The former co-host of "What Not to Wear," who spent a decade counseling hundreds of women argues that most of us DO want to look—and feel—pretty. And confident.
I’m less than one month away from the one-year anniversary of wrapping production on What Not to Wear, a show I co-hosted for a decade, a show I enjoyed working on for many reasons, but one I thought, until yesterday, I was ready to move on from.
Because yesterday, I read Amy Shouse’s essay, “Don’t Make Me Over,” and a thread of comments on a friend’s Facebook wall,” and it rankled me. I am not the type of person to be defensive. But I am proud of my work, and the 350 women who were on it.
I appreciate how tough it is to be a woman, the conflicting and undermining messages of societal pressures dictating how you should look; your brain interpreting this as saying, you aren’t living up to your potential; and your body cleaving to your favorite pair of sweatpants like a life raft. Which one of these messages is right?
They’re all right. And to ignore any of those voices would be a mistake.
Like it or not, we human beings are judge-y. Judging others is written into our DNA. Some of us wouldn’t be here today, watching TV, if our ancestors were unable to discern a good guy from a bad guy. You know, let a bad guy into your cave at night, you might not wake up in the morning. We’re still an “us vs. them” bunch. Just open the newspaper and it’s all tribal-based finger-pointing.
Can you consciously decide not to judge others based on their appearance? Of course. But it’s not easy. When you’re drooling over Jon Hamm in a well-cut suit, you’re judging. (Guilty.) When you’re fantasizing about having a sleepover with Jennifer Lawrence, you’re judging. (Guilty.)
Based on a stranger’s appearance, we know almost immediately whether we want to get closer to him or her or farther away. You’re judging people all day without realizing it: Is that a good guy or a bad guy? Would I ever in a million years consider dating that person?
So, the game is on. You have the choice to play it on your own terms, on society’s terms, or to opt out all together.
In my experience, many sweatpants-addicted women have decided not to play the game because they’re scared shitless of it. WNTW, at its core, taught women how to control the game, to control their non-verbal messaging, their image. Each of us should ask ourselves, Is the message I’m sending to the rest of the world in line with who I am as a human being?
People will judge you based on your appearance. You can use that to your advantage or you can sit on the sidelines hoping that highly evolved strangers will take kindly to you.
Each hour-long episode of WNTW took a week of filming, so I spent many hours with our “contributors,” as we called them. (We could never find a better word.) I asked every one of them, “Would you like to feel pretty?” Every woman answered in the affirmative, whether she phrased it: “Hell, yeah!,” “Duh,” or “That would probably be nice.” So it is with some authority, I can say that the vast majority of women I spent time with want to feel pretty. Perhaps the desire to feel attractive is inherent.
And when we would ask our contributors to put on one of their everyday outfits and look in the mirror, 95 times out of 100 they would admit that their own clothes did not make them feel pretty.
WNTW showed women the futility of wanting something (to feel pretty) but engaging in an activity (wearing crappy clothes) that moves you further away from your want.
Isn’t that desire worth exploring? Is it possible that feeling pretty might make you happier? You really can’t blame a woman for taking that idea out for a test drive. Some women are willing to do it on national television. And more power to them.
Of course you have the right to wear the proverbial sweatpants—but you should ask yourself why you want to wear them. Is it because you are opting out? Is it because you have no desire to feel pretty? Or do the sweatpants make you feel pretty? Or do you need a break from your skinny jeans?
Just as you might pay attention to what foods you’re putting into your mouth, you might want to pay attention to what clothes you’re putting on your body. Basically, sweatpants are sartorial mac ‘n’ cheese. The women who came on the show had different body types. We never advocated any sort of body modification. We talked about clothing that fit and flattered body types, to help women feel beautiful and confident about the bodies that they have.
As for the “ambush” style of makeover—it’s a gimmick. Ten times as many people work behind the scenes as in front of the camera. I can’t speak for other shows, but every woman on WNTW, while authentically ambushed, signed a release proffered to her by a producer immediately after that ambush allowing the network to broadcast it in perpetuity.
Out of 350 women over the course of a decade, less than 2 percent turned down a televised makeover, which is to say, five or six women took a pass. I’d be curious to hear their stories, but I don’t know where they are. To be honest, I don’t even know who they are.
But I have stayed in touch with more than 100 former contributors, who come from a range of cultural and class backgrounds, and who work in a variety of fields: They’re doctors, lawyers, physicists, stay-at-home moms, deejays, politicians, writers, marketing execs, flight attendants, strippers. As far as I know, no one has ever publicly declared that she regretted participating in the show. Maybe some women privately told their friends and families that I’m evil incarnate, but they’ve kept it from me—and I’m quite accessible. The hundred I communicate with have told me that WNTW provided them with a kind of confidence they hadn’t previously experienced.
Have they all maintained their “after” look? Absolutely not. I estimate that roughly one-third of the women returned immediately to their “before” look. Another third have been trying, with varying degrees of success, to maintain their “after.” And the last third felt that their televised journey had such a powerful impact on their life that they never looked back.
I try not to look back either. The show was canceled last year, and I’ve got a new TV gig I find extremely enjoyable. (Just between you and me, makeovers are very stressful.) But I’m glad I had the experience, most of all because I met so many wonderful people. And with nearly a year to reflect, time is softening the memory of WNTW. Perhaps one day, I won’t get riled up by an essay and a thread of comments on a friend’s Facebook feed. Maybe I’ll be able to take comfort in knowing the work affected so many women for the better. Maybe I’ll be able to slip into the memory of it like an old pair of sweatpants.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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