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Joe Jonas Bucks Gender Norms By Embracing Injectable Ageism
The pop star is the new (frozen) face of Xeomin.
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In August, Joe Jonas became the new (frozen) face of injectable neuromodulator Xeomin, a Botox alternative.
Ever since, the beauty industry has been patting itself on the back for breaking gender barriers. The male pop star’s public (and paid) endorsement of the muscle-paralyzing, nerve-blocking, wrinkle-erasing cosmetic injectable is being hailed as an act of “genderless self-care” — progressive, inclusive, a step toward social justice.
I’ve wanted write about this for weeks now, but struggled to translate my thoughts — mainly, “AAARRRGGGGHHH!” — into words. So instead, I thought I’d showcase how other thinkers, writers, reporters, and activists have shaped and continue to shape my own understanding of beauty culture.
1. To start: When analyzing any anti-aging practice, I remind myself that anti-aging is a form of ageism. Anti-aging ideology (which, in modern marketing lingo, is often disguised as “pro-aging,” “preserv-aging,” “slow aging,” “non-aging,” “aging well,” or even “aging gracefully”) frames totally normal and largely unavoidable signs of getting older — fine lines, wrinkles, loss of volume — as ugly, unhealthy, and/or undesirable. This reinforces the rampant ageism of Western society and reinforces shame for the aging individual. (For more background here, I suggest reading my article “Erasing Your Wrinkles Isn’t Empowerment.”)
Each time the beauty industry unveils a fresh new take on ageism — like, say, a 33-year-old man promoting an injectable neurotoxin as “confidence” in a 32-gauge needle— I come back to these lines from Lucy Kellaway’s Financial Times investigation, “Why is it still considered OK to be ageist?”:
“This is the most lethal thing about ageism — how quick we are to apply negative stereotypes to ourselves … it is a prejudice not against people who are different from us (other races, genders etc) but against our future selves.”
What we’re dealing with in this Joe Jonas x Xeomin situation — as with all anti-aging products and procedures — is internalized ageism. Breaking with gender norms does not make ageism a noble cause. “Ageism for all!” is not a progressive stance.
2. “Who wants to wake up looking like someone else? Not me,” Jonas says in the opening lines of his Xeomin commercial. Later he reiterates, “I want something that keeps me, well, looking like me.”
This casting of his younger self as his true self immediately made me think of a passage from Intact: A Defense of the Unmodified Body by professor and philosopher Clare Chambers:
“The very idea … suggests that there was one moment when you had the body that was really, authentically, naturally yours. On this understanding our real bodies are not the saggy, stretchy, lumpy, wrinkly ones that, somehow, we find ourselves in. When [people] try to get their bodies back they are usually aiming for the post-pubescent … body that exists for perhaps ten or twenty years of the average eighty-three years of life. Somehow, that minority body becomes not just the ideal body but the authentic body: the one that most accurately characterizes who you really are, inside.
In this narrative, the body must be constantly modified to remain true to itself. But why on earth should that particular body, the one that has done so much less than you have, be the ‘real’ you?”
The anti-aging sector often uses the language of “feeling like yourself again” as a sales tactic. It perpetuates the idea that you, as you are now, are not the real you. It capitalizes on the innately human quest for identity and convinces you that you will not be real until you are beautiful (with beauty, in part, being defined as youth). It conditions you to prioritize the imagined self — a self that not only doesn’t exist, but will never exist — over your present self. It encourages you to pursue living in the past (“I want to feel like myself again”) or the future (“I’ll go to the beach when I finally lose weight”) in lieu of living in the now. It keeps you from being in the present moment (which, to my limited knowledge, is kind of the entire point of life).
This is also very obviously a capitalist psyop! If the real you is a version of you from the past or future, the current you (the “false” you) must conveniently engage in the constant consumption of beauty products and procedures in search of “authenticity.”
3. “I don't think it’s necessarily something that we have to shy away from,” Jonas told PEOPLE Magazine of his use of aesthetic injectables. “We can be open and honest about it and be confident and not really shy away from speaking our truth.”
This nestles right into the stinking armpit nook of “radical transparency,” a concept that recently gained traction in the beauty space thanks, in large part, to Marc Jacobs’ decision to share his face lift recovery on social media last year. The claim is that being upfront and honest about the surgeries and procedures you get somehow helps to end stigma, set “realistic expectations” for others, and/or dispel the beauty myth. Again, I reference Chambers:
“Psychologist Amy Slater was an advocate of using labels on advertising and marketing images to show when they’d been photoshopped — until research showed that to be an ineffective strategy. If advertisers continue to use model who look ‘perfect’ according to a narrow, unattainable standard, then labels don’t do anything to disrupt that ideal of the power it holds over us.”
I interviewed Chambers a couple weeks ago (article coming soon!) and asked her if she thought “radical transparency” was equally ineffective. She said:
“I think your concern is correct. Knowing that some role model for beauty has had various procedures doesn't mean that we feel better about ourselves. It just means that we feel like, ‘I either need to have those procedures or I will fail to meet that standard.’”
Jonas’ financially-coerced honesty here is commendable maybe — it’s certainly better than pretending he hasn’t undergone aesthetic intervention — but it isn’t really helping anyone get out from under the pressure of beauty standards.
Also, the singer frames “speaking his truth” in the most surface-level of ways! Sure, the superficial truth is that he’s injecting botulinum toxin type A into his forehead. But where is the emotional truth?? I would love to read a statement like, “I need to believe that the younger me is the real me because the younger me was a world-famous, universally-adored, always-lusted after, constantly-validated member of the Jonas Brothers and I’m having trouble coping with the fact that that is not my reality anymore — that I’m aging, I’m a husband, I’m a dad, and I’m not as popular and beloved and showered with praise as I once was. Because I don’t feel young and hot, I don’t feel worthy, and I am willing to stick a couple needles of neurotoxin into my face every couple months because I don’t know how else to deal with these emotions. One could argue that this is part of being human… that you’re not supposed to recognize yourself as you get older, that you’re supposed to evolve and grow and shape-shift and learn and expand into new experiences and continue becoming you. But nope. I don’t wanna. I got used to the previous version of me, thanks, and that other stuff sounds hard, so… Xeomin it is!” Or, you know, something to that effect. That would be radically transparent.
4. In an article on Jonas’ Xeomin partnership, Allure claims that “injectables have really become a form of genderless self-care.”
First, consider “self-care.” Taking Kellaway’s definition of ageism as discrimination “against our future selves” into account, anti-aging procedures like Xeomin cannot be categorized as self-care. They can more accurately be categorized as self-discrimination.
Next, consider “genderless.” What the industry is trying to do here is co-opt a moral framework (gender inclusivity) to promote an immoral cause (beauty culture). This happens constantly in the beauty space, and it always calls to mind this quote from What White People Can Do Next by Emma Dabiri:
“Without knowing more about the origins of the systems we have inherited, it is difficult for us to identify the fact that many of our best efforts to overcome them merely reinforce them. The structure itself never changes, just the content. As the rich get richer, the rest of us will be left in increasingly precarious situations. In the global recession that is upon us, the powerful will double down on their control of state and cultural apparatus. They will be determined to repress, or co-opt, the tremulous expressions of resistance that are gaining volume as the people rise up against death. The issue of co-option is pertinent. Our articulations of dissent too often mirror the parameters of our oppression, reproducing oppressive systems, unwittingly reinforcing them, or attempting to reverse them, or indeed "diverse" them, to make them more "inclusive" when in truth they need to dissolve.”
The beauty industry is attempting to insulate itself against feminist critique by applying traditionally sexist beauty standards to people of all genders. It is attempting to redefine “equality” as “oppressing everyone in all the same ways.” But the solution to the beauty industry’s systemic discrimination is not to declare, “Discrimination against all!” The solution — as Dabiri writes — is to dissolve the system.
5. And on that note, I come back to Audre Lorde again and again and again:
“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
You cannot mitigate the harm of beauty culture with more beauty culture. It simply does not work that way.
6. Of course, there will always be those who hear the argument against youth-idealizing injectables and say, “It’s not that big of a deal! I just like the way it looks! It’s my choice!”
I would lovingly direct them toward THICK: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom:
“‘I like what I like’ is always a capitalist lie. If beauty matters at all to how people perceive you, how institutions treat you, which rules are applied to you, and what choices you can make, then beauty must also be a structure of patterns, institutions, and exchanges that eats your preferences for lunch.”