Photo Credit: Americathebeautifuldoc.com
In 2006, filmmaker Darryl Roberts released America The Beautiful, a hard-hitting documentary that exposed how the fashion and beauty industries, along with women's media, create and uphold a rigid standard of supermodel beauty that's impossible for the average woman to obtain -- but that we're nevertheless constantly chasing. It was pretty great.
This week, he releases the film's sequel, America The Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments, where he explores how that standard of beauty has also become our standard for health, as Americans are getting fatter and obesity takes the blame for everything from diabetes to infertility.
It's an ambitious film trying to cover a lot of ground in just one hour and forty minutes. It's also not as great.
Roberts wastes time on silly tangents about his fears of erectile dysfunction. He also includes unnecessary and sometimes patronizing stories about painfully thin women with eating disorders, which repeat a lot of the points already made by the first film.
But in and around all of that, a lot of interesting stuff happens. First, Roberts shows -- emphatically -- why diets don't work. He interviews experts like Barry Norman, M.D., a psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorders, and Paul Campos, author of The Obesity Myth, who explain that 95 percent of dieters regain the weight within a year because our biological need to eat just can't take the restriction and punishment of dieting in the long-term. You don't fail on diets; diets fail you because they aren't designed to work with human bodies.
Then Roberts explains why obesity might not actually cause all of those health problems, as we've been told. Some heavy people (like the brilliant Ragen Chastein, who is one of the film's true stars) really are perfectly healthy. The Body Mass Index formula used by the majority of doctors, health insurers and diet gurus to decide whether you're "healthy" is unbelievably flawed. Obviously-not-fat celebrities like Will Smith, Tom Cruise, and Arnold Schwarzenegger all rate as overweight on BMI charts because the formula doesn't take factors like body fat composition into account.
And, even when you look at overweight people who are unhealthy (Roberts starts the film as one of them, with sky-high blood pressure), scientists don't know whether it's the actual extra pounds that cause the problems, or the unhealthy lifestyles they lead. Studies suggest it's more likely the latter -- so adopt healthier habits and your blood pressure and other markers of health will improve, often even before pounds melt off. Ergo, why not practice Health At Every Size and encourage people to feel good about leading healthier lives, regardless of their weight.
Roberts is right that thin isn't always healthy -- and the degree to which thin has become synonymous with health in our current vocabulary is problematic. But it's not just people at the extreme ends of the obese-to-anorexic spectrum who are struggling -- it's everyone, whether you're eternally losing the same ten pounds for no good reason or maintaining your "healthy" weight while plaguing yourself with constant, unnecessary guilt. To break that cycle, we don't need more sensationalism or scare tactics -- we just need the facts. I think you'll find them in Roberts' film, but be prepared to wade through a little hype along the way.