You’re Beautiful, Now Change

“They’re going to transform me into the person I really am.” This trope is pathologically repeated on makeover television shows. In Makeover TV, Brenda Weber examines reality shows that are, essentially, teaching women how to be women. In her chapter “‘I’m a Woman Now!’: Race, Class, and Femme-ing the Normative,” Weber unpacks the politics of femininity working behind shows like The Swan, What Not to Wear, and Extreme Makeover. The whole process typically relies upon picking an average woman on the street and inviting them into a world of glamour. The makeover then helps the woman see herself in a new light, but also see her gender in a new light.

In order for the process to work the show needs to illuminate what needs fixing in the first place. In What Not to Wear, hosts Stacy London and Clinton Kelly completely tear up the contestants’ entire closets. Although they do provide them with a new wardrobe, it sets forth the notion that—without professional help—women having nothing of value to wear. It’s funny because the contestants already have brimming closets—just not filled with the right clothes.tumblr_mexfpmwbru1rknrf9o1_500giphy-12The makeovers then make the woman. Aside from giving them a new look, makeover shows create the illusion that they are giving them a new life. Weber explains, “Because of the fluidity between insides and outsides constantly references on these shows, however, external change, even that which happens in a matter of hours, allows for a newly constituted interiority” (Weber, 128). This is how they get us, the viewers. We witness their shift from the invisible to the visible, and fawn over their newfound confidence (Weber, 132). But is that really the case, or are they just becoming a caricature of generic-brand femininity?

Julie Gerstein, current style editor at BuzzFeed, appeared in an episode of What Not to Wear, and chronicled her experience for her former site of employment, The Frisky. Her episode’s gimmick was rooted in the fact that she gets paid to write about fashion, yet has no personal sense of style.  Hilarity ensues. Sadly, Gerstein’s lack of style was rooted in her crippling body dysmorphia, which the show actively tried to “fix.” In her blog post, Gerstein said, “I was given my ‘rules’—the code with which I was supposed to make all shopping decisions over the following two days. They attempted to make me see my curves as an asset, instead of a detriment. But I still really didn’t believe them.” Though she felt like the show did help her body image issues, she admits that only time and intensive therapy really cured it.
hofashionBecause I love a good America’s Next Top Model dialogue, I have to bring in the makeover aspect of that show, too. While models are expected to be the de facto arbiters of beauty, they are also expected to alter themselves to reach their full beauty potential. In enforcing makeovers every season, the show is basically saying, “You’re beautiful, now change”—which is the actual name of the show’s eleventh season makeover episode. I just can’t even.

Unfortunately, the model contestants are often punished or eliminated for expressing a discomfort with the whirlwind makeovers. Such was the case with season five’s Cassandra Jean, who chose to go home after not wanting to cut another inch off of the pixie cut Tyra assigned her. Narrating her own exit montage, Jean said, “I want to walk out of this competition knowing that what I did was right in the long-run, and that means not letting people change who I am.”

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5 thoughts on “You’re Beautiful, Now Change

  1. I always found makeover shows really bizarre… the contestants rarely ever have any say in the final product of their “look,” and they simply have to accept the outcome because it’s the right way to look, or so dictates the tastemakers on the shows. These contestants walk into situations where complete strangers are in charge of their drastic transformation of their aesthetic appearance based on the rules and power of the fashion game.
    First, the team will bring you down into a complete state of vulnerability and powerlessness until you’re willing to accept absolutely anything they have to say about what measures will be taken to make you the ideal female. I suppose to some extent the contestant is aware of these transformation practices, I just find it very bizarre to let someone have complete control of your appearance without any regard for what you desire to look like. Makeover shows hold the power to dictate exactly what femininity and style mean. By utilizing vulnerability and insecurities, makeover shows are able to exemplify the ideal woman which will reach millions of eyes and reaffirm the power of the media to impose trends and looks upon women. Women on these shows are constantly at a battle with accepting what is the “right” way to look and holding on to the essence of their being at the hands of stylists and hairdressers.

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  2. The makeover episodes of America’s Next Top Model have always been my favorite. All of the drama surrounding the transformations is entertaining. Looking back, the show leads the audience to believe that the models almost always look SO much better after the look Tyra envisioned for them has been accomplished. We all scoff at the one girl who refuses to cut her hair or the one who cries because of the color change, but at the end of the day, would we be comfortable in their position?
    It’s also extremely interesting to look back on the seasons and see what the current “look” of the fashion industry is popular at the moment. The last few seasons it seems as if they are getting more and more outrageous and different. The aim is to have a working editorial model, to mold these young people into something new and unique, regardless of whether or not it’s a representation of themselves. They are no longer in control of how they look, they are told that they lose that agency the moment they step into the modeling world.
    One of the male contestants this season got a beard weave… Yes, a BEARD WEAVE. It had to be redone because the first time it looked even more horrifying. The addition of male models, however, has added a very interesting dynamic to the show and brings to light more of the male modeling world that we seem to see little of.

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  3. The make over episode of ANTM has always been my favorite, for two reasons. 1.) It’s always interesting to see what the team has decided is going to make a particular model look more like a … model. Often, that means a new haircut, a dramatic new hair color, or removing/adding to their eye brows. The concept that a new haircut makes someone more model-esque as opposed to some other hairstyle seemed strange to me, especially when some models were actually given more hair to make them edgier. One of the things that always stuck out to me was how Tyra seemingly always cut the racially ambiguous girls’ super long and curly hair to a really short, androgynous look and gave the darker skinned models with naturally short hair, super dramatic, long, straight extensions. I haven’t watched the show in a while, but Tyra has never (since I remember it) given a black model a natural looking afro or braids or something.

    2.) I’ve always been fascinated by the women’s reactions to cutting their hair. I mean, they cry, they get angry, they worry about what they will look like if they lose the competition and then have to walk around their hometown with no hair. This is particularly interesting to me, because I have a very close connection to my hair (look at me personifying my hair like its my friend) and I would always try to imagine if I would let Tyra cut my hair. And the answer was always no, so I guess I couldn’t be a model. I never really understood the importance of cutting hair and why it was seen as being more fashion-y to have short hair, but I think this is just a test for Tyra to see how much you’re willing to sacrifice to be ‘on top.’

    That brings me to my next point, there is just so much wrapped up in appearance! The notion that by choosing to cut or not cut your hair represents how badly you want something. That if you choose NOT to cut your hair, you’re pretentious, not serious, and bratty. I don’t know if this has more to do with the contestants’ autonomy or Tyra’s control issues, but I think it is so strange that Tyra and her crew demand complete control over the future model’s bodies and that even though there is the veil of having a choice, there really is no choice, because if you say no, you must not want it enough. Kind of like society I guess, that if you aren’t a certain size or have a certain look you must not care enough to be a useful citizen.

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  4. I remember back when I first watched this episode as a teenager; I thought Cassandra was a whiney annoying girl who just didn’t want her hair to look “boyish”. My reaction was the same as most peoples’: Get over it, this is a competition! Now, looking at if from a different perspective, I think it was actually very brave of her not to give into something that she wasn’t okay with. Much like Mercedes’s comment, I often think of what I would do if Tyra wanted me to cut my hair (a part of me that I love and take pride in). I would definitely say no.
    This makes me think of our studies on modeling, and the different anecdotes about models being afraid to say no to something they are uncomfortable with, because it may jeopardize their career. ANTM actually does a good job of preparing models for that world in which they seemingly lose all agency, by beginning the process of their way to the “top” through a sometimes drastic makeover. Yes, to be a “star”, it is helpful to have a signature “look”, or “edge”, or what have you. But if that “look” came from someone else’s idea, then is it really you? I remember watching this show over the years and when it came time for the makeover episode, I would sometimes be shocked that Tyra would even want to change certain models who had great, unique looks already. Why change a good thing?
    ANTM is ,however, definitely one of my guilty pleasures, and I love watching the makeover episode. Watching transformations are exciting–it’s why most of us enjoy watching makeover shows, and why there is a market for it. However, if I could change it, I would say that the makeover episode should be dictated by the models themselves- they should tell the stylists what they would like their new “look” to be, and let their success ride on their own choice and agency.

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  5. Speaking of Tyra Banks…on her talk show, there was one episode in which she went “under cover” as a fat woman to see how it truly feels to not be beautiful.
    She cries, she tells her viewers how tough it must be to be heavyset.

    Melissa Gorga (NJ Real Housewife) also goes “undercover” in a 400lbs. fat suit and walks around to see what happens.

    I just found it so interesting that they had thin “beautiful” women dress as overweight women rather than just ask REAL overweight women to participate.
    Melissa wanted to learn about “judgement and respect”.
    But by even advertising this on television as a costume or going undercover is to me very disgusting- as if this is a day long makeover these women are undergoing and then will shed off at the end.
    Maybe we should start thinking about how women go “undercover” every day when they are photoshopped into extremely thin, unnatural looking women on billboards and in advertisements.

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