What the obsession with Jennifer Lopez’s birthday dress says about us

Even at the relatively ripe age of 46, she’s still Jenny from the block.

From In Living Color to The Boy Next Door, the Bronx-born musical siren has enjoyed years of widespread popularity—for both her many talents and her curvaceous backside. As a pop cultural fixture in her own right, and well before #TheDress was ever a meme, Jennifer Lopez’s red carpet look for the 2000 Grammy Awards remains a classic moment in fashion—with its sheer fabric and a neckline plunging just inches past her navel.

Now that she’s closer to 50, however, the media and online discussion of her July 24 birthday weekend festivities was less so a celebration of her achievements or her longevity in the entertainment biz. Instead, most of the attention centers on how improbable, if not impossible, it is that she still retains those trademark humps. Take a look:

We can rejoice life, health, and beauty in a variety of ways, and for many, the cheering for JLo’s steamy birthday look comes with the intent of celebration. As a woman of a certain age, Lopez seems to have defied many of the common physical characteristics associated with aging and prolonged exposure to gravity—sagging butt, cellulite, increased body fat, baggy eyes, wrinkles, and the like. It’s everything beauty culture markets products to erase. 

Most of the attention centers on how improbable, if not impossible, it is that she still retains those trademark humps.

But what would we be saying if Lopez turned 46 and was no longer wearing the same impossibly plunging neckline that she donned 15 years ago? How would we treat her if she wore the see through, box cut dress anyway, even with all of the so-called flaws that come with entering middle age? 

There’s a very strong chance that, given our cultural obsession with youth and a narrowly-defined standard of what constitutes as beauty, the the Internet discussion would become about how a woman like Lopez “let herself go”—that she struggles with a “diet fiasco” of some kind. When Gone Girl actress Rosamund Pike wore a similar cutout dress to the Golden Globes after giving birth, the response wasn’t nearly as kind

As Mic’s Ellie Krupnic explains, commenters referred to the dress as a “brave” choice, the ultimate “backhanded compliment.” Krupnick writes, “Daring to walk outside with the body you have isn’t a brave move; it’s the basic right of being a human being.”

A woman like Lopez could be perfectly healthy, with an enviable career, and enjoying good health in her mid-to-late 40s, yet not fit our standard of acceptable aging. But even if you’ve climbed to the top of the ladder, if you’re a woman, you’re still only as valuable as your looks.

Instead of admiring the empire Lopez has built over the span of more than 20 years, her birthday isn’t being heralded as a moment to praise or thank her for her contributions to popular culture. Over the course of her nearly 30-year career, she has amassed 11 Top 10 singles, while her films have made $1.1 billion in the U.S. With the success of 2001’s The Wedding Planner and the chart-topping debut of J.Lo, her second album, Lopez became the first entertainer in history to boast a number-one record and movie in the same week.

In addition, she has furthered the representation of women of color at a time when Latinas are almost invisible onscreen. The Fosters, which Lopez produces, stars the most prominent interracial lesbian couple in TV history, and Lopez’s forthcoming Shades of Blue will make her one of just a handful of women of color ever to topline their own show.

But with the exception of a few tribute posts on Facebook and Twitter, the trending message is more along the lines of: “Wow. JLo just turned 46, and she’s still smoking hot.” The problem isn’t what Lopez wore, it’s how we’re talking about what she wore. It isn’t only about how Lopez’s body looks relative to the Lopez body of yesteryear: Congratulating her for her looks is also an implicit subweet about the other women who are also entering their late 40s and 50s and look like it.

When comedian and writer Sarah Millican appeared at the 2014 BAFTA Awards, the then-38-year-old wore a simple, floral dress—with a standard neckline and arms exposed. With a golden clutch and pearl accessories, the British TV star’s red carpet look was blasted on social media for being a “disaster” or “nana-like,” as Mic’s Julianne Ross noted.  

Millican, who wears a size 18 or 20 dress, didn’t back down, though. Days later, in an op-ed for the Radio Times, she wrote, “I’m sorry, I thought I had been invited to such an illustrious event because I am good at my job.” As Millican notes, her husband “wasn’t asked who he was wearing, which disappointed him.”

The same move to criticize and police women’s looks also affects many other female celebrities entering middle age. Last October, Renee Zellweger was the subject of rampant speculation about how her face had apparently “changed,” as the 45-year-old actress emerged from relative seclusion to attend an awards show. Much of the discussion lambasted Zellweger for “not liking herself as she was,” noting that she appeared to have had plastic surgery.

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As EJ Dickson noted at the Daily Dot, Zellweger’s alleged surgeries “could likely be attributed to the enormous pressure on aging actresses in Hollywood to retain their youthful good looks, thanks to the dearth of available leading roles for actresses in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.” Dickson added, 

But here’s the thing about Renee Zellweger’s face: Yes, she looks different; yes, it looks like she had plastic surgery; yes, the pressure Hollywood puts on actresses to conform to twenty-something beauty standards is unfortunate; and yes, you may very well think she looks worse than she did eleven years ago. But it’s not your face. It’s hers. And it’s time for you to shut the fuck up about it.

Months later, a similar fate befell actress Uma Thurman, who also appeared to have had facial plastic surgery when she walked the red carpet for NBC’s The Slap premiere. As Nayomi Reghay wrote at the Daily Dot, when we discuss faces like Thurman’s which was the result of makeup changes and not plastic surgery (according to her makeup artist), it falls in line with long-held beliefs about women’s bodies and what their appearance means to us.

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“When we discuss the faces and bodies of aging one-time ingenues, we’re really debating the parameters of what a woman can or cannot look like at a given age, and in this way we’re assessing her access to power,” Reghay wrote. “It makes sense that we expect aging female celebrities who hold the most ‘currency’ when it comes to beauty, to hold on to that status and power by doing whatever it takes to remain beautiful. In short, while it may seem petty, a lot stands to be lost or gained.”

The problem, here, isn’t what Lopez wore, it’s how we’re talking about what she wore.

What’s often lost in the discussion, however, is how the intense focus on female celebrities’ looks overshadows why they still show up to red carpets in the first place: their career achievements. Instead of what they’re wearing being a tangential conversation, the media and the public fails to “ask her more” or spend most of the time talking about their work, their creative genius, or how they’ve managed to remain in the business—questions that are par for the course when we talk about men.

JLo can still be celebrated for her beauty at 46. If only the same space could be afforded to women, famous or not, regardless of their age—and regardless of how well they comply with mainstream standards of beauty.

Derrick Clifton is the Deputy Opinion Editor for the Daily Dot and a New York-based journalist and speaker, primarily covering issues of identity, culture and social justice.

Photo via Boing Image/Flickr (Public Domain)

Derrick Clifton

Derrick Clifton

Derrick Clifton is an identity and culture reporter and columnist. His work has appeared on NBC News, the Guardian, Vox, the Root, Quartz, MSNBC, HLN, and Mic. He is the communications manager for ProPublica Illinois.