Makeover Television

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.

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