Near the beginning of Darryl Roberts’ disquieting documentary, AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL, he asks a young man why he prefers slender women. The young man assumes the thousand-mile-stare before owning up to not knowing exactly why that is his preference. Later this same young man will be asked why his flat stomach is not good enough, why he needs a six-pack of abs. This question, too, will elicit the same blank stare. There is the, you will pardon the term, beauty of Roberts’ approach. There in the trenches of where the beauty wars are fought, a victim of the programming is so indoctrinated that he is not even aware of the fact that he is.
Roberts, an affable host with a game, even nurturing style, frames his film around a pre-teen supermodel phenom, Gerren. Her rise in the fashion world punctuates and accentuates the effects of chasing the impossible dream that the media presents as the ideal woman. Gerren is 12 when the film starts, modeling bikinis, skimpy dresses, and women’s couture at runway shows in Los Angeles. Tall, 5’10”, flawless skin and a perfectly toned body, she is touted by the media as the new ideal. As one of the many talking heads puts it, what chance do real women over the age of 12 have at looking like that? As Gerren become a media darling, booking shows in Los Angeles and New York where her cachet is as important to the designers as theirs is to her career, Roberts investigates the negative effects of media on the public, and the more insidious ways that is burrows into the collective consciousness.
The psychological scars are the expected part of the presentation. Anorexia and bulimia as the extreme end of a scale that starts with the self-loathing most women feel within three minutes of picking up a fashion magazine. The greed of the media to make a buck is also adequately explored. Chats with fashion photographers, magazine editors, fashionistas such as Paris Hilton, and such confirm that selling the dream is what makes a profit and keeps them employed. He deftly segues into other areas. Plastic surgery horror stories balanced with the new fad of nipping and tucking Fido’s drooping jawline or implanting fake testicles when Spot has been neutered. One is horrifying, the other funny, but both get very nicely at a deep-seated obsession with beauty as an end in itself. If that is all a person is worth, asks Roberts at one point, where does that leave us as a society?
Subtly, but surely, what Roberts is examining here is the toxicity of that obsession and how no one is immune. Even Garren, the ideal other aspire to, is shown in emotional extremis when her mother forbids her to wear a bra that has just a little bit of padding. More disturbing on many levels is the way the girl reacts to the first negative feedback about her appearance. She takes inventory of her body, detailing for the camera everything that is right about her body, though the assertiveness has a tinge of defensiveness, more than a hint that the spontaneous dissertation of everything that is right about that body is as much to convince herself as it is to demonstrate why the criticism was wrong. Suddenly, the people who made the cut to be included on a web site devoted to beautiful people don’t seem so superior anymore. They seem like people headed for a nasty fall.
AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL is trenchant but not mean-spirited and is often hilarious. Roberts approaches the subject with an attitude that is genuinely inquisitive, often bemused, and sometimes shocked, the existence of designer vaginas threw him for a loop, but never judgmental, at least not in his interviewing style. Perhaps that’s why a bull session of four guys is so brutally honest, with one owning up to his sensitivity about his, ahem, shortcomings, and another owning up to looks being the only thing that count in a woman. He has an attitude about how the beauty obsession in our culture twists people, and while he makes it clear that he thinks it will be our undoing on a micro- and macro level, he also injects compassion into that attitude, backed up with his own unpleasant brushes with buying into society’s obsession with perfection. And that’s a blessing, considering that by the end of his film, he has effectively made the point that all of us, fashionistas or not, are fashion victims on some level.