? Now the position you've decided to adopt is “that guy doesn't pay attention to me because I'm old.” I am suggesting that women pick a different position, because the only person who's suffering from that position is yourself. Be aware of what you're trying to make true.
The modern age offers a recipe for insecurity
You have surgical methods becoming more refined and more accessible and more popular. And then you have people critical of others’ worth online. If you combine those things, you're going to get this bad recipe for self-consciousness and an attempt to remedy that self-consciousness.
Plastic surgery doesn't solve the problem
When you cut your face, you still aren't dealing with the issue that caused the desire for plastic surgery. You'll still have that. For me, I would rather deal with the first thing — the insecurity or the self-consciousness.
A plastic surgeon helped with the book's cover photo
I said, “Give me a consultation, and then mark my face up like we're going to go into surgery.” Apparently I'm a candidate for the works. [Laughs.]
What she'd like to say to every woman
Just know, with all the great things that are coming to you in your life, the state of your face doesn't matter. It doesn't matter.
Christina Ianzito is the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine, and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.