If It Isn’t Broken: A Conversation with Justine Bateman




JUSTINE BATEMAN HAS LIVED in the public eye for nearly 40 years. During those years, she’s been a lot of things — actress, writer, producer, director, designer, pilot, wife, mother — but to me she is first and foremost the author whose debut book, Fame: The Hijacking of Reality, taught me to ask myself, whenever I’m stuck in my life, “What are you afraid of?” In her superb new book, Face: One Square Foot of Skin, Bateman invites us to intimately explore the fears that lead women to alter their faces to erase the signs of aging. The 47 fictional vignettes that make up Face, based loosely on interviews with people from many walks of life and on Bateman’s own experiences, are as vivid and taut as short films. Bateman’s characters are vibrant and finely drawn, her prose sharply honed to cut through readers’ defenses. Face articulates the messages that aging women receive, which inspire a fear great enough to have perhaps contributed to a nearly threefold increase in the number of cosmetic plastic surgeries and procedures performed on Americans between 2000 and 2019. Bateman prompts readers to examine just how we became indoctrinated into a system based on the false assertion that signs of age on a woman’s face are pathologies that require treatment. Through a multitude of voices and situations, she asks why we believe that a perfectly healthy, functional, older face is broken. Why are we so desperate to avoid visibly aging? What are we afraid of?

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FRANCESCA BELL: What inspired you to write this book?

JUSTINE BATEMAN: I was struck by the insanity of telling half the population that your aging face is broken and needs to be fixed. To me, it’s like telling half the population, “You’ve got to cut off the pinky toe on your left foot.” And we’ve just been going along with it. This book is me raising my hand to say, “I’m sorry, what are we doing? Why are we doing this? What’s in it for me?” I believe the answer is nothing. If I change my face, there’s nothing in it for me. What is it going to do? Is it going to solve some problems I have? What are those problems? What are the irrational fears underneath someone buying into the idea that their aging face is broken and that fixing it will solve their problems? I believe that it’s your body and face and hair, do whatever you want to it, but why not take the opportunity to dig around a little, to ask yourself, what is that irrational fear that might be driving you to try to solve your problems by altering your appearance? I know from personal experience that addressing those fears works.

Have you gotten much pushback from people who misinterpret Face as an unfair critique of women?

I’m surprised that I haven’t, only because when anybody puts out something that jeopardizes established structures in society, there are always people that want to shut it off. But I haven’t gotten much pushback at all. I’ve gotten almost 750 DMs from women, and overwhelmingly they express relief. One of the messages I got was like, “I live in a small town in the Midwest, and my friends are telling me I should get something done. I really, really didn’t want to get anything done, but I made an appointment because I didn’t want to feel left out. Then I saw your interview or read your book, and now I feel like, ‘Okay, I don’t have to do this. I’m not the only one.’” I got one message from a man saying, “My wife and I have been married for decades, and now she wants to get a facelift. I’m crushed; I don’t want her to change her face, so I bought her your book because I hope it’ll change her mind.”

How did you arrive at the unique structure of Face?

For each project, I develop a thesis statement. What am I trying to get across to the reader of my book or to the viewer of my film? What is the best way to make this material emotionally personal for the reader or the viewer? For Face, I thought, “Okay, I’m a member of the target audience for this book. If I were picking it up, what format would reach me best?” I had written micro-stories before, and I thought, “I would want this material to be like a bag of potato chips. I want to go in, eat a potato chip, think about it, ponder the fear that’s focused on in that particular story, and then go in and grab another potato chip.” Just get at it from all different angles.

Many of the vignettes in Face are quite harrowing. I’m thinking especially of the story about the actress who goes to her high school reunion and overhears both men and women speaking harshly about her aging appearance. Knowing that these vignettes are based on interviews you conducted and on your own experiences, I’m curious whether you tended to tone down or heighten the emotional severity you encountered in your research.

I had to look at the intention behind writing each particular piece. What do I want to get across? The story where Donna goes to a high school reunion actually came out of message boards I found online. Back when I was writing my first book, Fame, I saw a lot of criticisms of my face online, and I thought I had seen them all. When I was writing Face, there were a couple I wanted to look at again. While searching for them, I found two whole message boards that had been done within the last 10 years that I hadn’t seen before. I’m like, “Why? I’m not on anyone’s radar. I don’t act anymore. What is this doing here?” I read them, and I was like, “Fuck.”

One of the message boards was on a sports-based site, and it seemed to be all men. The other seemed to be all women because it was on a website by and for mothers. So, in the story about Donna, when she overhears those men talking about her in the high school hallway, I copied and pasted that entire sports message board. That’s stuff that people are saying about me. Then, when she’s in the bathroom hearing all those women talk about her, I copied and pasted everything about me from that mommy message board straight into the book.

That’s devastating.

What I wanted to get across with that is an objectivity. I didn’t want to necessarily bring in how that made me feel because I’ve dealt with the irrational fears that would allow something like this to affect me. I still had to remind myself, “Hey, remember what the fears were about. Nothing they say is going to keep me from getting the things I want.” And then I could decouple what those people were posting about me from where I’m going. What I wanted to do by putting those comments in the book is I wanted people, and particularly people who wrote that stuff, to look at their words objectively, these public pronouncements they’d made about strangers.

Something I find almost crushing about these stories is the intensity of the dread that the normal process of aging awakens in so many of the female characters.

One aesthetician told me, “Let me tell you, the panic that comes into my office.” It’s the panic that, if women lose their appearance, they’ll lose their entire lives. That they will lose their partner and everything that comes with being with their particular partner, from wealth to community.

Could you tell me about the origin of the story in your book featuring Ellie, the first-grader who learns about faces and face transplants?

That story came from me reading a great article in National Geographic about a face transplant. A young woman had an accident with a rifle, and she lived, but it took off her face. The story talks about the complex functionality of a face and the difficulty of transplanting one and reconnecting all those systems — the nerves, the muscles, all of it. I want to cry thinking about the gratitude that this young woman had for the mother who donated her own deceased daughter’s face so that she could have a face. I wanted in the story about Ellie to succinctly drive home this sentiment of, “Isn’t it remarkable that we have functioning faces?” It reminds me of how there are millions of women right now disliking their legs because they don’t feel like they’re the right shape, while I’m sure there are amputees who would say, “I will take it. Whatever your leg looks like, whatever the space is between the tops of your thighs, I will take it. Because I can use it.”

I am dying to know if you plan to make a movie based on Face.

Yes, I am! I wrote four scripts during the shutdown, including the adaptation of Face. I’m raising money for the film now. Anyone who’d like to help bring these stories to the screen can visit our Indiegogo campaign.

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Francesca Bell is the author of Bright Stain (Red Hen Press, 2019), a finalist for the Washington State Book Award and the Julie Suk Award, and What Small Sound(Red Hen Press, 2023).

 

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