Extreme Makeover: Cultural Standards of Beauty Edition

In 2002, ABC premiered their new show “Extreme Makeover.” The show chose two people per episode who did not fit societal notions of beauty. They were then gifted them with full makeovers to “transform their lives and destinies, and to make their dreams come true.”[i] These makeovers go beyond hair, make-up and clothing by going to the “extreme” with cosmetic dentistry, plastic surgery and eye surgery. The transformations are all-encompassing, often leaving the participant unrecognizable.

Of course the final product we see on TV is not the full process. Extreme Makeover was broadcasted on ABC, a company owned by the Disney Corporation. Each member of the “team” is board certified and provides great care for their patients. Additionally, they have no “skeletons in their closet” as one selected surgeon phrased it. [ii] The surgeons may get to choose the patients but that does not mean it is completely up to them:

What he failed to explain was that the consultations would be attended by the show’s associate producers who tried to influence me in the selection process to choose candidates with the most dramatic storyline or most dynamic transformation possibility. I had to temper their enthusiasms for the dramatic with the reality of patient and procedure selection; things like patient health, anatomy, desires and expectations. I had to choose patients that required a reasonable surgical plan that I deemed safe and realistic. [ii]

The show was dramatized to encourage viewership. The show followed a simple formula: introduction of character as a moral person, explanation of why they need the makeover, the makeover, and the big reveal.

The show equated physical beauty to happiness. The patients were introduced as these great people who had overcome adversity and deserved to have their external appearance mirror their positive interior. The show always ended with a “big reveal,” usually a big party with the patient’s friends and family, but occasionally it ended with the wedding. Showing that these formerly “ugly-ducklings” could get their happily-ever-after—all thanks to cosmetic surgery.

Watch Susan and Michael’s transformations below.

Laura Miller’s book Beauty Up explored the Japanese body aesthetic. In the chapter on male beauty work, she cites the male’s desire to find a woman the main catalyst for men seeking cosmetic changes. Extreme makeover parallels this desire by showing the contestants being happy and loved (whether by their families or signicant other post operation. Their lives are better, they claim they have “more opportunity” and their surgeries set a standard for the audience. We are told that the patients “post” pictures are what is considered beautiful. They are usually tanned, with pearly white veneers, larger breasts, Lasik surgery to remove glasses, and chiseled features. Whether this decides the national standard of beauty, or upholds it is up for debate. Regardless, the show instills the idea that a “life makeover” can only occur because of an “extreme makeover.”

The third chapter of the book focuses on the obsession of Japanese women with the breast. Prior to Western influence, Japanese women desired a flat chest. But after exposure to western culture and “long-legged, big-bosomed glamor” Japanese beauty standards have changed.[iii] Many of the traits American patients are trying to gain on Extreme Makeover are the same as their Japanese counterparts: thin, big breasts, and delicate features. Today the images have infiltrated their own media as many comics and anime characters take part in “Mammary Mania.”

This shift in media representations begins to weave these ideas into the cultural standard for beauty. Perpetuating a billion dollar beauty industry while affecting the self-esteem of millions of women. Extreme Makeover was cancelled in 2007 after ratings dropped and critics attacked it for profiting off of nearly unattainable standards of beauty. Yet the removal of the show from air has not erased the extreme cosmetic surgery aesthetic from mass media. Whether it be on Real Housewives or in celebrity magazines, there is a constant representation of women (and men–I’m looking at you Heidi and Spencer) changing themselves to look more “beautiful” and feel more confident. It has become a globalized phenomenon; a complicated conundrum that has spurred billion-dollar industries.

 [i] Extreme Makeover Casting Call." RealityTVWorld.com. December 20, 2002. Accessed September 21, 2014. http%3A%2F%2Fwww.realitytvworld.com%2Fnews%2Fabc-now-casting-for-future-installments-of-extreme-makeover-826.php.
[ii] Tornambe, Robert. "Confessions of an Extreme Makeover Surgeon." Huffinton Post. June 9, 2011. Accessed September 21, 2014. http%3A%2F%2Fwww.huffingtonpost.com%2Frobert-tornambe-md%2Fconfessions-of-an-extreme_b_950234.html.
[iii]Miller, Laura. Beauty Up: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Body Aesthetics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

One thought on “Extreme Makeover: Cultural Standards of Beauty Edition

  1. I stumbled upon this painting by Andy Warhol when I visited the Whitney Museum and reminded me of the this blog post. Andy Warhol had undergone plastic surgery in the 1950s and this painting, finished in 1962, may be inspired from that event.


    He too seems to think that cosmetic surgery can change people’s lives and he is not ashamed to tell the world that he is obsessed with it. The source of this work was from a plastic surgery advertisement. The picture “signifies the promise of magical transformation that became a large part of American postwar consumer society” It was obvious which of the two ice profiles was the before and which was the after . Left obviously representing before and right is after. The plaque did not indicate which one is before and which is after, but I KNEW which one he was talking about, and I’m sure all of us do too. There isn’t a universal guide book telling us what is good and what is bad but somehow know about these standards subconsciously.

    Miller says that after the exposure to western culture, Japanese women started to desire for longer legs and bigger boobs. With Warhol’s black and white painting it is hard to tell what race the woman belong to but Warhol was white and also the majority of those people on Extreme Makeover and the Real Housewives. If the Japanese aspire to be like the west. Who are the west aspiring to when they undergo their surgeries?They are already the “desired” race.


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