The Illusionists. Directed by Elena Rossini. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2015. 54 minutes.

On Beauty. Directed by Joanna Rudnick. New York: Women Make Movies, 2014. 31 minutes.

Beauty Mark: Body Image and the Race for Perfection. Directed by Carla Precht and Kathleen Man Gyllenhaal. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2008. 50 minutes.

Reviewed by Vanita Reddy

The Illusionists is a thematically and geographically ambitious film that spans four continents, documenting a wide range of beauty practices and body ideals across the United States, Lebanon, France, Africa, Japan, and India. Filmmaker Elena Rossini traverses the advent of male muscularity and feminine thinness; the marketing of anti-aging, weight-loss, and skin-whitening products; trends in body hair removal and facial cosmetic surgery; and the emergence of virtual fashion modeling. As the film title suggests, these practices and ideals are illusory because they mark a shift away from beauty’s European classical associations with vanity and narcissism and toward twentieth-century American-style consumerism and twenty-first-century processes of censorship, post-production digital manipulation, and media saturation through mass dissemination. The film thus brings much-needed attention to the way in which our bodies, to draw on the work of feminist scholar Susan Bordo, have become projects on which we work and in which we invest—economically and emotionally—replicating other forms of labor and high-value commodities.1

Narrating the story of beauty’s commodification as one that begins in the West and disseminates to the non-West, The Illusionists overlooks the different economic, political, and cultural shifts over the last thirty years that have driven beauty industries across the world. The documentary’s various “talking heads” (photographers, activists, and academics) explain that the “American image of ideal beauty has become, to some extent, an international ideal of ideal beauty” and that skin whitening products have made their way into some of the most “unexpected places,” such as France. Considering the rise of Korean and Japanese beauty ideals across Asia and a visible black diasporic population in France in which black African ideals of beauty remain in tension with European ones, this frame is slightly tone-deaf to its purported global focus.

The Illusionists should thus be taught alongside documentary films and scholarly work on beauty in non-white and non-Western contexts, such as Hue on colorism in Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia and Good Hair and Hair India, which examine the hair extension trade’s global demand for Indian women’s “good hair.”2 Recent feminist scholarship such as the new anthology Fashion and Beauty in the Time of Asia would productively complicate the film’s examinations of the Lebanese plastic surgery and Indian skin whitening industries by looking to Asia—and Korea, in particular—as the new global standard in skin care, make up, and body modification regiments.3

Finally, the film’s conclusion imagines social media as an “almighty digital army” poised to fight the “status quo” of consumerist beauty that the beauty market constantly reinvents by promoting bodily insecurities. Such a call to arms ought to be tempered by studies that address the intersections of race and technology, such as Lisa Nakamura’s important book, Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet.4 Nakamura examines how racial divides structure a corresponding “digital divide,” productively complicating the film’s techno-revolutionary call to anticonsumerism.

In On Beauty, Joanna Rudnick tackles the underexplored issue of skin and chromosomal disorders that affect facial appearance and facial muscle function in Africa and the United States in order to expand definitions of beauty beyond the narrow parameters of the beauty industry. The film narrates photographer Rick Guidotti’s move from high-end fashion modeling photography in the 1990s to photographing children with these conditions through the glossy, stylized aesthetic of the fashion photograph. Guidotti uses these images to counter the pathologizing visualization of these bodies in medical textbooks and pamphlets. On Beauty would thus be useful to pair with historian Sander Gilman’s oeuvre of work on bodies, medicine, and aesthetics, particularly his Making the Body Beautiful and Picturing Health and Illness.5

One of the film’s protagonists, Sarah, has a rare condition called Sturge-Weber syndrome that produces a red birthmark across half of her face and also affects brain function. She utters the first lines of dialogue in the film: “They just stare.” Later she goes on to explain, “I’ve developed a way of not seeing people stare at my birthmark. I just look down.” Sarah’s refusal of this gaze critically engages with disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s book Staring: How We Look, thus calling attention to the need for scholarly and cultural attention to the overlap between disability studies and fashion and beauty studies.6

Because the film oscillates between Guidotti’s journey from high-end fashion photographer to photographer-activist and the children he photographs, it is sometimes difficult to tell exactly who is its subject: Guidotti, the children, or both? The potential conflation of Guidotti’s political vision with the film’s is most apparent in its conclusion, which, like The Illusionists, takes the form of a public service announcement. The filmmakers, in keeping with Guidotti’s activist work on anti-bullying through photography, encourage viewers to widen our optic for “how we see difference” and define beauty. This call brings to mind Lauren Berlant’s useful concept of cruel optimism: “optimism is cruel when the object/scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving.” 7 In seeking to expand our conceptions of beauty, Beauty Mark remains cruelly optimistic about the transformative power of beauty by failing to respond to its injurious social power no matter how widely we cast its net. How does casting beauty’s net more widely address what Garland-Thomson describes as the deeply relational act of staring, its production of “a sense of obligation between persons”?8 Or, does it merely reproduce the social harms of staring?

Diane Israel’s Beauty Mark approaches the beauty myth through the lens of body image. What might otherwise be hackneyed topics in gender studies classrooms—eating disorders and body dysmorphia—are reinvigorated through the film’s focus on athleticism—female athleticism, in particular. Situating the film as an auto-documentary of sorts, Israel narrates her struggles with exercise anorexia (exercising to excess in order to attain thinness) as a competitive marathoner and triathlete. Exercise is generally understood as a healthy activity and athletes as highly tuned, highly productive machines. Yet athletic training can breed bodily insecurities that are similar to those resulting from mass-marketed beauty ideals shown in The Illusionists. Israel also describes bodily management similar to that of runway models: elite athletes, mainly runners and bodybuilders, link their struggles with food and eating to the rigorous training of their bodies to outperform others, which includes practices of starvation and deprivation. In the mind of the athlete, eating disorders make sense, since, as Israel says of marathon training, “a pound could mean the difference between five or ten seconds” off one’s best time.

Particularly powerful is footage of Israel as a teenager competing in and winning races and falling in love with a woman in college while also learning the protocols of normative femininity. Profoundly sad are the moments when Israel returns home, now as a psychotherapist lecturing on the adverse health effects of negative body image to children and adults, to interview her elderly parents, from whom she had learned to model her quest for bodily perfection: her competitive athlete father and her conventionally beautiful mother. The human dimension of this film sets it apart from the others by addressing the family dynamics that lead many young men and women to invest, emotionally and economically, in their bodies as projects.

1 Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

2 Hue: A Matter of Colour, directed by Vic Sarin (Montreal: National Film Board of Canada, 2013), 85 mins.; Good Hair, directed by Jeff Stilson (Los Angeles: Roadside Attractions, 2009), 96 mins.; Hair India, directed by Raffaele Brunetti and Marco Leopardi (Rome: B&B Film, 2008), 75 mins.

3 Minh-Ha T. Pham, Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet: Race, Gender, and the Work of Personal Style Blogging (Durham: Duke UP, 2015). Thuy Linh Tu, Sharon Heijin Lee, and Cristina Moon, eds., Fashion and Beauty in the Time of Asia (New York: NYU Press, forthcoming). See also the following book-length studies on beauty and fashion in non-white and/or non-Western contexts: Alexander Edmonds, Pretty Modern: Beauty, Sex, and Plastic Surgery in Brazil (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Sarah Nutall, ed., Beautiful/Ugly: African and Diaspora Aesthetics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007); Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu, The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Maxine Leeds Craig, Ain’t I a Beauty Queen? Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain, Pure Beauty: Judging Race in Japanese American Beauty Pageants (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); and Vanita Reddy, Fashioning Diaspora: Beauty, Femininity, and South Asian American Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2016).

4 Lisa Nakamura, Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

5 Sander Gilman, Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999) and Picturing Health and Illness: Images of Identity and Difference (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

6 Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Staring: How We Look (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

7 Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 2.

8 Garland-Thomson, Staring, 5.

Vanita Reddy is associate professor of English at Texas A&M University, with faculty affiliations in Women's and Gender Studies and the Race and Ethnic Studies Institute. Her research interests include South Asian diasporic literatures and cultural production, fashion and beauty, visual and material cultures, transnational feminisms and queer theory, and critical race studies. In her book Fashioning Diaspora: Beauty, Femininity, and South Asian American Culture (Temple University Press, 2016), Reddy examines how transnational itineraries of Indian beauty and fashion shape South Asian American cultural identities and racialized belonging from the 1990s through the following two decades. One of the first books to consider beauty and fashion as a point of entry into an examination of South Asian diasporic public cultures, Fashioning Diaspora examines diasporic literature, visual culture, and live performance. She is currently working on a second book, Global Intimacies, which brings comparative race studies into conversation with recent work in feminist and queer cultural studies of affect and intimacy in order to examine political possibilities and limitations for anti-imperial, cross-racial political alliances between South Asian and other racialized populations.