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Deadly talc

Toxic Beaty
Regissør: Phyllis Ellis

COSMETICS INDUSTRY / Have you used skin care products today? The documentary Toxic Beauty will probably make you look a little closer to what they actually contain.


The consumer society is created by – and for – the manufacturers of a basic product: soap. The commercials – and maybe even the sponsored TV shows (think soap opera) – have convinced us that if we are not spotlessly clean and odorless at all times, if the hair is gray, the skin unmasked with all its faults and defects, no, then we are neither worthy to participate in the labor market nor enter into marriage, nor to receive love and respect. Market forces have cynically exploited women's insecurity to sell them soap, deodorant, toothpaste, hair color, nail polish, cosmetic products – and talc.

Several players have claimed for years that these products are actually toxic, and now it has been proven: Not only have women's lives been constrained by enforced uncertainty, but it turns out that a number of the products we buy to fix the look actually contain toxic substances that can be carcinogenic. Manufacturers and the advertising industry have refused to inform consumers about the serious side effects of the products. They refuse, for example, that the products contain asbestos. As documentary producer Barri Cohen says: "If you asked the scientists exactly how large the dose of cigarette chemicals must be before it causes cancer, none of them would be able to answer you, even though it has been many years since health authorities ordered manufacturers to When it comes to skin care products, manufacturers claim that although the products may contain toxic substances, it is in such small doses that it poses no danger. Thus, they do not relate to the potential accumulating effect of the chemicals if the product is used several times daily for many years.

Thorough research

The reader has so far hardly been particularly surprised, for this is already well known, and "natural" alternatives to the well-established brands have been available and mass produced for several years. The production company White Pine Pictures' new documentary, Toxic Beauty, still puts a dent in us: What should be the mildest of all skin care products – baby powder – turns out to cause ovarian cancer. The company that produces the baby powder, Johnson & Johnson – which since 1886 has marketed the product as the soft, gentle bond between mother and child – denies that there is any connection between their baby powder and ovarian cancer. The latter does not surprise us either.

White Pine is known for making thorough and memorable documentaries. Toxic Beauty, directed by Phyllis Ellis, is no exception. Ellis, who also collaborated with producer Barri Cohen and cinematographer Iris Ng while working on girls night Out (2016) for White Pine, has a personal entrance to the case: When she was a top athlete in the 80s, she, like many other athletes, used talcum three to four times daily, and she knows several athletes who later became cancerous and died. That is why she became immediately interested in the project when Peter Raymont, White Pine's manager, approached her.

Toxic Beaty Director Phyllis Ellis

It took almost three years to complete Toxic Beauty, which is largely due to the complicated research work. The first person Ellis got in touch with when she started working on the documentary was scientist Daniel Cramer, a Boston resident. The research work, which is constantly ongoing, has resulted in an endless amount of documentation on the relationship between chemicals and hormone disorders.

Seeing Toxic Beauty will scare you – and curse you.

While Ellis sought ways to address the audience's doubts and skepticism, she followed the research where it took her – to even more experts, but also to the women portrayed in the film. Through Cramer, she became acquainted with physician Shruthi Mahalingaiah, endocrinologist and childless specialist. Along with several students, she had begun researching the relationship between ovarian cancer and chemicals, and invited Ellis to attend a group meeting where she could record the meeting. That's where the filmmaker first met student Mymy Nguyen, one of the main characters in the documentary.

The burden of the body

Toxic Beauty contains interviews with experts, lawyers, women with cancer, opinion leaders agitating for change and a woman who has gone to court against Johnson & Johnson. The interviews are spiced with pictures of the products in question – not as glamorous when presented in large quantities and without beautifying filters – and advertising clips that remind us of how the products are marketed.

Toxic Beaty Director Phyllis Ellis

The character that touches us the most is probably Mel Lika. We get to see her as she was before – a powerful and resourceful lady who worked with counterintelligence and peacekeeping. Now she has become fragile and transparent: The cancer has greedily supplied both her body and her life. We also meet Deane Berg, who survived the cancer and went to court against Johnson & Johnson – with disappointing results. It is clear that Berg has told her story before, and that she is happy to continue to do just that: Her victory over cancer is not doomed. In Toronto, she is received almost like a rock star when she comes to share her experiences with other women with cancer who also want to sue the company they believe has poisoned them.

Manufacturers claim that although the products may contain toxic substances, it is in such small doses that they are negligible.

The film alternates between the tale of the origin and effect of talcum powder, features with the lawyers fighting to get the product labeled with warnings, and the portrayal of young scientist Mymy Nguyen's way of finding out what her own beauty regime really does with her body. She takes the Body Burden test, developed and administered by Silent Spring, an organization named after Rachel Carson's famous book. Nguyen picks up test equipment in her office, and then we follow her in the process of identifying potentially harmful skin care products. Every day, she delivers urine samples to Silent Spring. Finally, she receives the shocking results: The 27 different products she uses on her face pose a total burden on the body. But Nguyen continues to use more of them. Like the rest of us, she just wants to know what the products actually contain, and then to make an informed and independent choice.

prohibition Requirements

Ellis has been wise to put together different archival material – for example, clips from the type of advertising that most often make women look unsure of their appearance and thus buy products that will make them more beautiful – and two interview categories, one with experts, the other with those who have used the talcum powder, as well as some abstract footage that turns the perspective down. The cinematographer's exquisite camera guidance helps Toxic Beauty force and weight. The interviews with the researchers and experts, who come from structured environments, are filmed in formal settings. The same goes for the interviews with Deane Berg, who according to her lawyer is "talcum powder's Erin Brockovich". The interviews with the cancerous women, on the other hand, are different: They are unique in the way they tell about how the talcum powder has affected their lives – and it is clear that Nguyen has been very conscious of how she filmed them. "When we were filming the women, we also included it in their surroundings that wasn't so perfect. They had to be in an environment where they could relax. But the situation is never the way you imagine it. I was surprised at how calm and understanding the women were: Most of them lived with cancer. In most of the films I make, I try to balance taking good pictures, covering the case and taking me away from the situation as much as possible. But in this movie, we had to step back and take as little as possible, out of respect for the women. We asked them constantly to be sure they would really continue with the footage. Filming real people is a balance between respect and exploitation. We reminded ourselves that they said yes to the film because they would like to convey how their existence has been torn to pieces, ”Ngyuen says.

The director is careful to emphasize that the people who produce the toxic products do not wake up in the morning with the idea "I will kill women today". Like activists, experts and cancer-stricken women, Ellis wants the authorities to ban the most harmful chemicals and demand manufacturers to label the products. Women will always want to look good, smell good and feel good, but they have to be given the opportunity to choose health-damaging products. To see Toxic Beauty will scare you – and curse you. And that is perhaps exactly what we need for a change to take place.

Previously published in POV
(Point of View Magazine)

Translated by Vibeke Harper
Judy Wolfe is a consultant and publisher as well as responsible publisher for POV.

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