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.