Sundance 2012: About Face

Director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ documentary About Face: The Supermodels, Then and Now interviews various supermodels who ruled the runways and magazine covers over the past few decades to get an idea of what their lives were like then and what it means now (as they get older) to be beautiful. Many came up during a time when modeling was just becoming a possible career and as Pat Cleveland points out none of them realized they were living history because at the time, “they were just living.”

Many of these women got into the world of modeling not just because it seemed glamorous and exciting, but because it was one of the few ways women could become independent. Working in a photo studio was certainly more interesting than being stuck in an office, but it also allowed these women to work with various artists from designers to photographers to make up artists and hair stylists and be creative.

The irony was that when they were younger (some starting out in the business as early as fifteen), they were made up to look older. And now that they are older, the pressure to look “beautiful” is to look younger. Obviously the idea of plastic surgery was a main topic of conversation and the women seemed fairly split over the subject – some equating it to having the ceiling of your house falling down and naturally wanting to lift it up to those who didn’t want to potentially lose their own expressions in favor of smoothing out the signs of aging. Everyone seemed to agree that beauty is whatever makes you feel good about yourself, but who decided that meant you had to look young? In the past, the wisdom you gained over the years was what was considered beautiful and the experiences that made you the person you are now.

There is no question why these women had successful careers in the modeling and fashion industry, as they are all aging beautifully (enhanced or not) and even at ages fifty and eighty, these women are striking. Isabella Rossellini points out that while people liked her ads for Lancôme’s anit-aging cream that depicted her as her true age, the company still preferred to create ads with young models to appeal to a younger audience. Rossellini fears that plastic surgery is just a new form of foot binding and yet another way to convince women that being how they naturally are is wrong and unattractive.

It may seem that being a model meant that you were constantly told how beautiful you were and while that was true to a degree, modeling is a business and these girls were treated as objects used to sell products, often having their biggest physical insecurities debated right in front of them. Now that many of these women are out of the modeling game (and those that are still in it have the ability to pick and choose their jobs), they feel more self-confident than they ever did then since they can finally feel comfortable in their own skin and not be judged or sold based on their looks.

The upside: Seeing how some of the most iconic faces in modeling have aged only proves the fact that aging is nothing to hide from and these women are able to prove it without even needing to open their mouths. But when they do, it’s their personalities and knowledge that reminder those of us who are not models that true beauty (no matter what your age) is being comfortable and happy with who you are.

The downside: Greenfield-Sanders caught Beverly Johnson and Cheryl Tiegs catching up, but cut away instead of documenting these models talking with each other and comparing their different experiences which could have been an interesting layer to include in the narrative.

On the side: The drawings of some of these women shown over the opening credits proved why (and how) they could have been inspirations to artists like Richard Avedon, Halston and Calvin Klein.

Catch more of Sundance 2012


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