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Can Makeover Shows Be Feminist?

from Barbie to Real Housewife: Jade, contestant on episode 1 of "100% Hotter"

from Barbie to Real Housewife: Jade, contestant on episode 1 of "100% Hotter"

I love a good makeover. In fact, I just had my own hair makeover yesterday! I think playing with fashion is really fun, and I'm intrigued by the way our appearances influence how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. Back in the day I'd gladly binge hours of shows like "What Not to Wear" and its ilk. So when "100% Hotter" popped onto my Netflix recommendations, I was STOKED. Not only is it a makeover show, but a BRITISH one. When I lived in the UK I really admired how put together British women tended to look (at least more so than the average Seattleite). But as I watched, a knot began forming in my stomach. I began to realize that my evolution has a feminist may very well have ruined makeover shows for me.

The premise of "100% Hotter" is that women are selected for looking "too extreme." Three stylists show their picture to a bunch of strangers who rank them on a scale of 1-10 for "hotness." Then they are set a series of fairly embarrassing tasks, before being madeover, revealed, and re-ranked. It's like the show was dreamed up by all the mean jocks in your high school.  

The judges attempt to soften this bullying by assuring these women that they are actually "quite pretty" but that they currently look slutty, fat & trashy. Yes, it's the unholy trinity of slut-shaming, body-shaming, and class-ism. Why did Jade have a cheap DIY bleach job instead of a "classy" blond bayalage? Probably because she can't afford it. 

The judges often mock the contestants for wanting to emulate beauty standards like Barbie or Alice in Wonderland while shoe-horning them into other, equally restrictive beauty standards. The judges treat fashion as if there were a morally correct way to dress.

If fashion is an art (as I'm sure these judges would say) then why isn't there room for people to express themselves in unconventional ways? In the whole makeover process all of the emphasis is on impressing others, not on what the women themselves actually want. It all feels very regressive, like "these young women must be brought in line."

I can't help but contrast shows like this to "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," which provides not just fashion and hair advice, but also helps its contestants accomplish a personal goal. The men's interactions are framed in a funny but loving way, with far less bullying, and they use their advice as a means to an end. The assumption of women's makeover shows seems to be that looking good is the goal; perhaps the only and ultimate goal for any woman.

The final straw for me was that the hairdresser clearly put Jade in a wig for her final reveal (see above) but pretended like it was her own hair. I enjoy a wig as much as the next gal, but seriously, does they think we're stupid?  

I hope that someday we can have a makeover show where the contestants are in the driver's seat rather than the object of ridicule. Fashion should be fun, it should be a means of self-expression, not some way of forcing women into the narrow confines of someone else's standards. Until then, I will be giving "100% Hotter" and its ilk a pass.

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