Q&A: The Woman Trying to Ignite Discussion About the Globalization of Beauty Standards

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Photo: Lawrence Oluyede

For the past six years, Elena Rossini, a 34-year-old filmmaker living in Paris and Milan, has been struggling to produce The Illusionists — a new documentary examining the role of advertising and complicity of the media in perpetuating unattainable body images for women, and increasingly, men and children. Picking up where Jean Kilbourne’s 1979 film series, Killing Us Softly, left off, The Illusionists examines the ramifications of the globalization of Western beauty ideals and marketing strategies, tracing the saturation of cosmetic advertising from London and Paris to Beirut, Mumbai, and Tokyo.  

Despite enthusiasm from many experts in the field — Laura Mulvey, Susie Orbach, and Kilbourne herself all feature prominently in the film — Rossini has met obstacles in the production process, from securing funding (she is now crowd-funding the film on Kickstarter) to difficulty getting the film into festivals. "I was actually told by a producer earlier this year, 'I’m sorry, Elena, you have a great film but you have no chance of getting into any festivals that are prominent, simply because you don’t have a well-known producer and you didn’t have any funding from film foundations,'" Rossini told the Cut over Skype last week. She took this to heart, and launched a Twitter campaign directed at prominent industry people she believed could make a difference — Lena Dunham, Michael Moore, Stephen Fry, Geena Davis, and Alex Gibney — receiving positive though noncommittal responses from the last three. “I was blown away, because we did not receive a single negative comment,” said Rossini.  

Rossini spoke with the Cut about the insidious effects of increasingly globalized beauty standards and why she believes it’s been so difficult to receive funding and support for her film.  

What prompted you to make this film?
It’s actually been a very long process. I started back in 2008, when I saw that the women in my life were struggling with body-image issues across different generations — from my mother, who is now past the age of 60, and doesn’t want to be photographed anymore, to my niece, who was 13 at the time and becoming a woman: her body was transforming, and so many insecurities came out. At the same time, I stumbled on an article called Beauty Is the Beast: Psychological Effects of the Pursuit of the Perfect Female Body, and it really spoke to me. It described perfectly all of the problems in our culture around women’s bodies. I started doing more research and got really into it, so I decided to make a movie about it.

It took about three years of development. I was trying to convince various TV stations for funding, and they would always say the same thing: "Instead of all the experts you want to interview, put yourself in the film, receiving beauty treatments, and then yes, you can make this movie." But that was a completely different movie than I wanted to make, obviously. I didn’t want to be a guinea pig. I also didn’t want viewers to know my age, or that I’m Caucasian, or that I’m a woman — I wanted to be invisible in the process, and I wanted all kinds of viewers to be able to completely identify with the issues that you see in the film. But nobody wanted to give me money for that. So I started a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter and was really successful, I think mostly because I’ve been active on social media and keeping a blog.

Why do you think it was so difficult for you to get funding?
I’ve encountered a few problems as a young female filmmaker. I look a lot younger than my age — I often am mistaken for someone five years younger, and I started doing this when I was 28, in France. In the U.S., where I went to film school, it was a lot easier to be taken seriously, but here I was often told, "You don’t look like a director," or, "I’m not convinced you have a directorial vision for your film." I think it was a mix of that, and also the fact that in the documentary world, people are really looking for individual stories. Filmmakers like Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore do really well, because they put themselves in their movies. Every single person I met who works in the industry really tried to convince me to be in the film, but I didn’t want to be.

In the U.S., there seems to be a growing awareness around many of the issues you address in the film: particularly the prevalence of retouched photos in magazines and advertising. How do attitudes towards these issues differ in the various countries that you visited while filming?
I think that in Japan there was very little awareness about those issues, and the same thing was probably true in Lebanon. But it was important for me to get across in The Illusionists that, yes, we now have a movement that is trying to push back against these very restrictive beauty ideals, and there are people that are speaking up, and we have articles about those problems, but there’s still such a saturation of images that we are bombarded with every day. Even if you don’t own a TV, just going out and walking around you see billboards that are airbrushed so much, and magazines — most public spaces are so saturated that even if you do have an awareness that there is an illusion going on there, not seeing alternative representations of beauty of bodies still has a very insidious effect. I think that saturation is a very, very big problem, regardless of the levels of awareness, because it’s like propaganda shoved down our throats. It’s almost like pollution — like visual pollution.

The film points out the increasingly gray line between advertorial and editorial content in the media. What effects does that have on body image issues?
I’m probably borrowing words from Jean Kilbourne, but I think a lot of magazines and TV shows need to create a positive environment to attract advertisers — a positive environment where you have visuals of attractive people that the audience can aspire to look like. One of the most famous examples was with Ms. magazine, which ran an issue in 1980 featuring exiled feminist leaders from the Soviet Union. The report won many awards, but they ended up losing big sponsors who couldn’t believe that they put four women on the cover without any makeup.

It’s much more common to hear discussions of female body image than it is to hear about men, yet your film pays nearly equal attention to both. Do you think that advertising is placing increasing pressure on men to attain certain body ideals?
I think there is a little bit of a taboo when it comes to discussing men and body image issues — perhaps because it’s perceived as vanity. In conversations, my male friends always tell me that the number one concern is the belly — like, every single man I know is super worried about that, or thinning hair, and it’s something that you don’t see represented in the media. And men are definitely the biggest area of expansion when it comes to marketing for beauty companies, since women have already been bombarded with messages and buy so much. From my conversations, I could definitely feel that there’s an added insecurity and added anxiety.

What are your goals for the film?
Right now it’s kind of stalling. It’s finished, but I’m having trouble getting to festivals. Because I’ve been active on social media, I have many allies in body image and women’s empowerment communities, so I started reaching out to them about a month ago and telling them that I wanted to run a Twitter campaign to put my film on the radar of prominent actors and producers to see if they would help out. We got an overwhelming number of responses on Twitter from people who discovered the project because of the campaign.

I hope that The Illusionists can be an agent of change in the discussion about consumer culture and body image dissatisfaction around the world. I want people to understand what goes on in the media, and that happy people are seen as bad consumers, and how it’s in the interest of corporations to keep people feeling anxious about the way they look so that they will spend more money.

This interview has been edited and condensed.