Review: America the Beautiful
One of the first questions Darryl Roberts asks in his documentary America the Beautiful is “Who benefits from women not feeling beautiful?” As the film spends the next 105 minutes trying to find the answers to that question, you witness the full impact of our obsession with beauty through tales of girls with eating disorders, plastic surgeries gone wrong, and the whirlwind modeling career of Gerren Taylor who did her first runway shows at the age of 12.
Roberts, who undertook this project after the search for the perfect women led him down an empty road filled with false promises of happiness, examines the different industries that benefit from America’s preoccupation with perfection. One 12-year-old boy interviewed in the film sums it up quite simply when he says “companies put people down to make money”. He realizes already that the more people feel bad about themselves, the more they will seek products and services to improve their self image. This might explain that while America has 5% of the world’s population, we are exposed to 40% of the world’s advertising. Talking about creating a perfect image, world-renowned fashion photographer Marc Baptiste remarks “at the end of the day, we’re selling dreams”. But of course, they are dreams that can never be realized.
As Roberts follows Gerren’s pursuit of her own dream of becoming a super model, he interweaves her tale with a closer look at the cosmetics industry, the media and their role in creating unattainable expectations for both men and women and the toll that is taken, physically and mentally on our society.
America the Beautiful features insightful interviews of people from all sides of the issue. There is the guy who starts out saying “my idea of a perfect women is, first of all, she’s gotta be hot,” raising the question “is this the person for whom we are trying so hard to reach perfection?” There are interviews with representatives from the media industry some of whom admit to some amount of culpability, while others laugh at the mere suggestion that media has any role on the behaviors of those to whom it is targeted. (Of course, isn’t that why advertising exists in the first place?) We also meet plastic surgeons, toxicologists, and various girls and women who can only see their shortcomings.
My favorite interview though is with Eve Ensler who wrote and performed in the play The Vagina Monologues. As someone who has achieved great success and has been such a strong voice for empowering women worldwide, she would seem above suffering from a poor body image. And yet her description of a conversation with a woman in Africa about not knowing how to love her own body makes the viewer realize that even the strongest of women are vulnerable to the idea that there is such a thing as the perfect body.
Ultimately though she realizes that we all have a vision problem. “Every woman is beautiful in her particular way; if we developed eyes and we develop spirit, we would see that every woman is beautiful.” This statement alone really sums up the whole point of the film, but equally profound is her comment on plastic surgery: “Stop fixing yourself. You were never broken.”
Roberts spends considerable time delving into the darker side of plastic surgery — a side to which every woman considering any procedure should become acquainted. We learn that, thanks to a FTC ruling in 1977, anyone with an M.D. can hang a sign up on their door saying they are a plastic surgeon and start doing business. And there is no end to the procedures that can be done to “enhance” one’s features, including creating “designer vaginas”. But as Eve Ensler says, “to think you’re not tight enough, well, get a bigger dick.”
The film also highlights some startling statistics like the fact that in 2004 Americans spent $12.4 billion on cosmetic surgery, while the estimated cost for basic nutrition and health care in developing countries is $13 billion. In addition, we spend over $45 billion per year on cosmetic and beauty products. And yet, we put little thought into exactly what it is we are applying to our skin. According to Roberts’ research, there are 884 toxic ingredients found in cosmetics. While the EU has banned 450 ingredients commonly used in cosmetics, including the phthalates which have been shown to be toxic to the reproductive system, the FDA has banned only 6 ingredients and continues to allow phthalates which of course the cosmetic industry still argues are perfectly safe.
At one point in the movie, after we question if a woman who has just undergone plastic surgery will awake from anesthesia — which ultimately is what carries the most risk in plastic surgery procedures — Darryl Roberts says he called every man he knew and told them to tell every woman they know that they are beautiful exactly the way they are.
Going back to the beginning of the movie, Roberts draws a correlation between women gaining the right to vote, and the introduction of the Miss America Pageant, suggesting that to keep women from gaining too much power, women were becoming more suppressed by the burden of beauty, requiring a whole new level of preoccupation. I have now seen this movie three times, and each time I am left wondering how much we could change the world if we took all the time, effort, and money that we devote to beauty, and put it towards something important, like world hunger, basic human rights and the protection of our environment. Perhaps one day self-improvement will be equated with improving the lives of those around us, and Robert’s film will remind you that your own beauty has less to do with looking like the photo-shopped pages of a magazine, and more to do with what you radiate from within.
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