American Beauty

by Rob Gregory Browne

Last time I spoke about the things I hate.  Trivial matters, most of them.  Petty annoyances that drive me crazy.

Today I want to talk about something I truly detest.  Something that I don’t think is in the least bit petty, and has created such a crisis in our society that I can only believe that we’re doomed if we continue as we have been.

No, I’m not talking politics. 

Although I have strong political feelings in my private life, lately I’ve been trying to step away from such things.  Politics has become such an ugly, ugly part of our world (yes, uglier than usual), that I’ve come to find myself being annoyed even by some of the people who share my own political points of view.  (I say “points” because nothing is black and white, and I’m all over the map sometimes.)

So no politics.  At least not the in-your-face, vote-for-my-candidate/cause kind.

And yes, there are many things that I detest about this world (and many things I love), but I only want to speak about one of them today.

My typical writing day, now that I no longer have a “real” job, is spent getting up fairly early in the morning — 6 AM or so — drinking a cup of coffee (cream, two sugars), then sitting down at my brand new iMac (admittedly one of the things I love, even though I’m a PC guy) and writing for a few hours.

When it comes time for a break, I usually grab some breakfast, then sit down, watch something on TV or Netflix, or do some chores while listening to a book (currently Lee Child’s Gone Tomorrow).

For the last couple of days, however, I’ve found myself immersed in a documentary on Netflix called America the Beautiful.

Now, I’m sure a lot of you are thinking “politics” again, but no, this documentary isn’t really about politics, but about the systematic breaking down of the human spirit — particularly the female spirit — and replacing it with an insecurity so strong that some women are willing to destroy themselves in order to feel whole again.

I’m talking the beauty, fashion and advertising industries that go out of their way to make just about every woman in America (if not on the planet) feel that she is not nearly as beautiful as she should be.

According to the movie, the United States makes up 5% of the world’s population, but consumes 40% of its advertising.  And advertising is shrewdly designed to destory our psyches, then promise to make us feel better by giving us the “cure.”

I suppose this isn’t really anything new or relevatory.  Most of us know this has been going on for decades, maybe centuries, yet we continue to let advertisers manipulate us all the way to the bank.

Two of the worst industries, which are particularly good at preying on women’s insecurities are the beauty and fashion industries, where we’re led to believe that a woman can only be truly beautiful if she’s 5’9″, skinny as a rail, has flawless skin, perfect hair, a small, tight ass and large, gloriously symmetrical boobs.

This image, however, is presented through photographic manipulation that turns even the “most beautiful” women in the world — the models — into creatures that no god could ever create.  A woman so perfect, so flawless, that such beauty in the real world is completely unobtainable.

This, in turn, not only destroys a woman’s self-confidence, it conditions young men to crave only perfection, and to look at normal women as something less than desirable.  Even the filmmaker himself admitted that he broke up with a beautiful and loving girlfriend because she couldn’t live up to his distorted view of what true physical beauty should be.

And that, to me, is just heartbreaking.

But even more heartbreaking is the twelve year-old girl he features throughout the film, who has taken the modeling world by storm — not dressing and acting as a twelve year-old, but looking closer to twenty-two.  The effect this has on her life, and on the lives of her friends, is something to see.  And learn from.

But most heartbreaking to me, was a short interview with another twelve year-old who, to my mind, was just as beautiful as the young model.  Yet she tells us that when she looks in the mirror, all she sees is ugly.

Another girl tells us of a friend who was so unhappy with the way she looked that she starved herself to death.  This, unfortunately, is a story that is all too common in this country.

I won’t go on any more.   Murderati is generally a feel good place and I know I’m not making anyone feel very good right now.  But I think it’s important that we look around us and consider these things.  That we realize that we’re part of the problem, too, if we allow ourselves and our children to be conditioned and indoctrinated and ultimately destroyed by this cynical exploitation.

It’s something I detest.  And I hope you do, too.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look good.  We all want to look our best.  But it’s our best we should be striving for.  If we allow an industry that’s only trying to make money off of us to define what looking good means, then we’re in very serious trouble.

Last thing:  the documentary includes a a couple of short films which some of you may have seen before, but I wanted to show you again.  I think they say it all:

35 thoughts on “American Beauty

  1. skeptic

    Brilliant. I agree and take it a step further. Too many people look to external sources for happiness and esteem when it truly can only come from within – which in turn will enhance what we receive from others.

    Humanist and proud of it,
    The Skeptic

  2. Chris Hamilton

    Thanks for the post.

    It’s screwed up,for sure. When my son started carrying a little too much weight, I could say "Dude, you need to think about getting a little exercise. That’s not healthy." With my daughter, we had to handle that very indirectly because of the societal expectations around girls and women.

    I’m ecstatic that my daughter has developed a strong sense of self and doesn’t worry about such things. Of course, she’s also an athlete–and a very fit one–and I think that helps. And she’s sixteen. Hopefully, she keeps that for the rest of her life.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I’ve outed myself here before as having spiraled through every eating disorder on the planet. My antidote was dance.

    Yes, at first dance contributed to my anorexia, but I came in to dance with the problem. As I got better as a dancer, I started living in my body for the first time. As my body got stronger, I found a confidence and feeling of life/body integration I’d never experienced before. It changed all my relationships – love, work, and self.

    I think for young girls and teengers, finding dance or some equivalent that the girl loves is critical to developing healthy self esteem. Finding physical activity you truly enjoy takes the emphasis off the visual, and puts it on positive feelings. I tell this to parents of daughters every chance I get.

    The thing that makes me sickest, somehow, is standing in a grocery store line and seeing all the trash fashion, food and decorating magazines lined up out there for women. As if that’s all we would ever care about. Really, it makes my blood boil.

  4. Rob Gregory Browne

    One of the points made in the documentary is that, as parents, we often don’t realize how our words affect our children. We complain about how WE look — "my stomach’s too big, my eyes are too small" — and, in doing so, pass our own insecurities directly onto them.

    As one woman, whose daughter had died of bulimia said, when they’re small, our children look at us and see perfection and want to be like us. So we have to take care about what we do and what we say to our children.

  5. TerriMolina

    When your own mother constantly tells you you’re ugly, you tend to believe it. I probably have one of the lowest self-esteem problems you’ll ever meet and I’ve struggled with my weight all my life–even now. And, although I’ve never "liked" myself much, I’ve never let my children see it and have always made a point to teach them (both boys and girls) the importance of inner beauty, not just in themselves but in others as well.
    My 16 year old wants to be an actress so she’s on that bandwagon about being perfect but she’s taking a healthy approach to it with diet and exercise (thanks to my health conscious husband). My daughter is slender, curvy and beautiful (don’t know where that came from–hah) so she really has nothing to worry about. Right now her only complaint is she wishes she were taller (she’s 5’6) and a little more ‘top heavy’. hah

  6. Alafair Burke

    Rob, Thank you! This hits close to home, and your comment about what parents say around and to children is spot on. I met a (beautiful, well preserved) woman on New Year’s Eve who was telling me about her two daughters. She went on and on about the older one’s accomplishments. About the younger one, she praised her for studying intensely, but then said, "She’s a very heavy girl with bright orange curly hair. It’s a real problem. So she buries herself in her studies." So sad that an 11 year old has already been labeled the fat girl by her own mother.

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thank you, Rob, for this important post. My sister endured a lot of this growing up and she had eating disorders for a long time. I studied some of these issues, mostly about girls who cut or burn themselves, as research for my second novel. I wasn’t able to explore it in the narrative as much as I would have liked. It’s a very sad and, mostly American problem. Unfortunately, we do a good job of exporting the concept.

  8. Judy Wirzberger

    I agree and when it becomes as much of a problem for men, it will be researched, addressed, and solved.
    We are now addressing nyphomania (aka sexual addiction).

  9. Rob Gregory Browne

    One of the disturbing issues brought up in the documentary was that when a girl dies because of an eating disorder, the coroner never lists the cause as such. It’s usually of "unkown causes."

    As the woman whose daughter passed away pointed out, if we don’t have the statistics to show what a problem it really is, no one will pay any attention to it.

  10. JT Ellison

    Skeptic said: Too many people look to external sources for happiness and esteem when it truly can only come from within – which in turn will enhance what we receive from others

    Bravo. Both of you. I know women who people think are incredibly beautiful who are shallow, self-serving, insincere and unhappy, and women people wouldn’t necessarily call beautiful who are spectacularly kind and warm. Guess which kind of person I find beautiful. Surface can only give you so much. What’s inside is what counts. If I had children I’d spend a lot of time hammering that message home.

  11. toni mcgee causey

    Bravo, Rob. Well said.

    I applaud Dove for making the video and others like it. Plus, they have a program they mention where they teach young girls that they do not need to look like everyone else to be beautiful. I started buying more Dove products when I saw their attitude. I want to support that. I want other companies to see a surge in Dove sales and realize that there is a market in showing all kinds of beauty, not just the unattainable kind.

  12. Carla Buckley

    When my children were little, I volunteered at their schools. In the kindergarten classes, parents were asked to sit with each child and have them read aloud. I was working with one little girl, a tiny thing, who clamped her mouth shut when we got to a certain word. She shook her head and refused to say it. I was confused. The child was a good reader and this was an easy, three letter word. Finally, she whispered to me, "I can’t say it. It’s a bad word."

    You got it. The word was "fat."

  13. Nancy Laughlin

    I completely agree with you, Rob. I’ve had women friends who were cutters, anorexic, etc. All were spectacular, attractive women who just couldn’t see it.
    Terri, you are a warm, kind, generous woman, and I think you are beautiful!

  14. Kagey

    I never believed I was beautiful until my now-husband told me is was while we were dating. Repeatedly. And shook his head when I told him he was wrong. And kept telling me. It’s been my reverse advertising — the antidote for what advertisers spew out.

    I wish every woman had such a persistent anti-advertiser.

  15. anonymous

    The last five books I read had male protagonists. The writing was outstanding. All award winners. Every one of the protagonists’ girlfriends were beautiful. Brilliant and beautiful. When was the last time you read a mystery or thriller where the "girlfriend" was slightly chubby and a little mousy? How many female P.I.s admit to the reader that they are homely and don’t give a shit? Or do they let slip that they need to do a little more jogging or pilates…….that they really need to start that diet after the holidays? How many scorching sex scenes are written for homely couples?

    Just saying……….

  16. Catherine Shipton

    We have the same problem here in Australia. This has been coming up as a dicussion point for years. In the last couple of months a couple of magazines featured on their cover unairbrushed women. Admittedly traditionally considered gorgeous women. One of them was a model and the Miss Universe a little while back for crying out loud. I think this shows how confused magazine editors and decision-makers are. Yes it’s good that you’re trying to show someone without airbrushing…but maybe consider someone that doesn’t use their looks for work in the first place.

    Alafair without also hearing the whole conversation, and I might be stretching here…but I wondered if the real problem could also have been how other children react to her and the mother has no idea how to help her? If the mother has perhaps relied on her own looks for years it’s going to be hard to pass on any coping skills.Lot’s of children that are bullied by their peers disappear into libraries, and books, and study. A nasty defense for lot of bullies is to work hard to deflect from their own preceived differences…

    It saddens me to think of how distracted women and girls are and increasingly young men are by image. How much more could we achieve in our lives if acceptance of difference actually happened?

  17. Rob Gregory Browne

    Anonymous, I’ve been guilty of creating protagonists with beautiful love interests. But because I don’t usually go into a lot of detail about how my characters look, I pretty much leave it up to the reader to interpret what that beauty entails.

    I don’t do this for any noble reason, but because I think the reader would much rather create their own picture of what the characters look like. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve had a picture of a character in my mind, only to discover that I’d imagined them with the wrong hair color or color eyes, or height. So, as much as possible, I try to keep from doing that to my readers.

    And when I think about it, MOST of the thrillers I read don’t go into much description when it comes to "beauty." If the lead says a women he saw was "beautiful" or whatever, it’s usually up to me to decide what that beauty is.

    That said, you may well be right. I just haven’t really encountered it in fiction.

  18. Rob Gregory Browne

    In the movie, the writer of The Vagina Monologues (whose name escapes me at the moment) talks about a trip she took to Africa (don’t ask me where, I’m doing this from a memory that has holes about the size of the grand canyon).

    When she asked a woman whether or not she liked her own body, the woman looked at her oddly and said that of course she did, she LOVED her body, then went on to talk about all the things she loved about it.

    But when the writer told her that she didn’t particularly like HER own body, the African woman pointed out two trees and how different they were. Yet despite these differences, they were both beautiful.

    "That’s what we are," she told the writer. "We are trees."

  19. kit

    I could be all over the page on this subject, not knowing where to cover first.

    I used to hate having my picture taken, because no matter what I always looked BIG….then a few years ago, I had a coupla serious heart attacks…and I realized I was leaving my kids absolutely no record of the times we spent together….AND I had also found a website that celebrated the real beauty of women..their humor, their stregnth, sense of family and community and many more things to numerous to mention. Through this site, I started speaking up and out to other’s been a journey and a half, let me tell ya.

    The second thing I wanted to mention, is the whole weight issue does involve men… son was an athlete….a wrestler to be specific…he had to maintain his weight. YIKES!! I thought my girls would be a problem….never once did I ever think my son would take diet pills, suppositories, chew smokeless tobacco or do any of the other idiotic things that are done to maintain a weight standard…but he did.

    and the third thing…I have heard about…..when I observed how small and downright GAUNT some of the high school girls seemed …I was informed by some of the other teens I knew at the time…that the latest craze was to take Meth……but that wasn’t the saddest or even the worst part.
    When I asked *what about their parents?* I was blithely informed *oh, their moms KNOW, it keeps their weight down.*
    WTF????? Meth, as a weight loss regimen, and the parents KNOW about it? Lord help us all!

  20. anonymous

    Rob. I hear what you are saying. But I am referring to authors, and I am including female writers here as well, who not only call their characters "beautiful" but give us a description of said beauty to create an image for the reader. I just finished a 577 pg. book by a "New York Times Bestselling Author" that had every female character in his story; girlfriend, victim, murderer’s girlfriend, even the hero’s daughter, burdened by beauty. Porcelain skin. Sleek raven black hair. Turquoise almond shaped eyes. Perfect tan fit body….. and on and on.

    The way the characters are portrayed leads the reader to envision women who are, indeed, BEAUTIFUL. One standard, as you say, may come from advertising but we all know a beauty when we see one on the street or sitting next to us in class, right? When we read about the "reclusive, beautiful" Angela or "the cop’s beautiful partner" Marie, we are not thinking of an "average" person, are we? We are envisioning someone pretty stunning.

    A famous character in a female writer’s series is always mentioning her need to run to work off the Burger King she eats, mentioning that she is aging, sighing about how her clothes look and if she looks good naked, etc. Is this supposed to be "woman-to-woman" sort of confidence? As if we all are this self-conscious? Do men believe that every woman feels this way? When we write this stuff it would lead them to that conclusion. Two women in an Irish gal’s mystery were described throughout her whole book in terms of their beauty and bodies. Our hero, in this book, even tossed his good looking girlfriend and partner away because he fell for a more beautiful, alluring young woman who turned out to be a psychopath. He overlooked every telling sign to her personality because of her BEAUTY. Beauty was equated with "innocence", in his mind.

    Every divorced dad, who starts dating a younger more beautiful woman than his ex, is sending a clear message to his daughters…..AND sons. Am I blaming them? Not really. But it is a visible and rampant example. What is valued by "Daddy" is a face and body. (Same goes for Cougars!)

    Advertising has it’s evils but it is not the sole provenance for our standard of beauty. Literature has been guilty of creating the standard throughout history.

    Ahh if we could all be faithful in our writing to the creed of George Sand:

    "The beauty that addresses itself to the eyes is only the spell of the moment; the eye of the body is not always that of the soul."

    Anyway…..I’m full of shit. End of rant.

  21. anonymous

    Rob. I DO think it’s noble of you to leave the beauty of your characters to the reader’s imagination. That’s fair play. But a lot of writers tell you EXACTLY what makes their characters "beautiful" and establish that image FOR their readers. I would get a big kick out of reading about a macho P.I. or cop or spy who describes his lover’s ass in not so Playboy glowing terms. To describe her as maybe a little pear shaped and lumpy……..thick ankles instead of legs that go from here to there and back again………..and that he digs her that way. Never happen. ; – }

    It’s OK for J.D……his guy’s a redneck…….


  22. anonymous

    Kit. The skinny soccer moms in my hood are well known for their meth habits and for enjoying that all time favorite body imaging and mood lifting tool……cocaine. They GET it from their kids!!

  23. JD Rhoades

    When we read about the "reclusive, beautiful" Angela or "the cop’s beautiful partner" Marie, we are not thinking of an "average" person, are we? We are envisioning someone pretty stunning.

    Actually, those descriptions are from reviews of The Devil’s Right Hand, not the books. I was always bemused by it; nowhere do I describe Angela as particularly beautiful (in fact, she’s badly scarred). And Marie isn’t really described in that much detail, except that she’s athletic (which makes sense ’cause she’s a cop).

  24. L.J. Sellers

    Thanks for posting this. The hard part is: How do we change it? Media, Hollywood, fashion models—all have more influence on young girls during puberty than their parents do. As a novelist, I feel challenged now to let my character’s girlfriend gain a little weight. She’ll be relieved.

  25. KR

    Great post Rob. For me it was never about being beautiful – my eatting demons stemmed from control. I had to be in control of my weight at any cost. There were many other things that were out of control in my life when I was younger but my weight was something I could control and the praise I received for being a mother of 3 and size 5 only fed my obsession. I still struggle with the need to loose any extra pounds that I may gain but I try to be more healthier in my ways of doing it.
    I agree with Alex on being involved in something physical because you feel stronger. For me it’s MMA and boxing -I can’t be under weight so that does help.

  26. BCB

    Great post, Rob, and a very worthy topic for examination. Even so, I wasn’t going to comment on it. But I’ve changed my mind. To offer a slightly alternate view? Maybe.

    When I graduated from HS I entered the work force for a while (financial necessity) before attending college. I took great pains to "hide" my so-called attributes in the hope that people would instead pay attention to the intelligence and competence I knew were underneath (I graduated in the top 2% of my class). A few of you have met me and can attest to the fact that I am NOT a knock ’em dead kind of person in terms of looks. But at age 18 I had long blonde hair and even longer legs and was in good shape from having been on the danceline in HS. A lot of people didn’t see past that superficiality. I can’t even tell you how many "Barbie doll" comments I endured. So I pulled my hair back into a severe ponytail and wore conservative clothes and learned not to smile at men in the workplace. Fat lot of good it did me. My first job interview, a guy walked through the lobby where I was waiting, tossed the papers he was carrying into the air, fell to his knees and asked me to marry him. Fool. I went through the motions of the interview but obviously I wasn’t going to take that job even if they begged me.

    I have to disagree with the assertion that the media and Hollywood and the fashion industry have more influence than parents do. I have never subscribed to any "popular" magazines, so my kids were not exposed to those images (nor did they see me looking at them). I don’t watch beauty pageants or award shows. I don’t watch ET or — geez, I can’t even think of the names of any other "entertainment" shows, but you know which ones I mean. I wasn’t consciously trying to shelter my kids from any of that, it just didn’t interest me.

    My daughter (age 21) IS 5’9" and has long blonde hair and maybe weighs 125 lbs soaking wet. She doesn’t diet (she has the appetite of a linebacker); she’s lean and mean because she’s active and does things like climb mountains in Patagonia. She’s me all over again, except I’m only 5’8" (also, I’ve never climbed a mountain; I had more consideration for my mother’s mental state). And she’s gorgeous. She almost never wears makeup, pulls her hair back into a goofy sloppy half-up ponytail and generally wears sweatpants and sweatshirts that add anywhere from 10 to 20 pounds in appearance. She doesn’t care what other people think about her looks. She’s more concerned about her GPA (Dean’s list)(yes, I’m bragging now).

    I may be wrong, but I like to think that my long ago determination to be seen for more than my looks has come to fruition in my daughter. And in my son (age 24), who is absolutely more concerned with what’s underneath than what’s in the mirror and will be the first to tell you (proudly) that his sister is a dork. He’s more impressed with his girlfriend’s professional competence (Kindergarten teacher) and her expertise on the soccer field (where she seriously kicks ass) than whether her hair is all in place.

    On the other hand, food issues are tricky. I’ve read that the ONLY thing kids have any control over is what they eat. Or don’t eat. It’s not about food. It’s a control thing. I think gaining control over the body (via dance or some other physical activity) is a wonderful and healthy alternative. Parents who force their kids to eat are making a mistake, or at the very least not recognizing a bigger issue. IMO.

    Do not underestimate the effect you have on your children and do not pawn it all off on "society." Take a serious look at how much of that influence you allow into your life, and the lives of your children.

    K James

  27. BCB

    Am now feeling awkward and gauche and wishing you all had a delete button over here. Sigh.

    At least it’s late at night. Everyone’s already in bed.

  28. Rob Gregory Browne

    K, you have nothing to feel awkward about. Your post was thoughtful and true. It really DOES come down to how our parents raise us and the example they set and it sounds to me as if you’ve done a wonderful job.

    I didn’t mean to suggest by my post that it all comes down to society and the advertising world. But that’s certainly a large part of it. And it’s extremely difficult for parents to compete against that.

    The truth is, the beauty, fashion, entertainment and advertising industries don’t care about people or what affect they have on us. They simply want to make money. And that, unfortunately, is easier to do when you can create, then feed on, our insecurities. It’s an advertising technique that’s been around forever.

    I don’t think this is an organized conspiracy. And I do think parents should be responsible to know when enough is enough and when too much is just too much.

    It sounds as if you were able to do that. And I applaud you for it.

  29. pari noskin taichert

    I face this challenge every single day with my children. I don’t try to protect them from television or the messages; I try to teach them to be analytical about it all. They’ve gotten to the point where they dissect commercials now and see how preposterous most of them are.

    Media literacy is, to me, one of the answers in creating a healthier new generation.

  30. BCB

    Rob, you’re very gracious. Thank you. And I didn’t think you were saying that it all comes down to society and advertising — sometimes I get emphatic about a topic and then I tend to speak in absolutes (and, usually, end up offending people).

    I was feeling awkward because when I re-read my comment it sounded like I was practically nominating myself for a mother of the year award and that is SO not the case. I’m sure I’ve screwed up my kids a dozen different ways that will require extensive therapy at some point. Just not in regard to this one particular thing. Hold the applause. 😉

  31. Mike Cane

    In the classic TV series Naked City, guest star Jack Klugman had a gorgeous girlfriend. She wasn’t fooled. One of her lines (and I wish I could recall the writer, maybe it was Silliphant himself) was itself beautiful: "You don’t love me. You just love the way I look."


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