Amy Ziering, Kirby Dick and The Invisible War are two documentary filmmakers I love. They chronicle the shameful history of military sexual assault. The Hunting Ground is a film about the same phenomenon that occurs on college campuses. Allen v. Farrow. This is a simple story that doesn’t need explanation. Documentaries that help viewers connect the dots and make sense of a problem and offer solutions are my favorite.
Their four-part HBO Max series is no exception. Amy and Kirby train their eyes on the beauty industry. It’s called Not So Pretty, and it explains why we should be concerned about what we put on our skin, hair, and bodies. Self-care is the new mantra in our time — a way to cope with the complicated, stressful world we live in. What if the self-care that we are told to do is actually causing us harm. Amy was on a hike with her dog in Los Angeles, so I met her to ask about her new project. It debuted recently on HBO Max.
Katie: Amy! How did the “ugly truth behind the beauty industry” grab your attention?
Amy Ziering: When I was speaking at a conference, another speaker was the CEO of what is now known as a “clean” cosmetics company. She was discussing the industry in shocking ways that I found quite surprising. When I returned to LA, my team of investigators began digging. They discovered surprising and troubling information about the products that we put our bodies into every day. It was shocking to discover that so much of this information is not widely known, and that it can lead to preventable harms every day. This was our next project.
You will find this documentary very different. Although it’s still about serious issues, the tone and appearance of this documentary are very different. Please tell us more.
It is quite different. HBO Max and I worked closely together in the development of the series. We all agreed that a more lively and energetic vibe would be best for the content, as we wanted it to appeal to all generations. Keke Palmer was a great talent that we were able to hire. With her enormous heart and intelligence, she volunteered to be the series’ engaging and witty narrator. She makes all the surprises, twists and surprising revelations come to life.
What was the biggest surprise for you when you first started looking into the beauty industry?
The vast majority of beauty and skincare products we use are made from petrochemicals. This means that purchasing these products directly supports oil companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron.
Experts believe that certain products may be linked to some of your health issues. What can you tell me about this?
There are many health problems that plague us today that weren’t there in the past. Many believe that the increase in occurrences and rates of these diseases is directly related to our increased use of chemical-based products, which pollute our environment as well as our bodies. There is a growing body of evidence that shows strong correlations between the toxic effects of these chemicals and many of the current ailments.
It is sad that all this is unnecessary and can be avoided 100 percent.
It is amazing, just think about it. The human body is extremely efficient and self-sufficient. To maintain healthy hair, nails and skin, we don’t have to spend a lot. Marketers and ads make us believe otherwise through very clever psyops that play on our fears.
Bottom line: The cosmetics industry, which is worth multi-billions of dollars, mainly trades in petrochemicals. It is virtually unregulated. Let that sentence soak in, and then make your own conclusions about possible health outcomes.
What does this mean for women of color?
It’s so unconscionable and horrible in so many ways. Since its inception, our toxic beauty culture has portrayed a white Eurocentric image as the ideal. This message has been and continues to be extremely harmful to people of color’s self-esteem. It constantly tells them that they are somehow lacking and that there is an impossible beauty standard for them to strive to achieve. This manufactured insecurity is both promoted and profited by companies that market products to people of color promising closer access to an unattainable beauty goal, such as hair straighteners or skin lighteners. These products are often more toxic than those sold to white customers for their hair and skin care products. For people of color, it’s a difficult situation.
Clean beauty has been around for a while. Is that the answer to your problem? What other actions are needed?
The ideal solution would be for companies only to produce healthy products for us and the environment. Realistically, this is unlikely to be possible. However, we as consumers can force companies to produce safer products. Although this will require a greater conscious effort from us, companies will have to make safer products if they stop buying toxic products.
This is an example where we can make changes to our consumer buying decisions that will change the course of events. This is possible with some effort and work on our part.
Which lessons have you taken from this doc? What can you share with our readers about this extra work?
Don’t worry if you find that some clean products are too expensive. Since the last several years, I have been only using water and a washcloth for my skin. I also use light and inexpensive natural oils to moisturize my skin.
To keep our skin healthy, clean, and hydrated, we don’t really need anything. Our planet was created to be physiologically self-sufficient. Do not let the multi-national industrial complex fool you into thinking and buying otherwise.