How to Look Good Naked (United Kingdom, Channel 4, 2006; United States, Lifetime, 2008) is a reality program first begun in Britain, where it was hosted by Gok Wan, and then modified in the United States, where it is hosted by Carson Kresley (the fashion stylist from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy). In both versions of the program, the hosts encourage women who are insecure about their bodies to undergo a perception revolution where a woman’s eyes can be reeducated to appreciate her actual size. This modified form of seeing, the show argues, will allow a woman to lay claim to greater self-confidence and consequent beauty.
Both Wok and Kresley lead women through various perception modification exercises that include asking a female subject to strip down to her underwear and slowly categorize her perceived body flaws. Quite often, women will comment on how much they hate the size of their hips or thighs. In the American version, Kresley then leads the female subject to a lineup of women, all with the same flaw that the subject perceives in herself. He then asks the makeover subject to insert herself into the continuum of women. She invariably misidentifies herself, believing she is worse than she is by putting herself at the bad or large extreme of the continuum rather than at the good or thin end. In another exercise, subjects are asked to look at three female figures walking down the street, their faces obscured. One woman is dressed casually, another sophisticated, the third messy. In each case, the makeover subject selects the woman in more expensive, sophisticated clothing as being thinnest and most attractive. Kresley reveals at the end of this exercise that each of the women being examined was actually one woman dressed three different ways, all to underscore that clothes help to shape perception.
Given the importance of clothing for such altered perceptions, it is somewhat ironic that the show bills itself as How to Look Good Naked. Both the British and American version of the show make good on the claim of looking good naked by ending each makeover episode with a photo shoot in which the formerly insecure makeover subjects now flaunts her curvy body while nude. How to Look Good Naked has been hailed by television critics as well as by Oprah Winfrey as a positive antimakeover show, since it does not feature plastic surgery or weight loss and seems to advocate that women embrace themselves at whatever size they may be. Popular appeal has been strong, and How to Look Good Naked’s premiere on Lifetime had the network’s largest ratings event in its 24-year history.
The show’s perception alteration exercises, however, work to reinforce a notion that big is bad, so women on this show learn that they aren’t as large as they believed, but bad, fat, ugly, and unkempt are still shameful categories to be avoided. How to Look Good Naked’s premise suggests that women (and, indeed, it targets only women) are essentially skewed in their perceptive abilities, and they cannot find happiness in an image-obsessed world until their pathologized way of seeing is reeducated by the respective male host.