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I was once a rabid fan of makeover shows. I’ve watched more of them than I’d care to admit. In my mind, the premise used to appear reasonable: some unfortunate wastrel is plucked from the unwashed masses and spruced up to the delight of her friends and family. Almost Pygmalion-ish, the whole affair looked charming, the subject of the style overhaul seemed grateful, and that was that.
As I grow older, though, the convention of the television makeover for women seems problematic to me. When we dissect the phenomenon it becomes more sinister. What we’re seeing, over and over, is an authority figure who hijacks an aspect of a woman’s personal expression, her style, then tells her how it is all wrong (according to a very specific paradigm) and systematically creates a more socially acceptable version of the woman in question. Everybody gets a fitted blazer, a pop of color, and a punchy accessory. The viewer feels relieved. The problem has been solved.
On TLC’s What Not to Wear, stylists Stacy London and Clinton Kelly secretly film each participant as she goes about her daily routine. Afterwards, they gather the woman’s friends, family, and coworkers to view the collected footage. The object is to shame and humiliate the subject in front of the people she cares about in order to get her to change her ways. Wait, not her ways, really. Just her clothes.
It’s a fashion intervention, see? Usually the woman cries, sometimes she becomes indignant. A lot of times the subject will be defiant. “My clothes are comfortable!” she’ll exclaim, or “But I love that dress!” As the fashion criminal pleads her case, the viewer is invited to roll her eyes along with the stylists. The show’s formula is so seductive that we’re tricked into gleefully bullying the participant without guilt. The implication is clear to us, obviously that woman is a disaster, this is all for her own good.
In reality, what we’re seeing, again and again, is a regular woman robbed of her agency, made to doubt her own instincts, and homogenized into the larger “culture.” Subjects with long hair are made to feel juvenile, participants who dress provocatively are slut-shamed, and over and over we hear the stylists asking, “How to you expect people to treat you when you’re dressed that way?” Not once yet has a woman responded, “Like a fucking human being.” Isn’t that sad?
Next the hosts of the show line up all the subject’s clothes on a rack and interrogate her in regard to the different pieces. “Where did you even get this?” “Does this even fit you?” Sometimes the subject laughs, but you can always see how vulnerable she is. When the hosts don’t like something they hurl it into a giant trashcan. It’s all in the name of helping the woman be her best, though. Taking the things she loves, that she has collected over the years, and throwing them into a trashcan while berating her. It’s an act of love. Can’t you see that? Isn’t it obvious?
After the woman is sufficiently broken down, the hosts introduce the participant to a set of “rules.” They show her three mannequins dressed in silhouettes that they tell her will flatter her body. Sometimes as an empty gesture the hosts will deign to ask the woman what she thinks of the three outfits. If she says anything negative she is ridiculed. Eventually, whether she likes it or not, she is cajoled into shopping for items that meet the hosts’ criteria.
In the next segment we see the hapless participant searching through stores, frantically poring over garment after garment, “Does it follow the rules?” She is so obviously helpless; frequently she cries. Shopping is so hard when you’re no longer entitled to your own opinions, after all. I used to shake my head watching these scenes, “How pathetic,” I’d huff. Now I see it differently: how, after all, do you undertake a task that is wholly subjective and based on personal taste after you’ve been told that your personal taste is shit and never to trust it? That must be a very jarring experience.
Eventually the style authorities swoop in to rescue the woman from her total ineptitude. They whisk her away to the dressing room and give her things to try on. She comes out and looks in the mirror and the outfits are great. The viewer smiles, gratified. “Oh thank God,” you say to yourself as you watch, “she looks soooo much better.”
But does she look like herself? That’s the thing. Maybe she used to dress in long skirts and polo shirts and tube socks and high tops. Why then, are we so satisfied to see her relieved of her atypical wardrobe and given a more conventional one? Why are we convinced when at the end of the show the woman says she is happy? That she’s never felt better and that she has a new lease on life? Why do we believe that? A woman who has just been brainwashed, ridiculed, bullied, has just had all her things thrown away, with a new hairstyle and make up that has been chosen by somebody else, with an entirely new wardrobe that has been put together according to somebody else’s rules. Why do we believe that woman is happy? And, boy, if she really is happy…that’s even scarier.
But it’s convincing. It is. When the woman is thanking the hosts tearfully at the end of the show your heart squeezes a little. “Oh thank you,” she’ll always say, “I never thought I could look like this.” It’s a little like Stockholm Syndrome, how the participant praises the hosts for their kindness and concern. They have taken away her appearance, replaced it with one they believe she ought to have instead (mostly without her input), paraded her in front of friends and family to solicit their approval, and she just can’t say enough how much she really appreciates it. Doesn’t that seem strange to you?
As women, the whole process strikes us as being acceptable. It seems harmless to us, even altruistic. We imagine it’s what a trusted girlfriend or a mother would do, just help us look more put together, help us put our best foot forward.
But TLC is not a trusted girlfriend, and it is not your mother. It is a for-profit and insidious arm of a multi-billion dollar fashion/ weight-loss industry that thrives when women doubt themselves. This is not a show about personal growth or self-improvement; it is a show that sends the message that a woman’s appearance is tantamount to every other aspect of her being. The subtext is maddeningly clear: unless you have that fitted blazer, that pop of color, that punchy accessory—unless you have that shit every day—you’re not as good of a mother, you’re not as good at your job, you’re not as good of a person.
I’m just one small voice, but let me just tell you the truth; What Not to Wear is a myth. It’s a symptom of women internalizing their own oppression. It’s the feeling you get when you see something you like and think, “I’m too old, too fat, too tall, too short, too whatever to wear that.” What Not to Wear is not the authority, and neither is any other style or lifestyle show trying to tell you how to dress or how to cook or how to live. You are the authority. You are. Makeover your mind. Trust yourself and wear what you like.
Photo Credit: Art Comments under (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr