Don’t get me started on The Swan. I loathe this series for exploiting women’s insecurities, but even more than that, I resent it for souring one my favorite fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling.” It’s a story beloved by many parents for the way it reassures gawky, oddball kids that one day they will blossom from an ugly duckling into a swan and be appreciated for who they are. The Swan dubs its contestants ugly ducklings, but its premise must have old Hans seething in his sepulchre.
Every week, contestants step forward to confess that they’ve always felt really, really homely. Sometimes their self-hatred has been fueled by the kind of persecution the original Ugly Duckling experienced: Kelly was spit on at school and is now too ashamed of her body to have sex with her husband. These women never achieved that revelatory “I’m a swan!” moment on their own, so they’ve handed their lives over to plastic surgeons, a dentist, therapist, and personal trainer who will suck out their fat and yank at their skin until they feel pretty. Even after surgery, though, The Swan provides multiple opportunities to undermine their confidence and prove that they still don’t measure up. In each episode, two women are sliced and diced, but only one will be judged attractive enough to compete in the final episode, a pageant of surgically engineered contestants.
Like any self-respecting makeover show, The Swan rolls out the idea that the changes are more than skin-deep. According to recent contender Cindy, “The Swan program is going to make me a better person.” Admittedly Cindy’s “witch-like nose” was pretty intense, but I’m not sure how her new look—which resembles Roseanne Barr after her own extensive plastic surgery—will lead to a personality upgrade. Only one contestant thus far has rejected the panel’s recommendations: Unemployed and recently divorced, 40-year-old Tawnya (who I think is quite beautiful in a ravaged-by-hard-times way) decides not to have a full nose job. She wants to keep the bump on her nose, a physical characteristic shared with her two teenage daughters—an idea that stuns the surgeon and the show’s producer. After all, if you were given a chance to make yourself completely unrecognizable to family and friends, to erase all traces of your unlovely former self, wouldn’t you jump at it? It’s a witness protection program for those of us whose only crimes are against ourselves.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 20, 2004