Why are we so quick to pick apart Renee Zellweger's looks?

Story highlights

  • Renee Zellweger's appearance at an event led to non-stop talk about her face
  • The actress issued a statement, calling all the attention "silly"
  • Women around the country were outraged at the ease with which she was criticized
  • Women are in a no-win situation when it comes to aging, many women said

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two girls. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN)I happen to agree with Renee Zellweger that all the chatter about her face is "silly."

But I, and many other women I talked with via email Wednesday, would add some other choice words to the mix to describe the non-stop attention about her appearance following her first red carpet event in years: nasty, cruel, hurtful, invasive and sexist.
Why do we, the public, feel so free to pick apart the appearance of a woman who is aging in the public eye? What does this say about us and how we treat and value women?
    It's a "double bind," said Lyz Lenz, a writer and blogger, and mother of two small children in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. We tell women "to look youthful and perfect, but when they do what it takes to reach that standard, we shun them and mock them," said Lenz.
    Beth Engelman, mom of a 9-year-old son in Chicago, agreed that we put aging women in a no-win situation.
    "As they age, they either look old (which is never pleasant to hear) or they look scary (because they've had so much plastic surgery) and everyone feels entitled to weigh in," said Engelman, co-founder of Mommy on a Shoestring.
    Many of those slamming Zellwegger's appearance were women, which to some women is more upsetting than any of the criticisms coming from men.
    "I find that women are the worst," said Rhonda Woods, a mom of three in New Milford, Connecticut, and a real estate executive. "People should be 'judged' on their skills, abilities, character and intellect, and by judged, I mean assessed as a person that you would want to spend time with."
    There is no question that those in the public spotlight are held to a higher standard but not really for any logical reason, said Woods.
    "They are human and are allowed to do whatever they would like to do to their body that makes them feel good," she said. If Renee Zellweger is "comfortable" with how she looks, "what right does anyone have to criticize her?"
    Annette Lanteri, an attorney and mom of two in Bayport, New York, agreed. "It is her life, her choice, her body and poo poo on the people that say mean and hurtful things. They need to get a life of their own," she said.
    Sadly, the furor over Zellweger, much of it online, is another example of a culture that seems so comfortable tearing people down. It was just Monday when Monica Lewinsky received rave reviews after a speech at Forbes' 30 Under 30 Summit where she dedicated herself to help end the "shame game" online that caused her so much pain 16 years ago.
    Zellweger has said that she looks different because she is "living a different, happy, more fulfilling life, and I'm thrilled that perhaps it shows."
    "Are we a society of people that are so jealous or maybe even fearful that others are living a fulfilled life ... that we have to spill out cruel words?" said parenting advocate Sue Scheff.
    There is a larger concern here, many women said, and that is that we live in a culture that continues to correlate youth with beauty, said Michelle Noehren, founder and manager of Connecticut Working Moms.
    "It's easy to judge others for actions we don't fully understand but we do a detriment to all women when we criticize each other, especially when the criticism is related to our bodies and appearance," said Noehren, a mom of a 3-year-old in Glastonbury, Connecticut. "We'd be much better off criticizing a culture that makes women feel badly about themselves if they don't fall into our media's unrealistic and unattainable beauty ideals."
    Diane Smith, an Emmy-award winning television journalist, brought up a book she just finished reading, "The Confidence Code," about why women might suffer from a lack of confidence as compared to men.
    "It is pretty clear that when women are subjected to this kind of unsolicited commentary, it does nothing to increase confidence or help women understand that their value goes way beyond their looks," said Smith, co-author of the recent New York Times bestseller "Obsessed: America's Food Addiction and My Own."
    I've written story after story about how we want to do everything we can to build up confidence in our girls and remove any notion that their worth is connected to their appearance. So, what kind of message does all this talk about Zellweger's face and whether she did or did not use plastic surgery send to our daughters and our sons?
    "Our kids need to understand that people, whether they are celebrities or not, have feelings that we need to respect," said Scheff, author of "Wit's End: Advice and Resources for Saving Your Out-of-Control Teen."
    But first, their parents need to absorb the lesson.
    What do you think the public criticism of Renee Zellweger's new look says about us? Tell Kelly Wallace on Twitter or CNN Living on Facebook.