America the Beautiful
So that’s what Kiedis looks like with a shirt on!

Theatrical Release Date: 08/29/2008
Director: Darryl Roberts

Writer/director Darryl Roberts found himself wondering why America is so obsessed with beauty and why particular features, like a flat stomach and flawless skin, are more desirable than others. He set himself on a quest to discover where our perception of beauty comes from and how to combat the negative effects that result from being bombarded with images of size 0 women graced with the benefit of airbrushing and computer trickery.

This is quite the noble cause and a good discussion to have with teenagers and adults alike, as we all come to grips with our self-worth and the role that body image plays in that regard. However, as a documentary I found myself wondering what was the point of making this film.

Ask anyone over 12 if they think the pictures of models and actresses in magazines are harmful to the psyche of young men and women and they’ll say yes. Ask them if they feel the magazines, fashion industry and Hollywood care more about the bottom line than the self-esteem of the nation and again you’ll receive an affirmative answer. And yet we all buy into the system, overloading on cosmetic products, getting plastic surgery and falling prey to the “need” to diet in order to reach some idealized measure of beauty. All of these issues are common knowledge and it lessens the impact a documentary like “America the Beautiful” can have.

On the plus side, Roberts did his best to examine the issue from many angles and interviewed people in the fashion industy as well as educators, students and people on the street. I found it refreshing that the then Editors-in-Chiefs of Cosmo Girl and Seventeen were very frank about the reality of the beauty industry. They know that the images being shown aren’t the best from a psychological standpoint but it’s a business. If they show the average person wearing designer jeans, their magazines lose money and people get fired. A harsh truth but that’s how society works. To change the advertising, you mush change the consumers because the bottom line is what big business sees, for better or worse.

One thing that Roberts does very well is follow the burgeoning modeling career of young Gerren Taylor. At 12, she was walking the runways in fashion shows and her star appeared to be bright. However, due to an over-involved stage-mom and the ruthless body requirements of the industry, Taylor’s career takes a backslide though and her story becomes more cautionary than fairy tale. Seeing the ups and downs of her teenage years helps to hold the framework of the documentary as a whole together and keeps this from being something more akin to a school report on the beauty industry rather than an in-depth look at the issues … though really, the overall result is somewhere in between.

Everyone knows that the images we are bombarded with affect self-perception and self-worth … and everyone knows that every image has been retouched or altered to idealize the subject … yet we all fall for it. “America the Beautiful” has its heart in the right place and if I were a teacher of middle school students, this would be something I’d want to show my classes to help them think critically about the advertising aimed at kids who are so preoccupied with finding their identity that they’ll let PR machines tell them what their identity should be.

However, because there isn’t any new information to be found here if one is casually aware of how advertising works, some serious editing was in order and trying to tackle so many facets of our obsession with beauty creates pacing issues, I can’t do better than give “America the Beautiful” a 2 out of 5. It’s a great message to get out there … only it’s not one we don’t already know. My lower rating isn’t so much based on entertainment value but rather the need to make the film at all.

Though I will again reiterate that for teachers out there, I highly recommend checking this out and determining if it would be a good way to impart some critical thinking to your students. Even if you only examine certain scenes that may be more germane to the age of the class, giving kids the ability to question propaganda (whatever the good, service or social issue) is vital to allowing them to mature into the leaders all of us will need when we’re kickin’ it in the old folks’ homes.