“Because Who Is Perfect?”

This week’s readings made me think about my final project topic, and so I thought it might be interesting to analyze the readings and the issue of the makeover in reference to disability narratives in media and fashion, as well as the issue of a normative beauty aesthetic. Brenda Weber’s chapter Makeover Nation: Americanness, Neoliberalism, and the Citizen-Subject analyzes the effect that television makeover shows have on the nation and our sense of nationalistic identity. The reading is reminiscent of our readings on Cosmopolitan Whiteness and the nation’s neoliberal tendencies. Weber discusses the sense of “egalitarian optimism” and how it connects to neoliberalism. There is the idea that everyone can rise in the ranks of society if given the proper resources. Neoliberalism says that if you try, you can overcome anything, even the existing structures that oppress people. If you accept this perspective, you don’t have to try and fix the institutions that are set in place, and the responsibility falls on the individual to mend their life and fit into society’s structures. The need to fit in prompts people to go on these makeover shows and to purchase products in order to construct their identity and sense of place. Consumerism is thus linked with identity. And while these makeover shows attempt to fix people’s appearance in the hopes that it will fix their life and lifestyles, the shows ultimately focus on white, female, middle-class bodies, and therefore ostracize and leave out a large percentage of the population. Weber writes, “In this chapter I argue that TV makeovers participate in projects of citizenship, where the neoliberal mandate for care of the self in service of the market fuses with the values of a mythic, egalitarian American to create a new, imagined territory I call Makeover Nation” (Weber, 38). Makeover shows feign the appearance that all are capable of radical transformation if they just believe in themselves. And after the makeover, neoliberalism continues to influence the participants, and they are made to think that their new appearance will make them able to accomplish anything. The makeover shows emphasize free market capitalism, which fuels the economy and places the responsibility on the individual rather than established institutions of oppression. Makeover Nation, as Weber calls it, symbolizes confident people whose consumption of material objects are signs of happiness and fulfillment. Neoliberalism advocates for self-maintenance to comply with nationalistic ideals perpetuated by makeover television shows. Self-care is seen as a prerequisite for belonging to and competing in the free market.

The television makeover shows do not address difference in the forms or race, ethnicity, class, and especially disability. My final project deals with disability and the concept of difference as it relates to normalized beauty standards in society. Those with disabilities are not representative in these transformation shows and are seen as “other” in the largest sense. Weber discusses how participants in makeover shows are whisked away to behind the scenes institutions of fashion and beauty. They are put in temporary contact with the TasteMakers, those who create ideals of aesthetics and beauty, but are then pushed back into reality, forced to defend for themselves in a neoliberal society. Pro Infirmis, a disability advocacy group, created a campaign that had an artist create fashion mannequins that were modeled after real people who lived with disabilities.

The video, titled “Because Who is Perfect”, puts those with disabilities in direct contact with the fashion industry and the TasteMakers. Weber writes how those in transformation shows are put in quarantine until they are deemed acceptable to be viewed by the public. She writes, “By restricting “ugly” women from full citizenship status…reifies the values of an ugly/beautiful divide and affirms that those who resist normativity merit reduced privileges and rights until they comply with a hegemonic value system” (Weber, 44). There is an intense focus on the “after” body in makeover shows. Weber writes, “After-bodies who constitute Makeover Nation’s citizen-subjects must be self-aware, self-cultivating, and self-sufficient, able to ascertain the flow of the market and to participate without governmental assistance in an exchange of currencies (money, beauty, power, strength) for commodities (products, love, acceptance, adulation)” (Weber, 51). Those with disabilities are not really allowed to participate or consume in free market capitalism, and thus are not identified and represented in media and fashion.

The makeover shows use humiliation and lifestyle shaming to try and shape people’s aesthetics to fit the normative, national beauty ideals. Makeover Nation, exemplified by television programs such as The Biggest Loser and What Not to Wear constantly use shame and putting their participants on a literal pedestal in order to shape their identity. Participants are subject to what Weber refers to as “dictators” in the form of fitness coaches and lifestyle gurus and are made to embody an ideal citizen. Weber writes, “Through the process of affective domination…subjects are disciplined into citizenry through a combination of shaming and love-power that reinforces divisions between the abject alienation of Before and the normative celebration of After” (Weber, 40). Below are a few examples of this humiliation discourse in the television programs.

 The first is a video from The Biggest Loser where the trainer is yelling at one of the participants for apparently not doing her best to fit his standards.

The next are from the show What Not to Wear, which to me provides the clearest example of this shame of living one’s life not according to the TasteMakers standards of ideal beauty.

In this video from What Not to Wear, a woman is made to feel bad for “letting herself go” due to an illness. The hosts of the show say that if you don’t care about yourself (meaning your appearance), then no one else will. At the end of the show, with the participant looking happier and acting sexier, the hosts say that she “looks like a million bucks”. This reinforces the notion that one must invest a lot of money in order to look and feel better.

In this second clip, the woman is made to feel as though she should be dressing for her husband and not for herself. She is made to feel guilty for not keeping up her appearance at all times, especially for her hot husband. The woman says that she does not like to be seen, and instead prefers to be in the background. The hosts respond saying that if given the opportunity, one should always try to feel young and gorgeous. They advocate for the internalization of the male gaze to view the female body. There is an intense focus on white, middle-aged women who are “frumpy” or who have given up on their lives. Weber discusses the makeover shows requirement of a “celebratory visibility” of this transformation and the gaze. Weber writes, “Makeovers depict this movement from the invisible to the visible as a salutary and necessary consequence of putting the femme in female” (Weber, 132). Once one becomes beautiful according to society’s standards, they are supposed to be welcoming of the male gaze. However, many with disabilities do not have access to this visibility. They are not represented in media or fashion, as evident in the disabled mannequins and the stares that they get in the storefront. Those with disabilities are inevitably left out, and are not seen as even deserving of a transformation or makeover. Thus, they are seen as not ascribing to the normalizing efforts made in Makeover Nation. Those with disabilities are representative of the “other”. Weber writes, “The makeover’s failure to account for differences evokes both neoliberal and postfemininst rationalities, which eschew practical and material politics in favor of idealized individual bodies that can compete in a global marketplace” (Weber, 132). Makeover shows create a binary between the normal and the other. They create a normalized and regulated citizen.

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3 thoughts on ““Because Who Is Perfect?”

  1. I’m really interested in your observation that “once one becomes beautiful according to society’s standards, they are supposed to be welcoming of the male gaze”. It puts me in mind of the recent press that catcalling has gotten in light of that video, “10 Hours as a Woman in NYC” (I’m pretty sure that’s what it’s called, anyway). The video recorded all the catcalls that one woman got as she simply navigated her own day.

    There has been a lot of backlash from men who feel that catcalls are simply compliments, and that women should feel better about themselves for hearing them. This sentiment is the same one that resonates throughout the makeover culture. Weber references a black woman named Dara who received a makeover on “What Not To Wear”: “Before her makeover, Dara notes in tears, ‘I do wear my clothes big for a reason. That’s so no one can see what’s underneath. I’m afraid to dress. I’m afraid to be seen.’ …Nowhere does the makeover allow for the collusion between race, visibility and vulnerability, which in this case would recognize that Dara’s reticence to expose herself may well be a factor of the hypervisibility she experiences in a body marked by both sex and race.”

    The key word here is “hypervisibility”. Women are already expected to be hypervisible and hyperavailable to the male gaze; additional factors of race, gender presentation, religion, et cetera may make them even more vulnerable to that gaze. Makeover culture is a way of catering to this: if women must be hypervisible at all times, they must also be nice to look at. And when we are catcalled for being nice to look at, we must respond with grace and gratitude.

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  2. I think it’s really interesting what you point out about the intrinsic relationship between beauty, capital, disability and access. It made me think of a Korean reality makeover show that I watched with my mom over the summer called “Let Me In” which provides people with mostly cosmetic, but sometimes physical, disabilities with free plastic surgery. The premise of the show is that two people who need surgery but can’t afford it argue their case before a panel of surgeons. Whoever is chosen is gifted free surgery and access to the surgeons who sit behind giant sliding doors that open to the patient, hence “Let Me In.” Let me in is an interesting phrase to choose as a title. It doesn’t just refer to the access to the surgeon, but access to the resources and a certain echelon of society–it’s a phrase that’s often a plea more than a demand; we’re begging to gain access to this beauty privilege and find access only by changing ourselves dramatically. What’s interesting about the show is that no matter the issue–a misaligned jaw, large breasts causing back problems, massive amounts of sagging skin as a byproduct of weight loss–the patient always gets double eyelid surgery and often jaw shaving or a nose job and while the show operates under the guise of helping these people out (which, of course, they are) it ultimately circulates the idea of beauty as capital by generously helping these patients fix their disabilities, one of which is their “ugliness.”

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  3. The way you connected disability and neoliberalism was a really good idea and I would like to flesh it out even further. I would argue that people deemed ugly, gender nonconforming, and low class, among many other things, by Makeover Nation are also considered disabled in a metaphorical way. The professional opinion of stylists and plastic surgeons on these shows is that all these things that count against being white, upper class, and beautiful handicap their lives, deny them citizenship, and prevent their “true selves” from showing. But the difference between these “disabilities” and real, disabling conditions is that the former can be changed. The idea is that all these things can be fixed with an expert and personal perseverance (as was painfully depicted in the clip you posted of The Biggest Loser). This is a neoliberal idea. However, the reality of many, if not most, disabilities is that they cannot be changed by a simple makeover, a change of mindset, or even plastic surgery. They are excluded from the discourse of Makeover Nation because their very existence invalidates neoliberalism; these are people who can never fit the look these experts claim everyone can achieve. If makeover shows were to include disabled people, they would have much less of an impact. Someone in a wheelchair could have a different makeover every week and buy into all the ideological aspects of neoliberalism, but still not reach the ideal that Makeover Nation claims is possible. The mere existence of disabled people threaten the entire structure of neoliberal beliefs this culture of makeovers rests on.

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