Over the weekend, an allegedly unretouched photo of Cindy Crawford went viral. You know the one. You’ve looked at it. You may have even stared at it for longer than you’re comfortable admitting. The picture shows Crawford in lingerie, sporting cellulite, skin folds, maybe even some flab—features we know to be part of human anatomy, but not on the menu for the beautiful people of the world.
As the image gained traction, the response was overwhelmingly positive and supportive. After all, here was a supermodel showing off rather plebeian cosmetic flaws—and, as they say, she looks better than ever! But enough is enough: This celebration of Crawford isn’t genuine. It’s kind of schadenfreude.
There are a few reasons why the body-positive parade being thrown for Crawford is hard to buy. For one, the standard that we commend the model for smashing with the unretouched photo is the very same standard we use to shame celebrities like Uma Thurman and Renée Zellweger for daring to change their looks. The standard that equates beauty and dignity in the realm of aging. If a woman doesn’t "age gracefully" or if it’s clear she’s had "work done," accusations of weak character and "clinging desperately to youth" are suddenly fair game.
(The funny thing is, Crawford has had some work done—she has admitted to having Botox and collagen injections. We shouldn't fault her for it, but neither should we fault Thurman or Zellweger.)
But it’s also tough to buy into the celebratory hullaballoo because, as far as we know, Crawford didn’t choose to release the photo. It’s not going to be in Marie Claire’s April issue, as was first suggested. It appears to be a leaked outtake from a photoshoot from 2013. British journalist Charlene White, who originally posted the picture to Twitter, told CNN that “women come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes. I think it's important to see all sorts of body shapes on our screens and in our magazines so that people have a true reflection of what people look like."
Now that we know Marie Claire had no intent of publishing the photo, is the image really so inspiring? It’s no longer about appreciating a woman who has thrown caution to the wind, sharing her real self with the universe, flaws and all. It’s about us gawking at a superficially unflattering picture of one of the world’s most gorgeous women apparently without her consent. It’s about us re-humanizing a supermodel by highlighting her vulnerabilities as an aging woman.
As author and psychologist Peggy Drexler wrote for CNN, “We don't like Crawford's image because it's 'real.' We like it because it's a little startling and a little unattractive, and therefore makes us feel better about ourselves.” We may not be relishing in Crawford's suffering in literal schadenfreude fashion, but we are certainly reveling in the idea that she has blemishes just like the rest of us.
There is something morbidly fascinating about watching women who are immortalized on the screen attempt to retain their youthful look, but it's impossible to look on without confronting our own fears about aging. If these women who have the finest products and doctors at their disposal cannot overcome their own physical decline, what chance do we have?
Aging and celebrity in the internet era have become a game of spot the difference. We have created a profitable sport out of the “Before/After” diptych. And worse, we have assigned character values to these snapshots. As an advocate for body acceptance, I do believe in the power of the image, and I do believe that seeing Cindy Crawford’s real, imperfect body can ultimately do good. But if we’re going to celebrate a middle-aged woman whose unretouched photo has leaked, we better damn well celebrate every other woman faced with the reality of aging.