As told to Boxoffice:
One of the first things that struck me about Snow White and the Huntsman was that line, "If a woman stays young and beautiful, the world is hers." The film really is a metaphor for Hollywood where there's always someone younger and prettier and sexier. When you reach a certain level of success in Hollywood as a woman, you feel that pressure to compete because there's always someone coming up behind you. As a cosmetic dermatologist, I see that pressure to look young all the time. I see a lot of models and actresses and celebrities in my practice and they're much more willing to try new treatments and procedures to stay young.
When Charlize Theron's queen looks in the mirror, she has to ask the mirror who's the fairest in the land. She doesn't have that objective self-love and self-acceptance. In a way, in Hollywood the mirror is the tabloid and the paparazzi photos. My celebrity patients can literally walk into a supermarket and see their mirror. They'll bring in a picture of themselves on the cover of a magazine and say, "I wanna look like this—make me look like this representation of myself." They want to look like a photo-shopped version of themselves. But it's not really a mirror—it's distorted. It's telling the public, "This is what a woman who's 40 should look like," and it's telling the celebrities, "This is what you should look like."
Charlize's queen has very fair skin and when they showed her aging, it was very accurate. It wasn't just wrinkles: her skin turned blotchy, she got sun spots, her eyes got sunken, her lips became thin and shriveled. Number one, a lot of those changes can actually be postponed with sunscreen. I tell my patients that sunscreen is the most important anti-aging treatment you can use-especially living in an sunny climate. So many of the changes that we see are due to UV rays breaking down collagen. If you look at your breasts or your buttocks, which for most of us are typically covered, people don't complain about wrinkles or sunspots on their butt or boobs, even though those are the same age as your face. Number two, for someone like her who's just starting to get little crows feet around the eyes and a few fine lines, but still has fundamentally good skin, I'd recommend a topical retinoid like Retin-A or Renova or an over-the-counter retinol product. Those will help to support the collagen in your skin and help it maintain its firmness and elasticity.
Even Snow White's name shows the idea that fair-skin is equated with being pure on the inside and the outside. In Ancient Greece and the Renaissance and Ancient China, women sought a pale complexion. It's only in the past couple decades that people have wanted to be tan. There's a study that came out from the Mayo Clinic last month that looked at rates of melanoma in young people in their twenties over the last 40 years and they found that among young women, melanoma has increased eightfold. The Huntsman has a tan and ruddy complexion. I don't know what that means, but there is that idea that women are supposed to be pale and taken care of while the Huntsman is off in the sun—he's her protector.
Many of my patients—especially in LA—eat organically, do yoga, take really good care of their bodies. And they feel guilty about asking about cosmetic procedures. It's almost like they feel guilty about wanting to look good, and a lot of them sigh and say, "Maybe I should just give up and age gracefully." Aging gracefully has become synonymous with letting yourself go, and my argument would be that if we really let nature take its course, we should stop dying our hair, stop brushing our teeth, stop shaving our armpits, stop wearing deodorant. Do people really want to live like that? I don't think so.
My argument is you can age gracefully by taking care of your body and doing things that make you feel your best. For one person, that might be plastic surgery. For someone else, that might be botox twice a year. For someone else, that might just be using sunscreen and the right skin products. But I don't think aging gracefully means just throwing in the towel and letting nature take its course.
Sometimes you don't know when to stop, and I think that's why cosmetic procedures have gotten a bad rap in Hollywood. We only see results that are extreme and obvious. I spend a lot of time in my practice every day trying to gently talk people out of doing bigger lips or bigger cheeks or being more frozen. I think the pendulum has started to swing the other direction. Now, lot of my patients—celebrity and non-celebrity—tell me that they don't want to look like they had anything done. In a way, that's even more difficult to achieve as a doctor because you have to be able to keep a person looking natural while keeping them looking soft and relaxed.
I was fascinated to see the beauty rituals they had Charlize do. Like where she digs her nail into some sort of bloody thing from a bird and eats it. In the Renaissance, there was this concept called Sympathetic Magic, which was the idea that eating something with the quality you're looking for could give you that quality. Similar to how she eats a heart to give her life, in the Renaissance, they would boil white animals like pigeons and puppies, make a paste out of it, and put it on their skin-just like now, they wanted to be fair and pale and wrinkle-free. In order to be young, women would hug adolescents because being close to youth would give them youth, which isn't too far away from Charlize gaining life by draining it from girls.
Even now, we're trying all sorts of crazy things to stay young. Some of the newest things that have a lot of buzz are topical products containing snake venom, which is supposed to help relax the muscles in your skin like botox. Another new one is snail slime, which contains proteins that help to hydrate the skin. In Sephora, there's a new masque that has snail slime. Of course, there's a little more science behind it today. Actually, like when Charlize bathes in that tub of white milky material, Cleopatra used to bathe in sour milk and we now know that milk actually does contains lactic acid and proteins that help to soften the skin. Today, we use lactic acid in chemical peel solutions.
Do I have patients who'd be willing to use black magic if it would keep them looking young? Sure. I've met many patients over the years who've been desperate to try anything. I do clinical trials as well to investigate new products, and people are always asking me what's new. I think there are patients who'd be open to black magic.
Of course, the movie ends while Snow White is still young. We don't know how she'll react to aging—could she also become obsessed with looks? To extend the Hollywood analogy, maybe Snow White will be more like a character actress as she gets older. Yes, she's beautiful, but people value her for her inner strength and inner beauty, which is one of the messages of the movie: having a sense of yourself apart from what you look like on the outside will bring you happiness. We never see her looking in a mirror. What does that mean? She's secure in herself.
Dr. Jessica Wu is a dermatologist, author and skin care entrepreneur in Los Angeles with a thriving private practice, where she takes care of some of Hollywood's most famous (and not so famous) faces. She is also Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology at USC and the author of Feed Your Face, published last year by St. Martin's Press. Her website is www.drjessicawu.com.
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