Heel Thyself


First there was consciousness-raising, when women advocated group conversation as the key to finding ourselves. That idea dissolved into confession culture—therapy as a spectator sport, with televisual enablers like Oprah and Sally Jesse egging us on. Now we’ve come full circle to the makeover myth. Instead of searching for yourself, you can just create a new look to match the person you’d rather be. From self-discovery to self-fabrication—as those old Virginia Slims ads liked to say, we’ve come a long way, baby!

I used to joke that if someone really wanted to make a fortune, they should start a 24-hour makeover network. We’re not far from that now; channels like TLC and Style pump out hours of programming that belong in the Cinderella category, one step beyond having your face done over at a Bloomingdales’ cosmetics counter. Feminist qualms aside, I’m a sucker for a good makeover show like What Not to Wear on BBC America. (There’s a new American version on TLC, but I’ll reserve judgment until it finds its feet). This hit from the U.K. stars two waspish fashion journalists named Trinnie and Susannah who unleash merciless style critiques on their hapless subjects, women unknowingly nominated by friends or family for their crimes against fashion.

These dressings-down are seriously bitchy—”Oh God, she reminds me of Rod Stewart!” Susannah shrieks of one middle-aged woman with a penchant for mullets and tight purple leggings. But the duo is cruel only to be kind. “A woman who doesn’t know how to dress . . . has forgotten how to have fun,” Trinnie remarks in an episode about 40-year-old Tina, a harried working mom who looks about a decade older. Sure enough, Tina believes that “spending too much time on myself seems rather vain.” Nonsense! say Trinnie and Susannah, frog-marching the narcissism-impaired Tina through the shopping malls of London in search of an enhanced self-image.

“Feminine” is their watchword, which can get irritating after a while. Frumpy is not an option: If the meek expect to inherit the earth, they better damn well be sporting high-heeled boots and a flattering bias-cut skirt. Chubbettes are exhorted to emphasize their curves rather than hide inside baggy sacks. Susannah, irrepressible and frisky, seems to genuinely adore women’s lumpy, imperfect bodies. “You have an ass most women would die for!” she enthuses, going so far as to prod boobs and squeeze butts—an endearing quirk that softens her dictatorial Weakest Link manner.

What Not to Wear gets all the ingredients right, with a seamless mix of nastiness, merriment, and self-help. Part of every episode is dedicated to explaining which clothes suit specific body shapes—dogmatic but useful. Of course, Trinnie and Susannah are disciples of the makeover gospel: Alter your appearance and you change inside, too. Nearly every episode ends with a self-satisfied look at how refreshed and renewed the subject feels. Spring-cleaning the closet leads some guests to reconsider the rut they’ve fallen into. “I’ve cried and cried,” recent divorcée Sandie tells a video camera after a day with Trinnie and Susannah. “I’ve cried for my past life, and I’ve cried for my marriage. I’ve cried for the person I used to be.” What Not to Wear is exhilarating to watch because there’s a smidgen of truth in it. You do tend to feel better about yourself when you look good, and when your self-esteem takes a hit, appearance is one of the first things to suffer.

Like reality TV, the makeover genre is driven by a kind of porno logic. Producers and consumers alike crave a harder, more graphic hit. With makeovers, that means ever more drastic transformations with an ever more visible subtext: a profound dissatisfaction with your life verging on self-loathing. One of ABC’S biggest hits this season was Extreme Make-over, which pushed the format from mild fantasy to something darker. Instead of snipping bangs and plucking brows, the SWAT team of cosmetic surgeons, dentists, and stylists on Extreme Makeover slice off excess flesh and crack bones. Forty-year-old stay-at-home mom Tammy had a face-lift, eye-lift, nose job, collagen injections, and facial resurfacing on national TV, explaining, “This is just something mommy’s got to do for me.” (Why, Tammy? Are you on the FBI’s most-wanted list?) In the weeks after surgery, she looked more like a Hiroshima victim than a Vogue model.

The sight of liquid fat being sucked through a liposuction tube makes me queasy, but that’s nothing compared to A Second Look, the Style Channel’s misconceived new makeover series. The premise: Take troubled women who are homeless, abused, and/or recovering from addiction and transform them—not just their appearance, but their entire lives. Like a terrible synthesis of Fashion Emergency and some Lifetime movie about a woman who lost everything but fought her way back, A Second Look is meant to be tear-jerking yet uplifting. “You pass them on the street, you see them in the parks,” intones the show’s host, Chantal Westerman. “These are the people most of us turn away from without a second thought or a second look.”

The show’s first candidate was Samantha, whose guided tour of her harrowing life story took about 10 minutes, accompanied by mournful background music and cutaways to Westerman, grimacing and gasping, hand over mouth. Samantha was repeatedly molested by her father, whom she stabbed when she was 11. When she emerged from jail nearly a dozen years later, she became a drug addict, had a baby, and ended up living on the street. Now Samantha’s clean, working at a diner, and wants to give her daughter a better life. The program promises to help her find a new job—”but first she has to look the part of a true professional.”

All this voyeuristic probing is just an extended lead-in to the dramatic makeover moment, and it yields one of my favorite TV lines ever: “Coming up next: an emotional day at the spa.” I’ve heard of yoga tapping into buried emotions, but a seaweed wrap? As we watch the salon staff rake these women over with hot stones and pore-cleaning facials, we’re encouraged to equate these beauty treatments with therapy—as if a hot mud mask could yank out literal impurities and return you to a state of childish innocence. Where Trinnie and Susannah suggest that sprucing up your wardrobe can re-energize you, A Second Look implies that changes in appearance can percolate down to your soul, washing away even the most ingrained social and emotional problems. Not only can you judge a book by the cover, but the cover changes the book.

“The people you meet on this show will never think of themselves in the same way again,” Westerman promises from the steps of the Jose Eber Salon in Beverly Hills. But when Westerman visits Samantha a few weeks later to present her new kitchen appliances and a job at a celebrity catering company, her look has already reverted to what it was before. This image of Samantha—puffy and sallow, with overbleached blond hair and a dumpy sweatsuit—suggests the limits of the makeover fantasy of personal redemption, which values up-by-your-own-bootstraps individualism over collective solutions. The message of makeovers is that anyone with sufficient determination can overcome both genetics and long social odds. These days, being pretty is a moral imperative—not to mention a life sentence. As two co-workers who’d just been turned into glam princesses on an episode of TLC’s A Makeover Story recently commented, “You’re gonna have to keep on my back about keeping up the look, and I’m going to have to stay on yours.”