Arts

'America the Beautiful' Probes Fashion's Ugly Side

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A trio of indie movies highlight America's toxic obsession with weight and its harmful impact on women and girls. Advocates say it's difficult to mount a counter attack against harmful media images.

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Darryl Roberts

(WOMENSENEWS)--A trio of movies this year explore how beauty in the United States has come to be equated with ultra-thin, highly toned bodies that can't be achieved by most people.

In the documentary "America the Beautiful," which has been showing in independent movie houses in select cities since May, filmmaker Darryl Roberts confronts fashion insiders about their reliance on wire hanger-thin models.

"It's just that the fabric is so expensive, and the detailing," Greg Moore, a producer of shows for New York Fashion Week, says in the film. "If you make a dress that's a size 4, and no one buys it, you've only bought three yards. If she's a size 10, you've bought 10 yards. If you've spent $10,000 on fabric, and no one buys it, you've lost $10,000 in fabric."

Roberts' film is one of three independently made movies this year to focus on America's toxic obsession with weight and its impact on the self-esteem of women and girls, including models. Together, they raise a chorus of demand for change aimed at the multi-billion-dollar fashion and diet industries and TV networks garnering high ratings from shows such as NBC's "The Biggest Loser."

"Everywhere you look, we're sold the promise that if you're beautiful, your life will be better," says Roberts, 46, a former on-air TV personality, for whom this is a second foray into movie making. His first film was "How U Like Me Now," which dealt with relationships in the 1990s. "Is it possible the beauty promise is a lie? Just plain and simple propaganda?"

No Comment From Fashion Council

A spokesperson for the New York-based Council of Fashion Designers of America said leaders of the organization declined to answer that question or any other raised by the films.

For filmmaker Diane Israel, the pursuit of the beauty ideal proved almost fatal. Her film, "Beauty Mark," which debuted last February at the University of Colorado, Boulder, describes her descent into anorexia. An elite triathlete, her destructive eating habits and obsessive exercising led to physical collapse and the end of her athletic career at age 28. Poor nutrition left her with bones like a 70-year-old woman.

The third movie, first shown in July in Manhattan, is "disFigured," the only one to treat the topic fictionally. Filmmaker Glen Gers tells the story through two main characters, a recovering anorexic and an overweight woman who first see each other at a "fat acceptance" group. Darcy, the anorexic, inappropriately tries to find support there. The group rejects her, but later she becomes a close friend to the overweight Lydia.

The central character in Roberts' documentary is Gerren Taylor, who became a celebrated runway model at age 12 while she was still playing with Barbie dolls. But soon after her rise to success, she was rejected by agencies and designers despite being a size 4 with not an ounce of extra fat; the spread of her hip bones (she was almost 6 feet tall at 12) made her obese in their eyes.

Weight a Recent Obsession

While women have long been pressured to keep their bodies fashionable it was not until the end of the 1970s and early 1980s that low weight became the overriding goal and the subject of an explosion of books and articles about dieting, according to "The Beauty Myth," the 1991 book by feminist critic Naomi Wolf. She links the obsession to a new commercial imperative: Women no longer consumed by domestic duties had to be motivated to keep lusting for products and services, this time not to banish "ring around the collar," as a Tide ad once promised, but to be unrealistically thin.

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