Last Tuesday, in a strange moment of network television-pop culture syzygy, the new ABC comedy “Selfie” included a scene in which two colleagues, Eliza and Charmonique, were discussing the movie star Renée Zellweger.

Photographs of a radically different looking Ms. Zellweger have flooded news outlets. At Elle magazine’s annual Women in Hollywood celebration last Monday night, Ms. Zellweger’s forehead was as smooth as a packed ski slope, and her eyes as crystal-blue as ever, but they appeared, in some images, wide and round as pennies. In 24 hours, it seemed, every possible news media outlet had a story or a tweet or a blog post decrying the Oscar-winning actress’s new face. Another day passed, and every possible media outlet featured a chat or post or news report defending Ms. Zellweger and her new-looking face. By Friday, we were all ashamed to still be thinking private thoughts about Ms. Zellweger, but we were.

In the case of Ms. Zellweger, her new appearance set off a battery of intensifying debates. What is new — and plainly shocking to some — is that Ms. Zellweger now looks like someone not even related to the quirkily pretty, Kewpie-doll star who had us at hello. However the method, she has changed herself into someone who looks like the manicured socialite, the moderately successful commercial actress, the benign political wife. Ms. Zellweger looks beautiful .

Ms. Zellweger had probably elected to have a blepharoplasty, or upper eyelid lift, and possibly also a forehead lift, with the addition of injectable fillers that may have widened the planes of her face. She has also likely benefited from laser or ultrasound procedures that tighten the skin.

Nancy Etcoff, an evolutionary psychologist at Harvard and author of “Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty,” said: “We have gotten used to seeing bad plastic surgery. Two big basketballs on the chest, fish lips, blown-up cheeks. But this is a little different. This is about a lot of subtle changes that add up to a person who no longer looks like our memory of them. She looks like a different person.” Instead of aging along with us, she jumped off the path directly into another identity.

Faces are tightly packed with important biological information, Dr. Etcoff said. “They tell people who we are, who our relatives are, how we feel,” she said. “We are face virtuosos. We can discern one face from thousands, even millions, of other faces. When someone does something to their face that renders them unrecognizable, when that impacts our ability to read their face, it really is a jolt.”
“It’s a terrible double bind,” Dr. Spar said, noting the sense of hypocrisy around the situation. “On the one hand, we’re being told don’t worry about how you look, embrace inner goodness and stop judging on external appearance, and yet as a community we have all done nothing but talk about poor Renée Zellweger’s face all week.”
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