Makeover television, a subgenre of reality television, began in earnest in the United States in 2001 with Trading Spaces (a home decoration show) and soon spread to body and beauty renovations and a broader international audience. More than 250 makeover-centered shows, across 40 different network/cable sites and created by over 50 production companies are available for television audiences.
The genre can be loosely typified as including most forms of transformation themed narratives. Although many shows overlap with each other in terms of strategy, outcome, and the kind of body that is altered, makeover TV’s broad types include plastic surgery, through such programs as Extreme Makeover, The Swan, Dr. 90210, Miami Slice, Brand New You, and I Want a Famous Face; noninvasive but often medicalized changes (where subjects can receive liposuction, Botox, chemical dermabrasion, or LASIK eyesight correction) in such shows as 10 Years Younger or Style by Jury; style/wardrobe overhauls in such programs as What Not to Wear, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style, How Do I Look? and Style Her Famous; weight loss, in such shows as The Biggest Loser, The Craze, and Shaq’s Big Challenge; lifestyle and parenting style, in such shows as Supernanny, Shalom in the Home, Honey We’re Killing the Kids, Real You Real Simple, and Maxed Out; car and truck renovations, as featured in programming such as Pimp My Ride, Trick My Truck, Overhaulin’, and Monster Garage; and, of course, the staple of home improvement and design programming, in such shows as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Trading Spaces, While You Were Out, Carter Can, Toolbelt Diva, and Greenovate.
As a genre, makeover programs are widely produced in the United Kingdom and the United States, and many countries purchase makeover programming for directing airing or modification. Though produced in the United States, for instance, both The Swan and Extreme Makeover have been sold in more than 50 international media markets, including in Latvia, Malaysia, Australia, Croatia, and Finland. The weight-loss program The Biggest Loser is now an international franchise, with nationalized weight-reduction programs in Australia, Germany, Brazil, the United Kingdom, India, and more.
Makeover TV’s immense focus on the body—whether that body be the actual human body or its symbolic referent in kids, dogs, houses, or cars—highlights the social meaning of size and shape and underscores larger investments attached to the body as a signifier of mores and values. One thing insistently iterated through makeover TV, for instance, is the idea that it is precisely because the body is itself so intrinsically malleable—able to take on different shapes or sizes as a consequence of diet, exercise, surgery, or demolition—that there exists so much social pressure for the body to conform to dominant body ideals.
In specific relation to the physical body, even if human forms were incapable of going up and down in weight, muscle mass, or quantity of cellulite, people would still have dominant body ideals. Yet, these normative codes of perfect bodies as they exist for both men and women would be more a matter of an abstract desire rather than an achievable reality. With the advent of ever-increasing aesthetic procedures, both surgical and noninvasive, there has been a consequent shift in how these body and beauty ideals are perceived. What once might have been considered the domain of the few—exceptional beauty—is now considered a requisite and attainable feature of modern living, an appearance-based dividend purchasable through credit cards and second mortgages.
Indeed, in this new domain where idealized bodies can be shopped for, there is a consequent rise in the expectation that people are remiss if they do not invest resources of time, money, and energy in body work. Such an attitude is made intelligible through the makeover’s tacit ultimatum: if one can change, one should; if one refuses to change, one deserves the consequences. One of these consequences is an increased degree of social shaming, a public referendum that associates the obese or ugly body (or, as one program aptly puts it, The Ugliest House on the Block) as morally corrupt and the thin, stylish, and beautiful body as prerequisite to the highest ideals: happiness, confidence, well-being, and lovability. For women, appearance of both body and home have long marked a prerequisite standard of values, where class mobility and feelings of personal worth correlate to beliefs about one’s relative degree of conventional attractiveness. As expressed through the logic of makeover shows, a woman’s beauty is meant to serve as an intermediary currency that will enable her to purchase other valued objectives— good mothering, sexual attention, an abstract kind of happiness, and even her womanhood, so that many women claim at the culmination of their transformations, “I’m me now!” As such, beauty promises the ultimate reward—celebratory subjectivity. Indeed, this promise is uttered through the system of equivalencies Extreme Makeover poses: beauty is health, beauty is confidence, beauty is happiness, beauty is romantic love, beauty is stability, beauty is prosperity, beauty is democracy, and, ultimately, beauty confers self-hood.
For men on television makeover shows that involve the changing body, the logic is similarly compelling. The ugly man has been blocked in his upward mobility. So, for instance, on Extreme Makeover or 10 Years Younger, male makeover subjects bemoan their entry-level positions, complaining about the low-status and low-paying jobs they have been forced to work in because their appearance makes them too self-conscious to assume the masculine swagger that is part of hegemonic masculinity and workplace efficacy. For these male subjects, then, cosmetic procedures that correct their protruding ears, weak jaws, and jagged teeth help to create an image on the body and face that better coheres to what a male in a position of authority looks like. Just as with women on these shows, makeover TV suggests that both male and female participants have obligations to fulfill and embody preexisting notions about what signifies value. The makeover does not argue for doing battle with the world’s larger expectations about idealized bodies and beauty; instead it suggests that to live life outside of social norms is so debilitating that it is better to cut away the body to enable disadvantaged subjects an equal shot at participating in a globalized economy predicated on free-market competition.
Makeover TV thus ostensibly offers a window into the world of democratization. An average person wishing for the beautiful/celebrity body is aided in the process by a well-meaning plastic surgeon; ostracized ugliness is brought into meritocracy through glamour. In advocating for such engagement with the free market through the currencies that beautiful faces and bodies afford, however, the ideal (and rarity) of living in a beautiful body remains perfectly intact. If it’s possible for real people to become celebrities, this calls into question the exclusivity implied by celebrity. The question remains whether everyone can be physically beautiful. Since ideals are constructed around the logic of desiring what is statistically least possible, the more plastic surgery—or radical home renovation— brings beauty to the masses, the less beauty signifies as privilege. For beauty to mean anything, a good many other people in the world have to be unbeautiful. For celebrity to signify, most people have to be unknown.
What makeover television primarily specializes in, then, is not the stated intent of bringing new and meaningful lives to the meritorious ugly (a term conveniently and tacitly referencing the deserving poor), but rather the insistent message that people must be aware of and concerned about appearance. Whether they are scrutinized for freakish ugliness or admired for glamorous appearance, these shows assert that people are all objects of the gaze, intensely self-conscious, that there are seeing eyes (or cameras) on them at all time, even when those eyes are their own. In the land of makeover shows, whether before or after, one refrain rises above all others—self-improvement (understood almost ubiquitously as attaining a narrow form of physical beauty) requires a speedball mixture of desire and anxiety. In effect, the shows exploit the same bodily anxieties that fuel the psychic pain they ostensibly cure, offering makeover participants and home viewers a contradictory pairing—the despair of anxiety, the (promised) joy brought by beauty. To salve the wounds of this contradiction, on offer is a form of beauty-by-the-numbers that is narrow, formulaic, and dependent on the very cycles of anxiety and desire it promises to transcend.
And yet, the makeover is quite right in its assertions: it is much easier to live in a body or home that conforms to social codes that mark it as attractive; there is more currency attached to the beautiful or handsome body than to the obese, aberrant, or ugly body. And so, in claiming the body as its primary agent of entertainment and instruction, the relatively new medium of makeover TV manages to tap into larger desires and anxieties that have fueled our notions of identity, agency, and worth since ancient times.