Don’t Make Me Over

Some women actually like the way they look. And most women don't want to get excoriated on TV because you think she's a fashion disaster.

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A mob of screaming fans stand outside 30 Rock in Manhattan where The Today Show is filmed. One normal, slightly dumpy-looking woman is plucked from the crowd while her family bursts into hysterics.

The woman is wearing oversize clothing that are unflattering to her figure: a dowdy beige jacket, sweatpants, and clunky hightop sneakers. She’s wearing no makeup or jewelry, and her hair is graying, frizzy, and held together by a rubberband in a ponytail. She’s unembellished, a regular gal. And her family members appear concerned for her well-being.

So much so that they’ve just enlisted her to be whisked away to be made over by a team of stylists. Why can’t they just leave this poor woman alone, I think. Once she’s brought out for the big reveal before her blindfolded family, the blindfolds are removed, daughters start sobbing, husbands look at her, dumbstruck, while the newly made-over subject stands there with her hand on her hip, staring at herself in the mirror, taking it all in, as if to ask, “Is that me?”

On What Not To Wear, another subject is tracked via hidden camera, while the hosts of the show surprise her at work or home, ambushing her in front of her family, friends, and co-workers cheer her on. Because one of the people in her life has summoned the WNTW team, like an intervention, since everyone who cares about her hates the fact that she pairs denim shirts with jeans. Their mere presence signals that the woman is about to get publicly excoriated for being a fashion disaster.

The real work begins as the hosts rifle through the woman’s wardrobe and force her to throw out everything they deem ugly, and dump it all into a giant trashcan. It’s supposed to be cathartic, I suppose, but instead it just reads as mean. But before they throw everything away, they ask the subject to model three of her favorite outfits in a small dressing room surrounded with mirrors, supposedly so she can defend her choices one last time. They browbeat her until finally she agrees that she’s a wreck and admits that there is no reason on Earth she should pair footless leggings with flip-flops and a chartreuse mini-skirt.

Are these shows doing a service to zhlubs? On some of the shows the ambushed one bursts into tears from the pressure of being scrutinized and from the grief she feels at watching her favorite clothes being thrown in the trash. She’s only told to stay strong because, lord knows, she’s not adding any value to the world by wearing sub-par outfits.

Much like the houses that are gutted and renovated on Extreme Makeover, the women that volunteer themselves for or are subjected to makeover shows are definitely not up to snuff when it comes to society’s version of who they should be and what they should look like. On 10 Years Younger, participants undergo a series of non-invasive surgical procedures to “rejuvenate from the outside in.” On Mission Makeover, the deal involves making over everything in a woman’s life: her hair, wardrobe, make-up, body. There are so many of these types of shows—not to mention magazines—and they all send the same message: You’re Not Good Enough the Way You Are.

What is it about a regular-looking woman that is so threatening? Why can’t a woman leave her hair to gray, or wear comfortable shoes if that’s what she wants? Will those choices really break her family’s heart? Make her undesirable? Break down society? Why are we pressuring women to appear youthful, well-put together, and to look as beautiful as they possibly can?

On so many of the makeover shows, the “before” shots are displayed like warnings to women everywhere: Don’t let this be you, they seem to be saying. The “after” shots—with the subject clad in new clothes, her hair and make-up all done—the New Her is paraded out as if she were an Academy Award winner, proving to women around the world that you are supposed to present yourself as glamorously as if you are winning an award. Every time you make an appearance. Which is, by the way, every time you appear in public. Act like a winner. And present yourself like one. Glam it up, girls.

And the Glamour Rule starts early. As a tomboy, I recognized the look of horror on my mother’s face when a stranger referred to me as “he” and I saw her relief when I didn’t give much resistance to getting my ears pierced so I could look more feminine. My tomboy years passed, but I can still remember the pressure I got from everyone around me to wear more short skirts and ruffled blouses. And things don’t seem to have evolved much. Just last month, a little girl was kicked out of school after being told she looked too much like a boy.

Not that men are immune from having to live up to a similarly perfect standard, as we saw on the wildly popular Queer Eye For the Straight Guy—one of the original makeover shows. But that show hasn’t been on the air since 2007, and on that show, the men were seeking out advice on how to spruce up not just their look but their lives. They weren’t publicly humiliated the way women are in these types of shows—their boundaries were respected, they consulted closely with the guys about what they sought to achieve, and as a result, their pride was left intact. For nearly all of the shows that focus on women today, the ambush factor adds an extra tsk-tsk, where she is the one that needs to be stripped down to nothing and then pieced back together again, like the junker cars that come out looking like hot rods on Fast ‘N Loud.

It’s never clear whether the finished product is as thrilled as everyone else is with the finished product. Does she really like that her new hairstyle requires hundreds of dollars to maintain? And how does her back feel now that she’s made the transition from flats to four-inch heels? Regardless of what she thinks, at least she’s living up to other people’s standards. As two giddy daughters said of their dazed, heavily made-up 80-year-old mother, “Even though she’s from Nashville, we wanted her to have more of a New York look!”

I have no idea what I’d do if my entire family burst into tears of shock and joy just because I got a new hairdo and changed my outfit into something Vogue-worthy. I’d probably think that they’d all lost their minds.

That’s not to say I don’t care about the way I look—I do. But the choices I make about my appearance are mine and mine alone. Just as I would never tell my male friend that he may want to consider wearing something other than white socks with Teva sandals, I wouldn’t expect anyone I know to report me to the fashion authorities for wearing my husband’s extra large T-shirt every once in a while. It’s my party and I’ll be comfy if I want to.


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