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As soon as I was done watching HBO Max’s Not So Pretty, I went straight to my vanity and whipped out my phone. I downloaded the apps the series had suggested and looked up the ingredients of my most used beauty products; I googled the Johnson’s baby powder asbestos lawsuit and the Safer Beauty bill package.
That I felt curious enough to do all these things speaks plainly to the docuseries’ success in its primary goal of conveying information and spurring action. Not So Pretty won’t be the most entertaining documentary you’ll ever watch, nor the most artful nor the most moving — though it’s at least entertaining, artful and moving enough to keep a viewer engaged. But it’s valuable as the start of a larger conversation to be had about the hidden dangers of the beauty industry, for consumers and viewers alike.
Not So Pretty
Airdate: Thursday, April 14 (HBO Max)
Creators: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering
Each of the four episodes directed by Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick zeroes in on a different sector of the industry: makeup, nails, skin, hair. At around half an hour each, none are long enough to go truly in-depth on the topics they’re covering. Still, Ziering and Dick make efficient use of the time they do have, braiding together scientific information, personal stories and cultural context into easily digestible narratives about the ugly side of beauty.
“Hair,” for instance, is built largely around the recent complaints about DevaCurl (a holy-grail product line formerly beloved by curly haired customers) causing rashes, hair loss and other health issues. In interviews, scientists patiently explain the formaldehyde-releasing agents in hair products and the damage they can do, while advocates and analysts discuss the lack of effective regulations requiring companies to actually test their hair products for safety, or to recall their products once they’ve been proven to be dangerous.
Meanwhile, the episode also zooms in on the stories of individuals affected by DevaCurl’s apparently caustic formulations — like Ayesha Malik, an influencer whose video about her experiences with the brand raised awareness for thousands of other users — and zooms out to touch upon the larger history of Black hair in America going all the way back to slavery. That includes the pressure that Black women and other curly haired women still feel to conform to a Eurocentric beauty standard that positions straight hair as the desirable norm.
Likewise, “Nails” gets personal with one epidemiologist whose research into the chemicals in nail polish was inspired by her own mother’s cancer, believed to have been caused by her exposure to those substances at her nail salon job — and also summarizes how Tippi Hedren launched the boom of Vietnamese nail salons in America, thus offering both a broad history of the nail industry and a firsthand one.
“Skin” and “Makeup” highlight, among other things, the dirty tricks used by the industry to skirt what regulations do exist, to avoid legal consequences or to defend against years of research showing the harm their products can cause: For example, the “fragrance” often listed in the ingredients can contain any number of chemicals, including chemicals the product explicitly claims not to contain, because the specific formulation of a fragrance is considered a trade secret.
The revelations contained in Not So Pretty can be disturbing, and the real-life anecdotes used to illustrate them devastating. But the docuseries stubbornly resists either the helplessness or the despair that can come with such a deluge of bad news, focusing instead on what viewers can do by ending each episode with a tidy list of “do’s and don’ts” (i.e., actionable items): Avoid these types of plastics, look for nail polishes free of those chemicals, sign this petition and don’t forget to reach out to your congressperson about that bill.
This basic format, combined with Keke Palmer’s sunny but somewhat stiff narration, can make Not So Pretty feel less like an episode of television than an extended PSA, polished and simplistic and a little bit cheesy. (“Sometimes, all this makeup may do things to us that are not so pretty” is a particular groaner, even if it’s the line that gives the series its title.) And compared to Ziering and Dick’s other crusading works, like Allen v. Farrow or On the Record, Not So Pretty feels less intimate and intense, not because its stories are necessarily less sad or important but because it doesn’t delve into them as deeply.
But considered as a way into a topic too few viewers know about, Not So Pretty‘s bite-sized episodes, relatively light tone, and shallow but broad explorations could reasonably be considered a feature, not a bug. The qualities that keep the series from feeling as hefty as it perhaps could are the same ones that make it easy to binge, and the same ones that keep it moving over a wide array of topics while presenting just enough detail to make you want to dig for more. If my immediate impulse to take stock of my own daily skin-care routine is any indication, it does exactly what it sets out to do.
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