American the Beautiful opens at the Fox Tower 10 in downtown Portland on September 5, 2008. If it's not showing in your city, add it to your netflix, especially if you have a young daughter.
American the Beautiful is a documentary by Daryl Roberts that focuses on the body image of women and explores the question of whether America has an unhealthy obsession with beauty. The quick answer is of course, yes, but Roberts gives specific examples and interviews a wide variety of people to clearly show the problem.
I sat down with Roberts at the Avalon Hotel in Portland and spoke about body image (obviously), the 12-year-old model showcased in the film, and any solutions to these issues.
Early on in the film, you spoke about the girl that got away … Was this whole film a love letter to this girl? No, as a matter of fact, I went out of my way to make sure she never sees it. It’s embarrassing. I would never want her to see that part of the documentary. It’s rated R? Why? Eve Ensler said, “Get a bigger dick,” right in the middle of the film and they gave me an R for it. Come on … that’s it? They hit independents hard. If it was a studio film it would have been as PG as PG gets. It was just rated in Canada and they gave us a PG and said it was unbelievable that they gave us an R.
How difficult of a choice was it to put yourself in the film? Actually it was really difficult, cause I didn't want to do it at all. The editor kept insisting that I do it. I never planned on being in it. We used the editor who did Fahrenheit 9/11, and he thought it was necessary because it gives a film an anchor. It was a fight that lasted for months, but Kurt [Engfehr] won.
So where do you draw the line between beauty and healthy? There's two ways to have a diet. One is to try and be skinny like the images you see in a magazine, trying to get to a size 0, which you're never going to do, and you mess with your self esteem. The other way is to go to a nutritionist, and you are consciously doing it to be healthy.
How did you find Gerren Taylor, the 12-year-old model? I was shooting, doing something else and at a fashion show in L.A. and she was one of 50 models and I didn't think anything of it. By the guy standing next to me said, "Wow, I want to take that girl home tonight." And when he said that, a lady heard him and said, "You better be careful, because she's only 12." And I met her mother at that show, and I told her what I was doing, and she allowed me to follow them. I followed her for about four years, and for the first three years I shot 100 something hours and really became a father figure to her, and I never planned on using one second of it in the film. Because at that point what I was shooting was a rise of a supermodel, which is not something I wanted to glamorize for the type of film that I was doing.
When she went to London and Paris and had that meltdown, then her story became a microcosm to this bigger issue I was studying, that made us go back and reedit the whole film and put her in it. I guess so well, because some critics look at it the whole film was about her in the first place and why do you have these other distractions in it. It was a totally different film at first.
How do you balance not pulling Gerren's mom aside and asking her what she's doing with her daughter compared with wearing your documentary hat? As we kept going on a couple of occasions, it kind of hit me as I look back, what's teh different between the media exploiting her, the fashion industry exploiting her ... And I'm thinking what's the difference between what ABC did to promote their news segment and what I'm doing. And to be honest, to this day talking to you, I still don't know the answer to that question. One time I spoke to Steve James, the documentarian of Hoop Dreams. And we spoke about when you put down the camera and go help that kid. And neither one of us could figure out where that line is, but I'm sure it's somewhere. Anthony Kiedis told you that you have a beautiful handshake. So have you become obsessed with your handshake? Well, I tell you what ... Two things have happened, one, when he first said it, for the next month like a moron I went around walking the streets shaking everyone's hand I see. But now, after every screening of the film, there's a line. Before those people leave they want to shake my hand. Let me tell you what's bad about that, a lady brought this to my attention and she's on to something, was it just because it was Anthony Kiedis. Very valid question.
So is this only a womens' issue? No, and I am regurgitating from what gays told me. It started in the gay male community with magazines. They put this ultra buff, six-pack guy on the cover, went into the gay community and they have said now, not quite as much as women, have plastic surgery and body image problems like women. Because those same magazines are in grocery stores, it spilled out to straight men. Like the 20-year-old boy who wanted the six-pack (in the film) but didn't know why. These images are brainwashing men as well as women.
Isn't there always going to be a body image issue? What was the body image problem in the 60s? Marilyn Monroe was the standard of beauty and a size 12. The average woman was an 8 to a 12. They looked up to Monroe as a movie star, they didn't have body image issues per see.
So the big question is ... what's the solution? The only thing I have come up with is learning to love yourself. I believe everyone living has something unique and beautiful about them. The example I used in the film is the whole Anthony Kiedis thing and it made me feel special. And that's all being beautiful is, we all have egos. Meaning we want to feel wanted and appreciated so it doesn't matter if it's your face, body, smile, personality, we just want to feel special. Find out what's unique and make that our value system. I saw some parents have some sleep overs and they would do a game where they put a blank sheet of paper to everyone's back, and you went around to each kid and write down something that is special about them, but not how they looked. Then at the end of the day, the kids read about all the things that were special about them. Awesome. That's what we have to start doing.
Quick Questions with Daryl Roberts
What did you eat for breakfast? No breakfast, cheeseburger and corndogs for lunch
Last song you downloaded? “Dizzy” by Tommy Roe
Favorite piece of fruit? Apples or bananas
Favorite place in the world? New York
Favorite sports team? Lakers from years ago
Last vacation? Grand Bahamas
Favorite drink? Any smoothie with fruit.
Favorite Superpower? To change people to do the right thing
Last time you cried? Four months ago watching “Sicko”
Age of first kiss? 12
Favorite childhood toy? Bruce Lee’s Nunchucks
Worst habit? Hamburgers
Favorite charity? Any women’s groups
Who would you be for 24 horus? Yo-Yo Ma