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America the Beautiful

(2008) ** 1/2 R
105 min. First Independent Pictures.

/content/films/3321/2.jpgDocumentaries about American social issues have tended to adopt the Michael Moore paradigm, with the filmmaker as a comical before-the-camera host. It's a role that ill suits filmmaker Darryl Roberts in the new documentary America the Beautiful, but the film's examination of our beauty-obsessed culture—however familiar—remains unfortunately necessary.

In an early voice-over, Roberts muses, "Who benefits from women not feeling beautiful? I didn't. Women definitely don't." With this question at its core, America the Beautiful addresses the role of media in forming and perpetuating standards of beauty that can be arbitrary and harmful while profiling a case in point: the twelve-year-old fashion model Gerren Taylor. Roberts filmed Taylor for four years, on a trajectory that included superficial ego boosts and damage to the bottom line of her self-esteem, especially when the fashion industry had had enough of her (and mother, a former model with her own neuroses).

Both roads of inquiry are sufficiently intriguing, though Roberts also explores some side avenues, such as the ugly social networking site (where users rank applicants' beauty to see if they're worthy to join the club). The film explores the consequences of beauty obsession--reports on unnecessary plastic surgery (nips, tucks, designer vaginas) and their victims (like ex-TV host and "plastic surgery victim" Mary Nissenson), harmful ingredients in beauty products, and pernicious eating disorders (including an anecdote of an anorexic ten-year-old who died at 47 pounds). Some of the tangents seem out of place (a non-starter about skin lightening), but all add something about the mania and chaos beauty sows in the culture.

The film paints men as either hapless (Hollywood publicist Michael Levine: "Men, even average men, were so saturated with images of the perfect that it diminished their capacity to love the ordinarily beautiful") or poisonous (a guy proud to admit he sees women as no more than "bangable" objects), though Roberts briefly touches on male body image issues, mostly using himself as an example. The filmmaker falls into the trap of using an unsourced run of statistics whose worth is therefore dubious: can it possibly be true that 46% of 9-11-year-olds are "sometimes or often" on a diet? Who conducted this study, and from what sample of the population? You'll have to take Roberts' word for it being true.

Much more effective is the series of interviews with advertising executive Denise Fedewa and three women who edit magazines aimed at teen and pre-teen girls: Susan Schulz, Editor in Chief of Cosmo Girl Magazine; Atoosa Rubenstein, Editor in Chief of Seventeen Magazine; and Brandon Holley, Editor in Chief of Elle Girl Magazine. Hearing women who betray their sex either try to justify what they're doing or eat crow is fascinating. They, too, are victims of the publishing industry and its hunger for what they perceive as selling, regardless of morality. The extent of the harms of these magazines cannot be underestimated--without getting much into their content, Roberts quickly touches on one example of their insanity: retouching to create impossible images of flawless, or near flawless, beauty; fashion photographer Marc Baptiste insists not even a retouched image can reach perfection ("We're selling dreams, man," he says, unapologetically).

Roberts' cherry-picking of specific issues can result in unfulfilled depth (more on Dove's dubious "Campaign for Real Beauty" would have been welcome), and sound bites from Jessica Simpson, Martin Short and Anthony Kiedis at Fashion Week are naked grabs on Robert's part for the film's promotion. Worst of all, Roberts' final thought is more inane than one of Jerry Springer's, but at least an interview that follows in the credits offers a suitable resolution:  a modest proposal, from Carolyn Costin of Monte Nido Treatment, for raising healthy girls. It's the only proposed solution that seems practical, other than making more counter-cultural media like America the Beautiful.

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