Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Filmmaker and Our Miss America Discuss Beauty

Find America the Beautiful on Video

A Filmmaker and Our Miss America Discuss Beauty

(from 7/30/08)

If you go out to Yankee Stadium, every night you'll hear a recording of Kate Smith during the seventh inning stretch singing her classic rendition of "America the Beautiful."  The irony is that America's most majestic sports cathedral, at the behest of some greedy businessmen who say it's not looking so good, is going to get not just a facelift but a total overhaul. Out with the old stadium that we all cherish, and up with the new and more "beautiful" version where the ghosts of Ruth and Gehrig will not venture. While true Americans want to preserve the splendor of our land, which Smith sang about, and our landmarks, they don't seem so conservative in regard to their own looks.  As the new eye-opening, tender-hearted documentary, "America the Beautiful," points out, Americans spent, in one recent year alone, $12.4 billion on cosmetic surgery.  And countless young people have experienced anorexia or bulimia in their attempt to be as "beautiful" as the people they see in supermarket magazines, in movies and on television, and on runways.  Others simply lose their self-worth and motivation. In "America the Beautiful" we see, as its production notes state: "how these increasingly unattainable images contribute greatly to the rise in low self-esteem, body dismorphia, and eating disorders for young women and girls who also happen to be the beauty industry's largest consumers.  Who actually benefits from this high-priced journey towards this ideal?  Is corporate America's bottom line so important that it justifies a nation's psychosis? What are the true costs of our obsession with youth beauty, and a slender physique?"  A film everyone should see?  Yes, particularly if you can bring your kids along.  Wanting to plug the film for its Friday release,, as well as finally interview a genuine Miss America after having grown up with a love of the pageant (read, or skip, what I say below!), I recently spoke to lovely and amazingly articulate Kirsten Haglund, who currently wears the crown. and the genial director Darryl Roberts. 

Kirsten Haglund

Danny Peary: While we wait for Darryl, I must tell you that I have a fond history with the Miss America Pageant. My first crush as a kid was Bess Myerson.
Kirsten Haglund: Oh, my God. She was Miss America in ‘45?
DP: Right, a year after your grandmother participated in the pageant.
KH: My grandmother didn’t' win it but she was Miss Michigan in ’44.
DP: I was born in ’49 and when I was growing up in the fifties, Bess Myerson was all over television. Also: I grew up in Columbia, South Carolina in the 1950s, which, in those days, was a small town and we never saw national celebrities in person.  But Miss America in 1957 was Marian McKnight, who was from South Carolina. So, that was a big deal for everybody in Columbia, and we had a parade and Marian McKnight was the star, making her perhaps the first celebrity I ever saw. I was actually obsessed with the Miss America Pageant for years. And then in’63 or ’64, by which time my family had moved to Trenton, New Jersey, I got my grandfather to take me to Atlantic City to see the pageant in person. Bert Parks was still the host and it was the biggest event on television. We spent a couple of nights in a rooming house and went to see the pageant on the boardwalk.  We saw the preliminaries, which are exactly like the final night show except for the coronation, but the final night was sold out so we watched it on television. It is a great memory and my finest time with my grandfather.  As they say, enough about me: Tell me how you got hooked up with his movie.
KH: Basically through A.N.A.D. which is Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Eating Disorders, and through networking in the eating disorders community.  I heard all this great buzz about a great, groundbreaking documentary that was coming out called "America the Beautiful" and about Darryl.  I was speaking at a symposium in Florida of I.A.E.D.P., which is the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals. And Darryl was coming out the next day to show his film.  So many people in the eating disorders community were on-board and so supportive—in fact some of them are in the film. So I had heard all about it and was very excited. I heard a lot about Darryl's philosophy, which is very much what I am all about in support of my platform. My message is—"What is true beauty?" I learned Darryl heard about me and said, "Wouldn't it be great if Miss America could make an appearance on the movie's behalf.” And so, I am here in support of this wonderful, wonderful work.
DP: You said you were going to give a speech. What is the usual speech that you do?
KH: Well, I speak extemporaneously, although occasionally I will bullet what I want to say beforehand. When I speak to audiences about eating disorders, I always have to take into account the audience, because when I talk to professionals it is different from when I talk to young women. The focus is always different, how you want to formulate your message. I always tell my story of having struggled with an eating disorder as a teenager, how I came into recovery treatment through family intervention, and the things that I discovered during my treatment and my recovery process as an eating disorders patient. I try to talk about complete recovery and complete health-- and "What is health and what is beauty?" I talk about balance and about moderation. And how coming to be a happy, complete individual means coming to grips with the fact that we are not ever going to meet the ideals and standards that society puts on us; we are not ever going to achieve that because we are never going to be perfect. And so, it comes to this idea of acceptance and self-love and self-worth, and validating yourself with things other than your appearance and your image and being happy with who you are on the inside. And that is true beauty.  So that's what I talk about.
DP: Darryl, I'm glad you arrived in time to hear all that, because what you and I would have in common as men is to discover that all these beautiful girls and women we have seen since we were kids have insecurities, particularly about their bodies.  That is something that you conveyed in your movie.
Darryl Roberts: Yes, that's for sure in our personal lives. But the thing that really shocked me was at New York Fashion Week.  The models who appear in all the magazines all have insecurities. These are the women the public idolizes yet they are insecure also. And it is worse for them because they don't even look like their images in the magazines. If they are insecure because they too can't live up the electronic representations of their pictures in magazines, then the whole thing is kind of wacky.
DP: Is the pursuit of beauty wrong or is the definition of beauty wrong?
KH: I think it is the definition.
DR: The definition, for sure.
KH: Because the definition changes and can change and that's why we never know what is true beauty. Is the pursuit of beauty wrong? I don't think so, but it also depends on how you define beauty.  It's so circumstantial and hard to define
DR: Right. I was going to say, what is this pursuit? How are you going to define what this pursuit is? Because some pursuits of beauty, depending on what you think it is, would be wrong but some of it would be right. It depends on what beauty is.
KH:. Maybe it's the placing of that pursuit of beauty above everything else that is wrong.  I think that can be the case.
DP: Darryl, at the end of movie you say everybody is beautiful. But obviously it's difficult to get people who are insecure to realize that.
DR: Right. That's why we used that example of Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, when we say we have a beautiful hair shape. I want to make it something tangible so that everyone can see what we're talking about, as an example. When you say to someone, "Everyone is beautiful," that statement is kind of lost, people can't really internalize it so it doesn't really mean anything to them. But it's effective when we get people to see what it really means—that in all of us, everybody living, there is something specific that is beautiful. Now that's empowering to viewers because now it's up to all of them to find out how they are beautiful..
KH: It's something that you can offer. I think one thing that's really neat about the concept of beauty and it's something that I've defined for myself, is something that is giving. Something that gives back, so that it's not just like, "I am beautiful because I am this." True beauty is something that is humble, something that you can give and you can share, and that only you can offer. And it's an offering, like your beautiful handshake, it is something you offer someone that helps them to feel something in return. So, true beauty is something that reciprocates, I think, because it gives and it gives back to you in return, so you feel empowered and beautiful because of something that you have shared uniquely with someone else.
DP: You are also talking about internal beauty.
KH: Yes. Absolutely.
DP: People being artificial as they are, have a hard time looking beneath the surface.
DR: Is it that people are artificial or that our modern society does not reinforce things? If you go back to the days of "Leave It To Beaver" and other TV shows then, if you look at the way society has been represented through the media, you will see there's been reinforcement for being a good person, for having a great family. But today's culture is devoid of that.  So I can walk around saying that I am really smart, which was something that was valued thirty years ago, but today people wearing rap clothes and listening to Jay Z, would say, "God, he's a nerd. I don't want to be around him." It's about what is reinforced in this society.

Darryl Roberts

DP: But how do we reinforce anything positive said within the family when outside the family when there is such a bombardment of images that show us who we're told are the "perfect people?"
DR: That is the problem.
DP: Kirsten, is there a difference between a young woman in a beauty pageant going down the runway and a model going down the runway?
KH: Absolutely. They are completely different women. And they have completely different lives. With models, that is part of their job; that is something that all of them do, The Miss America Pageant is just one night and I can guarantee you that it was the most glamorous night of my entire year. I never appear in a swimsuit in a magazine shoot and I will never appear on the cover of a magazine in a swimsuit. I will never wear a swimsuit in public for the rest of my year. The Miss America program is about scholarships.  I competed in this program for a scholarship. I got $62,000 in scholarships to continue my education. That's one of the prime reason I competed, as well as knowing that the rest of the year is devoted to service and promotion of your personal platform--my platform being eating disorders and the campaign for true beauty, like the Dove campaign. So, that is what my year is dedicated to and the pageant itself is the tradition that started in 1921. That's really the only reason we still have out swimsuit competition; it was kind of Americana in the 1920s. In the 1940s, the girls sold war bonds and they went on the USO tour and supported the troops. What's great about  the program is that is continued to evolve. In '88, they started the platform issue and the service and Miss American is now a job and the pageant is a job interview. That's really what it is; it's really a big job interview. So I feel I have this great opportunity as Miss America to be able to change the perception of what our program does for young women, because it is the number one provider of scholarships for women in the world. Exclusively for women. $45 million were given away in scholarships to women and you don't have to win the crown to get scholarships. So I feel I am helping to change that stigma for all who compete in our program because they are just normal, college-age girls, trying to pursue their education, who care about their communities and care about issues. 
DP: As you know, I'm all for the Miss America Pageant. But here are the two things. The ratings went down when they tried to-
KH: Eliminate the swimsuit competition.

DP: And the other thing I have trouble with is that it's presented as a beauty competition.  Should the word "competition" be associated with beauty? 
KH: I don't think that it's a competition is a problem  Everybody competes.  You can compete for a job. There is competition in business. All of our economic structure is based on competition. I don't think you can eliminate that word because it's not like The Miss America Party, where you just chose a winner at the end. It's not an election, but even elections are competitions.. Everything in this world is competitive. I mean, you could say it would go against our biological structure to not be competitive, as we are living beings. What I think is important to remember is that each girl who competes in the Miss America program is not judged comparatively. She is judged by herself: How she performs with her talent, how she carries herself in the interview. She is judged only against herself.  Her talent is not judged against anyone else's talent. She is judged as an individual.
DP: Among the contestants, does anybody aspire to be a model?.
DH:. You rarely see that in the Miss America program. There are other pageants where the goal is to win a modeling contract but that is not what our program is about at all. The girls that compete in this program are going to be politicians, a lot of broadcast journalists, doctors.  They are motivated, talented women who want to make a difference.
DP: If you were back at sixteen, when you had your anorexia, and you saw this movie, would it have made an impact on you, or could nothing get through to you at the point?
KH: Oh, absolutely it would have made an impact on me. Absolutely, 150%.   In fact, I wish I would have seen such a movie, because I just couldn't even think that way. I couldn't even think critically about how the media represented beauty because I just didn't know. I hadn't had an exposure to "let's be critical of the society, let's be aware of the way that we look at the media." My brain didn't even know. The movie would have shocked and awed me. And I think it would have inspired me.  You know, it's really easy to sit back and criticize everything if you're outside of it but if you are using something like the media, if you are using something like this film as a tool, it is very pop culture, it is very hip and so, it's something people can relate to and respond to more. So, I think I absolutely would have been affected and I would have been, "No. You know what? It's okay for me to challenge that thinking. It's okay for me to be something else besides just thin in order to be happy or successful." So I wish there would have been this film.
DP: For both of you, just conversationally. How does it feel when you are watching these beautiful girls up there on the screen saying they aren't beautiful? That one beautiful girl matter-of-factly saying she's ugly.
DR: She was twelve-years-old.  It was painful. That really showed the condition in our society where kids are being brainwashed. It's almost like that song by Pink Floyd, "Just Another Brick in the Wall." You know, we are trying to create this monolithic thinking amongst the American public where people must buy into this idea in order to sell products. That girl is only in one scene, but I interviewed her three years later to see if she'd changed at fifteen. I didn't put that footage in there because it is a true tragedy. There was no change. "Oh, I'm ugly," she goes, "must not have heard me three years ago when I said I'd be ugly for the rest of my life. It's no big deal." I could tell that she's really intelligent, but that she's an underachiever, meaning she's not realizing her full potential because of her low self-esteem. And that's what we were talking about earlier. That's the real tragedy. I understand capitalism. I understand companies want to make billions but are dampening the futures of these young girls because they don't have the assertiveness, the confidence, and positive outlook to achieve their full potential. They are focusing on what they're not rather than what they are.
KH: Right. Absolutely. That's why I, as someone who is in a position of leadership for young women, ask them, "What are those things that you can find out about yourself that make you unique and special?"   So, you try to build self-esteem and self worth and that leads to a positive outlook. When you have low self esteem and a low feeling of self worth you don't have the confidence to do what you want to do and pursue those things that will make you happy.  When you don't do that it makes you feel less about yourself and you don't do as well.  It's just a vicious cycle.

Gerren Taylor
DP: Darryl, I'm sure you told that girl, "You've got it wrong.  You are pretty."  But she wouldn't listen to you and she wouldn't listen to me.  But she might listen to Miss America.
DR: I did some research and discovered that it's sick and it's bad, but it's funny. We can tell somebody something positive about them, but if someone who is really beautiful or cool tells that person the same thing, it has more validity and they receive the message more. 
KH: I can see that. I can also see someone who the girls can relate to getting through to them.  If you struggled through the same thing, for sure. Darryl, you are so right. That's why people use celebrities to sell anything like in the social sector, such things as eco-friendly campaigns, breast cancer awareness, heart disease, HIV-AIDS…When they use celebrities, people who are seen as cool and beautiful, it brings more attention to the cause.
DP: You have a double sword. You are Miss America and you had anorexia.
DR: The reason I am proud to have Kirsten help to get the message out is that she is a very bright woman.
KH: Thank you very much.
DR: You are twenty?
KH: Nineteen.
DR: Nineteen. It's crazy how bright she is. She's blushing. Let me stop.
DP: She is bright and also understands what the girls in your movie are going through in a way that you want everybody else to understand.
DR: Absolutely.
DP: Do you remember "The Twilight Zone" episode year's ago about beauty…?
DR: "Eye of the Beholder." That used to be in this film. About three cuts ago it came out.  It was in the "beautiful people" section because it showed exactly what we do in our society. 
DP: It takes place in a dark operating room where they are doing extreme plastic surgery on a woman's face, and it's all dark and you can't see what the doctors and nurses look like. They are hoping they can make the woman look normal, like them, and when the light comes on she is absolutely beautiful to us. But then you look at all the doctors and nurses have distorted faces because this is taking place in another world, in that world she looks like a monster. The operation is a failure. .
KH:  Wow. That's so cool. Wow.  That was so progressive for it's time.
DH: It's the opposite of our society, where the attractive people aren't attractive and the unattractive people are considered attractive—and here, too, the people who are unattractive—who are actually beautiful--are looked down on in society..
DP: There was a "Candid Camera" segment years ago in which a beautiful woman asks men on the street for help doing some task.  She put on a disguise that made her look ugly and when she asked for help, few men helped. But when she took off the disguise and was beautiful, almost every man was eager to help.
DR: MSN just did a report that showed that more attractive people make more money in the workplace. Just last week, we retired three interns who worked on the movie. One of them was a guy named Cleveland and he said the reason he wanted to work on the film was therapeutic. He goes, "There are some really good TV shows but I can't watch them because if there's no hot chicks involved, I just can't engage.  Being around you and this film I am hoping I can get over it."  It's bad out here.
DP: Kirsten, I watched a video online in which you were talking about body shape and how the Miss America Pageant doesn't want the girl to be thin.
KH: Right. It wants women to be healthy. It wants a girl to be fit and healthy for her body type and shape and that is so true. That is so true. You don't see the skinniest girls, ones who are stick thin. In fact, if they see someone who does look unhealthy, they will score them lower. It's the physical fitness, it's a life style of fitness, it's that you exercise and maintain an active lifestyle because you love and respect your body. The job of Miss America can be very taxing physically. You have to travel 20,000 miles a month and you're  in a different city all the time, so you have to take care of your body and treat it right.  If someone on that stage has an eating disorder, she is not going to be able to get through the year. Her body is not going to be able to handle it. So, you need to be someone who is physically healthy.  People also need to realize that health is defined differently for different people and that we need to be of body diversity.  A young girl who is affected by the media, could look at someone and say, "That person is that person is  pudgy." Or say to herself, "I look chubby." Well, she might be chubby if you are judging by model standards, but in reality that person could be at a perfectly healthy weight for her height and for their set point and for their body's natural chemistry.   So, we need to realize that bodies come in all shapes and sizes and accept that.
DP: The main subject in the movie is a young girl named Gerren, who is teased by classmates because she's so tall, but become a model and is suddenly taken in the other direction, where everyone is calling her gorgeous.  But then she has a quick downfall and though she's so slim, she's told to lose weight to continue her modeling.  I thing the tragedy of Gerren is that she's smart and she seems to see all the little things that go on, the pushing and the pulling, and yet she ends up like the first girl and thinks she's ugly.  And when you try to tell her differently, she insists she's ugly, and uses the word "Period!"  You would think she were too smart to fall for it, but at the end, she also falls into the trap.
DR: Yeah. The reason we used that story as a narrative thread for the film is because it kind of illustrates different points of the film. She went from being ten-years-old and people said she looked like a giraffe, a stick beanpole pulling of a tractor, but her attractiveness came from the modeling industry, turning her into a supermodel. So when they told her she was too obese for modeling and took that away from her, her self-esteem came away with it. That's the real tragedy and I'm hoping the message that people learn is that when you look to the outside for validation of your beauty, that could be dangerous because your self-esteem could be taken away from you.
DP: It turned out she wasn't prepared for it. And I wasn't prepared for her going that farther the wrong way. Were you prepared for that?
DR: Absolutely not. It caught me way off guard. She went to London and Paris, and came back and just lost it.
DP: The look that she had when mishap after another and when she went to Europe she was really, really angry. "You want me thinner than this, huh?"  But then she fell for it.
DR: Right.
DP: Has she seen the movie?
DR: Yes. She likes it but she's embarrassed by that scene when she is arguing about the bra.   She's eighteen now and said, "That's embarrassing to see that." Other than that, she likes it.
DP: What about film's message? Is she more stable at this point?
DR: I won't say she's stable. But I'd say she feels better about herself than she did in that scene you are referring to. But I won't say stable. As you see in the movie, she's in a certain kind of household that doesn't make it easy for her.
DP: A line I really related to is said by the boy with braces sitting next to her in the classroom. He says people are pretty because we are told they are pretty. We are told by the media that somebody is or is not pretty. He says that we are brainwashed and that's a key moment in the film.
DR: There was a time I began to realize that was going on.
KH: There's always the people you see in magazines and on the TV screen, in a glossy, fake two-dimensional world. And then there are real people. Like your Mom. Like a mentor. Like the real flesh and blood people that you interact in a room with, that inspire you face to face, that you see around, that you see in a social situation in a classroom, or in a work setting. Those are truly cool people who you are just attracted to in engaging, personal settings. And you think of those people in a stronger way than you do people who are solely beautiful.. Yeah, they may be pretty to look at but who are you going to chose to have a cool, heartwarming conversation with and really get something out of it? It's a flesh and blood person. That's who the real beautiful person is, the person you are going to remember.
DP: In high school, you know, you are not part of the popular cliques but, you know, once you go to college, people start recognizing you as interesting. Those people have character and are beautiful. A final thing:  I came to the movie screening with friend who spent many years teaching in an alternative high school.  She said that it would have been a perfect film for her kids, who have a lot of issues. So is it your plan to show it to teenagers? 
DR: Yeah. Its rated R right now.  There are two things in it that we have to take out and we are going to take them out and do a PG version and get it into every school in the country. Everywhere I go, a lot of mothers bring their teenage daughters to see the film. 
DP: Have you brought people who are in the movie together to see the film?
DR: Not everybody but about twenty of them came to the AFI-Dallas Film Festival. And at  the Chicago premiere there was about eight of them.
DP:  What's the one thing you both want from this movie?
DR: For me, I want everyone to realize that it is to their best mental and emotional benefit to start feeling beautiful about themselves the way that they are and if they don't believe that they are beautiful to start soul-searching and find out what is beautiful about them. So my message is for us to internalize beauty as opposed to externalizing beauty and make that our value system.
KH: And that my similar message too. And to add to that: I think the film does create an awareness of how media affects you. It's so important for us to be aware of these industries and of the inner workings, being aware of things that go on behind the scenes to put that picture on the page and to put that model on the runway. And then also the real struggles, the real families, the real girls, you know, the real people. I think the movie helps create an awareness of the real struggles and the real issues and causes people to ask questions about their lives, their attitudes, and the way that they perceive themselves.
DR: Thank you very much.
DP: Thank you.
KH: Thank you very much.
DR: Have a beautiful day, my friend.


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