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Unexamined privilege: Bite Me! Festival review, part 2

July 25th, 2010     by Julia Horel     Comments

This is part two of my previous post reviewing the Bite Me! Toronto International Film and Arts Festival.

A Question of Beauty is a Canadian documentary directed and narrated by Moncton-based Colleen Furlotte that seeks to answer the question: what is beauty? The film features approximately 20 women of varying ages, and uses art and other creative pursuits in an effort to broaden the audience’s definition of beauty. The film is a feel-good celebration of beauty that asks the women involved to speak against the beauty ideal and celebrate their own beauty through art, dance, and discussion.

As a critical look at conventional definitions of beauty, however, this film falls extremely short. While watching it, I wondered: while it does contain a few positive elements, can anything be gained from such a problematic film?

Of the 20 women featured in the film, all are white. The film argues for breaking away from beauty conventions regarding body size, age, and standards of hair, makeup and clothes, but does not mention whiteness in the beauty ideal.

Worse still, the film discusses women of colour in two separate instances (possibly in an attempt to be “inclusive”) that made my mouth hang open.

In the first, the director interviews a white woman who paints portraits of black women. She doesn’t know these women - some of them seem to be of famous opera singers. She explains that she likes to paint black women becuse she appreciates the aesthetic beauty of their dark skin contrasting with light in the paintings. There is no discussion of how the beauty ideal affects black women, only a white woman speaking for the absent women in her paintings. Experience is ignored; a white gaze is all that’s needed for approval for these voiceless black women. Women of colour are literally treated as objects.

The second mention of women of colour features the director interviewing a white cultural anthropologist, who discusses women she has met while conducting anthropological research around the world. Again, this perspective ignores the voices of the women being discussed. The anthropologist explains that she found these women particularly beautiful because they “live their cultures” in such an “honest and authentic” manner. The lives of these women are exotic and interesting to the white anthropologist. The anthropologist defines these women’s beauty in terms of their otherness, their exoticness, framing their lives in contrast to a Western, middle-class norm.

The film also completely fails to acknowledge class privilege. A former model, when interviewed, explains that she believes we are most beautiful when we are “fully present” in the moment and taking pure notice of our surrounding, not occupied with other worries, such as work or children. A particularly good way to experience beauty is to take long walks alone, appreciating nature. The film ignores the inherent class privilege in this advice: how can a working-class single mother take time to focus on being her “fully present,” beautiful self and forget bills and daycare? Can someone working two jobs take time to walk alone in the woods and appreciate the beauty of nature? Can someone who lives in an inner-city co-op and doesn’t own a vehicle access lakes and forests?

I think I felt most betrayed when I found the director’s website while researching this post, because while the racism and classism were overt in the film, this part was not. The message expressed in A Question of Beauty is that beauty is all around us, and we should reject the maintream beauty ideal that tells us we must fight aging and keep our bodies to a certain size and shape. The film is incredibly problematic in its dismissive treatment of women of colour and its classist perspective, but I was willing to hope that its couple of good points could be a first step toward something. Then I found Furlotte’s website and saw she has published a book called The Extraordinary Life, which is - wait for it - a weight loss book. Not just any weight loss book: a book that promises to teach you how to lose weight “from simply living the way we are designed to live.”

Because Furlotte’s personal experience is universal! The way she has chosen to live her life is perfect for everyone, and will make them thin! And although she has argued in her documentary and in the description of her book on her website that we must find beauty in ourselves and not in unattainable ideals, she has written a book about achieving one’s “ideal weight” (but in case you hoped for acknowledgement that a fat body could be someone’s personal ideal weight, don’t forget that “natural, lasting weight loss” is the promise). The book was published in 2007. The film was produced in 2009. She currently promotes both. She actually features a couple of fat women in the film.

Shameless readers, I want to know: if an important message is mixed up in unexamined privilege, racism, classism and hypocrisy, can we gain anything from the parts of the message we agree with? Is a film like A Question of Beauty anything other than dangerous and problematic?

Tags: arts, body politics, film reel, race and racism

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