In Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s new documentary About Face: Supermodels Then and Now, we follow the stories of a group of aging models discussing the nature of projecting an image, our society’s preoccupation with youth, and how an industry so consumed with beauty can be so ugly.
Anyone who has caught the rare sight of a model — super or not — stepping out of the airbrushed pages of magazines onto the street knows “beautiful” might not be the first adjective to describe them. When outside of the hair, makeup and perfectly tailored clothing, one’s initially struck by their high cheekbones, full lips, long legs, large eyes and thin frame. Unusual, yes, but not perhaps beautiful. Not to suggest a disparaging comparison, but their presence evokes the awe one would experience when encountering an alien or some other mythical creature. It’s as if they aren’t real.
“Maybe I’ll do two months of this and then go back to my real life,” supermodel Christie Brinkley said of herself at the tender age of 19. Many of the models echoed these sentiments, saying that it’s not a typical path for a woman to become such a beacon of desire and perfection. In many ways it is, in fact, surreal.
The documentary exposes many of the models’ incredulous, is-this-really-happening-to-me reactions to being discovered and their swarm of insecurities that don’t induce an eye roll (well, not much), but rather empathy. Many of their mothers berated them for their odd looks. Carmen Dell’Orefice’s mom criticized her large feet and ears; Marisa Berenson’s mother compared her to a depressing Modigliani painting that made her want to cry. So when the opportunity came to be paid to be called beautiful, how could any of them turn it down? Of course, that opened up the opportunity to be called ugly, as Paulina Porizkova shrewdly observed.
Beauty does fade in one way or another. Not only in the crow’s feet or the year on a birth certificate that hampers models from work they were once offered, but in the cultural constructs and scope of what beauty is. The 1970s and 80s witnessed a time when aesthetic and personal development devolved. As drugs and disease cut through the glamorous parties and decadent debauchery, the predominant style of fashion photography transformed from smiling, fresh-faced femmes to melancholic mugging at the camera. “Heroin Chic” was never uttered in the documentary, but it was a mere landslide into the glorification of dissipation that overtook this world.
Society’s pressure to achieve beauty through eternal youth and perpetual emaciation, interpreted by Isabella Rossellini as perhaps merely another form of misogyny, is more virulent now than perhaps it ever was. With cosmetic surgery becoming increasingly normalized, the standards of beauty skyrocket. It’s relatively cheap and simple to get a little fat sucked out or have a nose reshaped, so instead of everyone being satisfied with their brand new artificial parts, the stakes are raised and everything from earlobes to kneecaps need to be corrected and perfected. Beauty is never static; different aesthetics come in and out of fashion, sometimes for the worst, but sometimes for the better.
All of the models of color featured in the documentary cite the extreme racism they can face in the industry, proving as hard as they could to be deemed “beautiful” in a time when beauty was still only equated with being white. Though slowly our culture began to appreciate the beauty inherent in different aesthetics (read cultural types), Beverly Johnson, the first African-American to be featured on the cover of US Vogue, still criticizes designers’ continuing use of white, “clone-like” models in their shows.
Throughout the course of the film, it’s hard to pin down a discernible narrative; it might have been an interesting character study, but many of the models’ stories are too similar to thread together and too often blend into one another. The documentary’s running time (about an hour and fifteen minutes) shows how loose and unfocused it was in moments. It might have been interesting to include photographers and bookers or even plastic surgeons into the mix to paint a more complete picture. Or at least give some focus to the modern modeling world and examine the changes that have taken place. Still, the film holds up as an introspective glance that delves deeply into a world of superficiality.
Still, the theme of beauty is the strongest component of About Face and it manifests itself in several ways throughout the course of the film, but the most interesting is the fact that all of the models distanced themselves from the images they’ve left. Very few believed that “they” were really on the cover of Vogue; it was the end result of hairdressers, makeup artists, designers, fitters and airbrushers (ah, the time before Photoshop). The standards of beauty are in a constant state of flux, and those who stand at the forefront of aesthetic perfection sometimes have trouble maintaining them.