Last Thursday, I went to a benefit in San Rafael, California, for Beyond Hunger, an excellent Marin County nonprofit organization “dedicated to helping individuals overcome the obsession with food and weight.” The benefit was a screening of America the Beautiful: Is America Obsessed with Beauty?, directed by Darryl Roberts.
The film covers a wide spectrum of beauty issues, from the social implications of magazine advertisements to the practices of plastic surgery to the toxic chemicals in makeup. Most of the material was familiar to me, and will be familiar to many readers of Body Impolitic, but there are always details and refinements to be learned. For example, I did not know that although there is an American board-certified society of plastic surgeons, any M.D. can legally perform any plastic surgery. (The saddest plastic surgery story in the film, however, comes from a woman who did make the effort to find a board-certified plastic surgeon–she just didn’t know to ask him how many times he had done the particular surgery she was looking for. She now lives with near-intolerable facial pain 24/7.)
Two factors lift this documentary out of the ordinary run and into something special. First, the personality of the film-maker. Roberts, who was at the screening last week and answered some questions after the show, is an immensely likable and open-hearted human being. This shows up again and again in the film, as he makes himself welcome in all kinds of places, asks shamelessly direct questions and gets equally direct answers.
The second special quality of the movie is its extensive tracking of a young African-American woman named Gerren Taylor, who became a highly sought-after runway model at age 12 (!) because of her height, how photogenic she was, and her remarkable presence.
The movie keeps returning to her story, both in the modeling world and at home/in school. By the time the movie ends, she is 17, and her modeling career has been through a lot of ups and downs. Roberts managed to be there at many of the developments of Gerren’s career, and also to catch her (and her mother) in unguarded moments. Gerren’s story is by no means a whole story of America’s beauty obsession, but it’s a perfect hook on which to hang the other points Roberts makes.
To make the whole thing even better, Roberts is not only a film-maker, he’s also an activist. He’s speaking on a lot of college campuses, and organizing a campaign to get phthalates (discussed in the film) out of over-the-counter cosmetics, which he will launch when he has 100,000 supporters. I’ve put myself on his mailing list (which one does by emailing him through the website link above).
Check out the film, or wait for the DVD. If you get a chance to hear Roberts speak, jump at the chance. And get on his mailing list so you can join his campaigns.