A makeover is a transformation from  an inadequate before  to a superior after; it is often  used  to refer  to a transformation in appearance. One  can  be made  over or make over oneself.  In the U.S. mythos, the makeover is often  an element in the rags-to-riches story.


The  makeover has  been  used  as a device  in advertising, magazines, films, and television shows. The  first proper makeover has been  traced  to a special  story on the “Made-Over Girl” in Mademoiselle magazine in 1936. An ordinary reader  of the magazine, nurse Barbara  Phillips, wrote  to Mademoiselle, asking  for advice on how to improve her  looks.  Mademoiselle took  up the  challenge of making Phillips  into a beauty  and  showcased the  makeover in the  pages  of its magazine, from  inadequate before,  through the  transformation, and  finally, into  the  glamorous after. If one  ordinary reader  could  be transformed by the  makeover, then the  reader  of the  magazine could  herself  follow the  instructions and  become beautiful. In the 1970s and 1980s, the makeover reached its height as a popular feature in women’s magazines. However, instead of featuring an ordinary reader, women’s magazines at that  time primarily  featured models as makeover subjects. Makeovers still serve as features in women’s magazines. Through the makeover, magazines have taught their  readers how to consume, dress, and style themselves to look beautiful.

In  the  1930s,  makeovers were  a staple  of Hollywood fan  magazines. In  fact, the  first recorded use of the  word  makeover was in a fan magazine in 1939.  Fan magazine makeovers explicitly drew on the reader’s identification with the movie star;  in following  the  star’s  beauty  practices, the  fan  could  become like the  admired  star.  Different stars  represented different ideal  types  that  readers aspired to be.

Even  the  stars  themselves could  be made  over in the  movies.  Beginning with Now, Voyager, in 1942,  the  makeover has served  as a plot  device in films. In Now, Voyager, Bette Davis (playing Charlotte Vale) is transformed from an unhappy, frustrated, and  unattractive girl/woman, to a strong, satisfied,  and  attractive woman through a makeover. More  recently, films like Pretty Woman and  Miss Congeniality used  the  makeover to  enact  and  signal  a transformation in  their  protagonists’ identities. While  the  makeover serves as an element in Vivian Ward’s  ( Julia Roberts)  rags-to-riches Cinderella romance in Pretty Woman, it operates as a way of feminizing and humanizing Sandra Bullock’s character (Gracie Hart) in Miss Congeniality. In all of these  films, the makeover enhances the star’s glamour.

The  makeover moved  to television in 1953 with Glamour Girl, a show  in which four  ordinary women competed for the  chance to be made  over by telling  their sad  stories. The  woman with  the  saddest story  won  a day of beautification and pampering and  then returned to the  show  to display  her  new  look  and  outlook on  the  show  the  next  day. In the  1980s  and  1990s,  the  makeover reappeared on television in the  form  of short segments on various  talk shows. In the  2000s,  the makeover became the  basis  for  a new  genre  of reality  television, the  makeover show (e.g., Extreme Makeover, A Makeover Story, What Not to Wear, The Swan). In these  shows, real people  (much like the  ordinary reader)  are transformed inside and out  through formulaic, didactic makeovers.

Cultural and Political Meanings

The  makeover rests  on  two  different myths:  Cinderella and  Pygmalion. In  the Cinderella tale, the  stepdaughter’s beauty  is hidden by rags  or made  evident  by beautiful clothes. Her  beauty  makes  her  special;  the  prince  falls in love with  her because she is beautiful. Her beauty  also reflects her goodness. In the Pygmalion tale, a man  carves himself  the perfect  woman out of stone  and the goddess Venus brings  her  to  life. In other words,  man  makes  the  beautiful woman. In both of these  myths, the  woman’s value rests  on her  appearance, and  her  beauty  enables her to marry  a powerful man.

When women are valued  for their  appearance, the  makeover offers  a way for women to improve their  value, both for themselves and  in society. When women are defined  by their  appearance, the makeover offers a way for women to remake themselves. The  makeover is seductive because it offers both the promise of being able to fashion oneself  and the promise of being valued. Through making herself over, a woman can improve herself,  win a (better)  man,  and  marry,  thus  securing her social place and economic future.

The  makeover promotes consumption. In the  makeover, the  body  is objectified and  analyzed, broken into  pieces  to  be evaluated according to  a particular ideal.  Good  aspects must be  shown off; bad  aspects must be  hidden or  fixed.

For  instance, puffy eyes can  be reduced with  a special  cream;  difficult  hair  fixed with a particular serum; a heavy waist disguised by a dress  with an empire waist; a nice  figure shown off with a tailored dress.  Beauty  is not  a whole,  but  the  sum of malleable parts.  For each  problem, a product offers a solution. The  makeover promises that  beauty  can  be achieved through knowledgeable consumption and application.

While  all makeovers can  be seen  as advertisements for the  products featured, makeovers are often  featured in advertisements themselves. Many advertisements use  the  iconic  imagery  of the  makeover: the  before  and  after  images.  Indeed, all advertisements can be regarded as after images,  promising a new and  better  state of being  for the  price  of the  product. As with  the  star  image  in the  magazine or the  made-over girl, identification with  the  ideal image  encourages consumption of the advertised product.

The makeover upholds and enforces cultural standards. First, it upholds beauty as the standard by which women are judged. Second, the makeover’s promise that anyone could  be  beautiful results in  the  imperative for  all women to  become beautiful. If people  can follow the advice, purchase the products, and learn how to apply them, there  is nothing holding them  back. The  failure to be attractive is no longer  a matter of luck, but  a personal failure to make  oneself  over.

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