A documentary produced, and directed by Darryl Roberts, [i]America the Beautiful[/i] asks (and answers) whether the United States has an unhealthy obsession with physical beauty. Short answer: it does. That, as much as anything else, is common knowledge. What Roberts does, however, is cover different angles of that unhealthy obsession with an extremely limited definition of physical beauty: thin, very, very thin, young, and usually, Caucasian (the blonder the better). Partly traditional, thesis-based documentary, partly personal journey, and partly an exploration of a young woman?s journey through the modeling world, [i]America the Beautiful[/i] is an intelligent, thought-provoking documentary well worth the price of admission (and your time, of course).
[i]American the Beautiful[/i] mixes archival footage with ?talking head?-style interviews, ranging from Ted Casablanca, Anthony Kiedis, the leader singer of the [i]Red Hot Chili Peppers[/i], comedian Martin Short, dramatist-performer-activist Even Ensler ([i]The Vagina Monologues[/i]), magazine editors, scientists, researchers, plastic surgeons, and even a self-described pigmentation specialist to look at all sides of the beauty question and the pernicious effects of advertising on the image women have of themselves and each other. Unsurprisingly, those working within the fashion industry or the traditional media have few if any qualms about the images they use to sell products and, of course, make money. Again unsurprisingly, moral considerations are a secondary to generating revenue and profits.
Roberts offers up some interesting examples to either prove his thesis or raise awareness about beauty-related issues. For example, did you know that the United States has only 5% of the world?s population, but more than 40% of the global advertising is directed at the American consumer? Did you know that phylates, potentially toxic chemicals banned in Western Europe but not in the United States are still used in cosmetics? Did you know cosmetic companies can avoid listing the contents of their cosmetics by using the all-purpose ?trade secrets? excuse? Yes, they can. Did you know that the U.S. has banned less than 10 chemicals used in cosmetics, the European Union has banned more than 400 chemicals they consider harmful to human health? Or that treatment centers for bulimia or anorexia usually run $30,000-$40,000 a week and aren?t covered by private health insurance plans?
As many facts as Roberts has (and he has many), what makes [i]America the Beautiful[/i] far more compelling than a PBS-style documentary is the presence and focus on Gerren Taylor, a fashion model Roberts met at an LA fashion show. Tall, thin, and African American, Gerren modeled skimpy designer clothing at various LA and NY fashion shows. She was also twelve when she began modeling. Roberts followed her and her mother-agent, Michelle, for the better part of five years as she pursued a modeling career. Modeling gigs often interfered with school, often causing conflicts between Michelle and high school administrators (Michelle eventually tried home schooling Gerren). But Gerren?s youth, beauty, and poise (not to mention her uniqueness) quickly ran into the unrealistic expectations of the fashion industry (i.e., thinness). With so much of her self-image and self-esteem tied into modeling, Gerren had a difficult time adjusting both to the modeling world and later, getting gigs.
With so much ground to cover and enough material for several hours, [i]America the Beautiful[/i] can be difficult to follow, but Roberts smartly returns to Gerren Taylor and her journey through the fashion modeling world. Through her we see the emphasis on physical beauty to the exclusion of everything else. Through her we see what happens when that image-obsessed world decides she no longer fits their definition of beauty. And through her we see the possibility of moving beyond that image-obsessed world. Personalizing the abstract argument Roberts wanted to make through Gerren also does the near impossible: making fashion models sympathetic (at least to some extent). That?s not necessarily where Roberts wanted to go, but moviegoers who give [i]America the Beautiful[/i] a chance will be glad he did.