“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.The 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.
Because 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.”