Food & Fitness

America the Beautiful

I finally had the opportunity to see the documentary film America the Beautiful yesterday evening. The film describes how various industries in American culture influence people to think of beauty in a very specific way. The combination of health with rhetoric is one that I can never resist, and this documentary was incredibly insightful as to how advertising can shape our thoughts.

Around 36 minutes into the film, a man on the street talks about how he really wants a six-pack even though his stomach is completely flat. Filmmaker Darryl Roberts asks, “What’s the importance of a six-pack?” After a very long pause, the young man says, “Ummm… I don’t know.”

It’s so true. What is the importance of a six-pack? Yes, muscle is very important in order to be strong and healthy, but to have an actual six-pack is simply not necessary in this day and age. This is the problem. Determining the line between that which is necessary and that which is, well, a little excessive, is really difficult. At some point, we really don’t need to build tons more muscle. At some point, we really don’t need to lose tons more fat. On the other hand, America as a whole has less muscle mass and more fat, and this is where I am torn: having an appropriate understanding of the difference between embracing who we are and loving our bodies, and being healthy.

The documentary follows a 13-year-0ld model who walks with a sexy attitude and who has a body that women in our society would kill for. She’s a child! It is such a strange concept that the “ideal” tends to be that of underage women across all kinds of societies. Another girl in the film – this time a 15-year-old – commented that she wanted liposuction to get rid of love handles and pooch around the stomach. That’s terrifying.

Granted, I’ve had my share of averting my eyes after looking in the mirror. But I don’t recall thinking that way as a child. No one should have to be down about how they look, but children especially should not have to deal with that. Why – why do do we feel as though we need to go through with cosmetic surgery in the name of beauty? In America, people apparently spend more money on cosmetic products than a country in the developing world spends on the total cost of health care. Wow.

I had never seen a cosmetic surgery procedure before this film. I knew that a face lift was pretty much what it sounds like, but… eep. “Knowing” is much different than seeing it. And it is frightening. Ladies and gentlemen, there is absolutely no need to go through the act of getting your face sliced open to get a “desired” look. Sliced open! With a blade! As though the face is a mask! I was squirming in my seat during the 30 second shot of the procedure, and I am not a squeamish person. The documentary even followed cosmetic surgery for animals. That’s right: face lifts and even testicle implants for dogs. Because apparently it’s not enough that we cut tails and crop ears off our pets.

One man in the film made the following statement: “Do I see women as objects? Yes I do.” After a pause, he added, “Well I mean, do women see men as objects? I don’t see anything wrong with that.” Aside from how wrong that statement was and his distastefully off-hand comments throughout the documentary, I think that there are a couple of points that can be taken into consideration:

1) It’s not just women who are victimized by the fashion industry, the media, and eating disorders. Men suffer too.

2) Our society has become one of objectification. I cannot count the number of times that I have seen girls dressed provocatively who then get angry when they are treated as objects. It is rather a conundrum: is the provocative clothing a way to liberate oneself, to feel good about oneself, and simply a preference? Or is it that people feel that they “ought” to dress that way, but then feel negatively about it when they realize they are continuing the cycle of objectification? Do we occasionally enjoy being objectified? Is objectification always negative? Questions to ponder.

The mother of the main model in the film is in her 40’s, and she says that she wants to have a flat stomach at her age and at the age of 90. She says she loves her body, and then followed up with an exasperated, “but it’s just this stomach.” At this point she squeezed a tiny bit of tummy flab (which, I can assure you, is hard enough to get rid of at the age of 20 let alone the age of 40 after giving birth to children). How many of us have said (or thought) the same thing? There’s so much focus on one body part even though in the grand scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter.

But that’s the problem: it does matter, to everyone who moans over their body. It matters because we have such a fixed idea of what we “should” look like that many people do not feel good about themselves when they don’t look like their ideal image. And that spawns insecurities and poor body image. And that causes major issues.

The model, when she is rejected by the industry, says that she will essentially “get pretty” by doing three things: straightening her hair, going on a diet, and getting breast implants. Then she mused that she’d also become a socialite. Those would be the qualifications for “beauty”, I suppose? The documentary follows up on her afterward and she doesn’t appear to have gone on to do those kinds of things, but instead goes back to high school and gets away from the twisted industry.

What I love about this film is that the filmmaker ends it by noting that we are doing no good by saying “oh, the average woman is the ideal of beauty”. This will only serve to continue to perpetuate exclusion. The ideal situation would be to acknowledge that there is no one ideal of beauty. Everything is beautiful in its own way; everyone is beautiful in their own way. It pains me when I hear people dismissing a thin woman as being “too skinny”. That’s equally as unfair as dismissing a woman (or man) of being too overweight, too short, too tall, too freckly, or as having too big of ears. We shouldn’t dismiss anyone because we think that they’re too much of one extreme or another. Why can’t we accept people for who they are?

Taking that notion a step further, I think it’s important to also bring the message home when we deal with ourselves changing. Having the same body at 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years old and onwards just isn’t realistic. Age aside, the experiences that we go through are also going to prevent us from having a body we once did. We might find it harder or easier to lose or gain weight depending on how stressed we are and what our relationships with others are like.

As you can see, I found America the Beautiful to be very thought-provoking. I would love to hear anything you have to say about any and all of the above concerns that I have mentioned. What are your thoughts on the beauty industry? The effect it has on us? The notion of beauty itself? This documentary? Share in the comments section below!


  1. Emergefit

    I had never even heard of this until now. I will find it though because it sounds right up my ally.

    I often am ashamed that I am American, and I don’t mind saying that. In recent decades I have come view the word America as a synonym for “wanting more”. It seems we have a relentless appetite for everything, beauty being at the top of the list.

    Funny, my column yesterday has to do with setting unrealistic goals — we all want beauty and looks so very badly.

    Thank you for this.

    1. Sagan Morrow

      I think you would definitely be interested in it. And yes, we do have a completely relentless appetite for beauty. The scary thing is that we’ve been obsessed with beauty throughout the ages. It seems we’ll do just about anything for it.

  2. julie

    I hadn’t heard of it either, but may look for it. I just was reading in local paper’s website about how popular girdles for men are becoming. And of course, botox for teens. I find the idea of injecting botulism into one’s face mind-blowing at any age, but teenagers?

    Between girls’ needs to achieve a certain shape and look and attitude, and boys’ role models as superheros (?), I feel really bad for kids growing up today. It’s impossible to measure up – even those who come closest are photoshopped to exactly fit.

    1. Sagan Morrow

      I find it very difficult to understand the concept of someone wanting plastic surgery, but it’s even harder to comprehend when children get involved. They haven’t even finished developing yet! You’d think that would cause all kinds of problems.

      Childhood has changed immensely even in the last couple decades. Children aren’t able to really be CHILDREN anymore, and that is sad.

      1. Dr. J

        I think there needs to be a distinction between cosmetic surgery and plastic surgery. Although it has changed, when I trained there was a lot more functionality to plastic work, for example with burn and accident victims.

  3. Cammy@TippyToeDiet

    Add me to the list of folks who hadn’t heard of this documentary, and thank you for the review!

    Even after losing 100 pounds, I don’t fit the conventional notions of beauty. There was a time in my life when that would have bothered me a whole lot more than it does now. Age and wisdom have taught me that magazines and television media hype things that don’t really matter.

    I’m eager to see this film now! Thanks again, Sagan!

  4. Mimi (Damn the Freshman 15)

    The sociology geek in me wants to check this out. It’s crazy what’s considered so desirable. It’s not just America either. Like, the idealization of youth in Japanese culture. Lolita fashion, for example.

    It’s really interesting. I think it’s also why witches carry the “eeeeek!” factor they do. Or why Cougars are judged so much more than those high-school girls who go after old guys in hopes of a Gucci bag.

    1. Sagan Morrow

      Ha, I’m glad you brought that up about cougars. I hadn’t thought of that before, but you’re right. “Beautiful” people (whatever that means!) can “get away with” a lot more. It always irks me when I hear people saying that they think that some kind of clothing is inappropriate, when you just KNOW that if it were some young thin girl wearing the clothes, they wouldn’t have nearly as much of an issue with it.

  5. asithi

    I heard of the documentary, but never watched it. I find that if I do not spend much time watching TV or reading fashion magazines I am really happy with my life.

    But once I get suck in by mainstream media and TV, like Emergefit said, I want more. More weight loss. More designer clothing. More money. Etc. All of a sudden there is some material thing missing from my life.

    I have to admit it is good advertising since it can convince me that I have a problem with my life (that I previously have not thought of) and here is a solution that I can purchase. But that is how the American economy works — convincing us to keep consuming. Beauty and health is just one of those areas people are willing to spend top dollars on. And if they can convince us all that there is something wrong with us, we willing part with our money in order to “fix” it.

    Maybe that is why the “ideal beauty” is so far removed from normal everyday women. You will have to spend far more money chasing the “ideal beauty” than say just getting your teeth fixed so you can eat food. Can you believe that 200 years ago having a good set of teeth is enough to make you a good catch as a wife?

  6. Dr. J

    I think it’s strange that the more unhealthy and out of shape our population gets the more people with extreme thinness and athletic ability are idolized. It’s some kind of perverted vicarious behavior. I feel like I am in the world, but not of the world. That’s pretty strange too 🙂

  7. The Candid RD

    I really want to see this movie!! I had not heard of it before this post, and even just the cover of the movie looks intriguing. Thanks for posting this review. It’s so true that we all have this ideal look that gets more and more ridiculous as we age. As in, we want more and more of what we don’t have and probably could never achieve. Even I have noticed that my “six pack” days are close to over. I still have one under there, and could probably work a little harder if I wanted one, but is it really worth it?! No. I am still healthy without one, and just like that guys says, I can’t really think of a good reason to want one! I just get so sick of all the magazines and tv hows that focus on beauty. Even the ones that try to send “good messages” to young teens, have tons of ads placed throughout that send the opposite message. It’s so lame. I won’t let my children buy magazines. I’ve decided. And tv? Well, there will be some serious rules.

    1. Sagan Morrow

      I think one of the best things my parents ever did for me was not to have cable for most of my life as a little girl. We also had the television set in the basement, so I just didn’t watch it that much. We’d watch comedy shows on Friday nights as a family, and a movie on Saturday as a family, and besides that I remember spending most of my time reading books. Consequently I was almost completely unaware of the beauty industry until high school – I knew some things in junior high, but not enough to be affected. I’m really grateful that I didn’t have to deal with the kinds of things little girls deal with today.

  8. the Bag Lady

    As always, you pick topics that really make us think!

    There are so many things wrong with society today that it makes me fear for the future! Children receiving injections of deadly poison for the sake of some twisted idea of ‘beauty’?! Sheesh.

    I was thinking last night about how ridiculous our priorities have become. I wondered how our pioneer forefathers would react if we could transport them from their era to ours. What would they think of how our focus has changed? They struggled with drought, famine, cold, harsh conditions, etc., in order to carve a life out of the wilderness so that we, their descendants, could live in comfort and worry about whether or not we had….. flat stomachs, no wrinkles and the perfect nose??? WTH?

    One can only hope that there is never a major catastrophic event in this world, because so much of humanity has narrowed their focus to concentrate only on their appearance that they have no idea how even the simplest of things operate. They have no understanding of where their food comes from, but by G-d, they have the tightest tush in town. What good will your appearance do you when you are struggling to survive against some terrible disaster?

    Oh, wait, am I getting a little carried away on my tangent?
    Oops. Think I’d better go weed my garden.

    1. Sagan Morrow

      I missed your tangents 🙂 I am of the same mind. Of everything that we’ve had to do over the years, of everything that humanity has gone through and IS going through… it frustrates me that even with the awareness of all of that, it actually does still bother me that I don’t fit into my “skinny jeans” right now. It’s ridiculous. But the beauty industry is damn good at getting into our heads!

  9. Mary (A Merry Life)

    I haven’t heard of that but now I really want to see it. I think the beauty industry in America is fascinating, especially in the fact that how they’ve convinced so many millions of people to so fully buy into the ideas of beauty they are selling.

  10. charlotte

    This was hands down one of my fave documentaries ever. I recommend it to every girl I know. I love this message. Eve Ensler was my favorite part – I wish they’d put her in that room with those stupid drunk guys. Ah well.

  11. Pingback: Poll: How much do you drive? | Living Healthy in the Real World

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *