The last five years of my life have been spent making a documentary called America the Beautiful, which deals with America's unhealthy obsession with beauty. After a hard and long process, the film is finally in playing in theaters across the country.
When I set out to make this film, one of the first things I did was ask 200 women if they felt attractive or possessed a healthy attitude about their bodies--only two said yes.
Is it possible that 99% of the women walking the street at any given time could feel unattractive? Recently, the New York Post ran an article called - "New York's a beautiful town." They polled several women and asked if they felt beautiful. According to the Post, all of them said yes. This is the same city that is the home to a certain plastic surgery facility where more women have died than anywhere else in the U.S. But that's another story.
One of the main things that made the women in my study feel bad was the pictures of skinny models in fashion magazines. That seemed like a simple fix to me. Just stop reading them if they make you feel bad. They said they couldn't. That's when I realized that women have a love/hate relationship with beauty magazines. This is unfortunate since a recent report states that 70% of all women that spend three minutes reading a fashion magazine feel shameful, fat or guilty.
It may come as no surprise that most Americans are unhappy with the way they look, but what I wanted to learn was why we're so obsessed with beauty in the first place. The concept of beauty is nothing new. It's been around since the beginning of time. What is new is the massive development and power of advertising and technology.
We have a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. It's the part of the brain that controls addictions--our reward center, if you will. So it's perfectly natural for us to find things beautiful. As a matter of fact, when we see something beautiful our reward center pathways light up and we enter a state of euphoria. That's why it feels so good to be around something or someone beautiful.
Advertisers, plastic surgery shows, diet companies, fashion designers, and cosmetics companies were quick to catch on and figured if they could get us strung out on our lowest common denominator (the perfect size 0), then they could make billions of dollars off of us.
I asked several editors of well-known magazines if they would consider using women of all shapes and sizes. They said nope - we're not social workers and it's the responsibility of teenage girls' parents to lift their self-esteem. "We're just here to make a buck." One of them actually said, "I love my job because we're corrupting more and more people to be interested in this stuff."
A woman from a large advertising company told me that "there's a group of women that don't have very much self-esteem. They're the victims. They're never happy with their looks. They're the ones that we target with our products." WOW! You don't say.
So while industry people were telling me that it's all about the money, people on the street of all ages, races and sizes, were telling me that they feel ugly.
What the film asks and attempts to further with discussion is why there is no social responsibility in advertising--especially to teenagers. Is it healthy for a society to have the majority of its teens with terrible body image issues and eating disorders? Who really gains and who loses?
Why do we buy into it? Why do we allow ourselves to be led down the one way street of "if you don't look like this, you're ugly?"
In the film I ask Ted Casablanca (E! Channel) if the media is responsible for this dangerous and deadly condition in women and young girls and he said, "You have to be fucking kidding me. You're actually asking me that question? Yeah right, Britney Spears is to blame for teenage girls getting pregnant. That is such freakin' nonsense."
Well, I have the media red-handed, because Dr. Anne Becker--a sociologist from Harvard--did a study in Fiji. Before 1995, Fiji didn't have television and they thought bigger bodies were beautiful. In a three-year span after television was introduced in 1995, 11% of the girls had eating disorders (up from 0%). Kids were becoming disrespectful and by the year 2000, thousands of years of tradition had been undone.
So let's be real for a moment and recognize that we have a problem in America. Let's have a real discussion about female body image and how we can get women back to their glorious origins. Our teenage girls are counting on us.
It's been a tough road getting the word out about this film because it's critical of three very powerful industries: fashion, advertising and cosmetics. But we've also had some media people step up and acknowledge that things aren't working and offer their help. One editor actually got fired for some of the things that she said in the film, but confided to me that it was worth it because now the truth is out.
If America the Beautiful stops one woman from feeling bad about herself, then it was five years well spent.
America the Beautiful opened in Chicago in May and is currently playing in Seattle and New York. It opens in Los Angeles on August 22nd; in San Diego, San Francisco and Las Vegas on August 29th and in Dallas and Portland, OR on September 5th.
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