Along with chai tea lattes, makeover shows (like What Not to Wear) are a guilty pleasure of mine. These shows take women and men (mostly women) who’s personal style is underdeveloped, usually as a result of underlying insecurities; over the course of an hour they very neatly help the participants to throw away their insecurities along with their old clothing, and return to friends and family looking and feeling fabulous!
I love these shows for the overtly positive message they try to send: dress yourself to look fantastic now not after you lose however many pounds, because you need to love yourself for who you are now. To paraphrase stylist Clinton Kelly, to the best of my transcription abilities:
“One of the most rewarding things that anyone can tell us is that they feel like the body they have underneath the clothes is better than they ever imagined it could be. That’s what every woman should feel, regardless of size.”
This is a beautiful message (although I do wish he had said people, instead of women, because men have body insecurities too). However, underneath this beautiful and positive message lie a few less obvious messages that make me less than happy…
What I don’t like about these shows is that they often fall prey to the “slim” trap; that is, they encourage slimness over true comfort with one’s body. What Not to Wear likes to feature women who have recently lost weight but have not changed their clothing to reflect their new shape. In one episode they had a woman trace her perspective of her body, and then they traced her actual body to show her how much smaller she actually was. I wish that episode especially had focused more on being comfortable, even at a larger size, rather than simply comforting the participant by showing her how slim she really was.
My problem with this theme is that, by telling these women to show off their new shape and stop wearing the baggy clothing they wore when they weighed more, it sends the message that it is okay and normal for heavier women to hide in their clothes; only once these women have lost weight are they encouraged to tailor their clothing to show off their shape. Slim people are beautiful too, of course, but you don’t have to be slim to be gorgeous!
Real Women Have Curves is a fantastic and relate able body-positive film! (Although I take issue with the title – Real Women come in all shapes and sizes, curvy or not!)
I am also bothered by the way these shows constantly try to teach these women and men “tricks” for slimming their appearance (like avoiding skinny jeans if you have wider hips, or constantly gravitating towards an empire waistline). The assumption that people are dressing with the goal of slimming in mind is problematic to me; I think style should be about expression and feeling comfortable, beautiful, sexy, and fabulous… slim has nothing to do with it.
What’s “sexier”: constraining, slimming, underwear… or confidence? (Obviously... confidence!) The women in the underwear advert didn’t even get their heads kept in the photograph, all we know about them is that they look slim. The other women, however? Confident, sexy, and unrestrained!
What Not to Wear is not to blame, however, for this issue in rhetoric. Its society, not these television shows, that has an underlying obsession with looking as slim and trim as possible. What I want to know, however, is why? Why are we so focused on being thin? (I say thin, not health because health comes in many sizes!)Why do we think slimmer means prettier? Personally, I can’t think of a single logical reason beyond it’s what I was always told to aim for.
In the end, while I enjoy these shows for a mindless Saturday night, I have learned not to take their messages to heart… I have learned not to take society’s message to heart. Its time to take ownership of our bodies, of our visions of beauty; its time to stand up to the diet and makeup industry and let them know that beauty comes in ALL shapes, and ALL sizes. We will not apologize or try to hide who we are inside or out.
I’ve started this movement in myself. I’ve stopped hiding in clothes that ‘skim’ over my stomach; I’ve come to peace with the fact that sometimes, my belly is going to show beneath my clothing… so what? I’m still beautiful. I wear skinny jeans, because I like the way they look even if they emphasize the size of my thighs. Again, so what? Why should my thighs try so hard to look smaller than they are? I’m done trying to make myself smaller, its time for us all to try and fill the body we’re in to the fullest; with confidence, with beauty, and with life!
Take the challenge; wear something you’ve always dreamed of wearing, and own it even if it’s not slimming at all… it may seem superficial, it may be superficial, but in my opinion, turning your back on beauty norms is powerful and rewarding, it can cut straight through the surface and touch us deep down where our insecurities lie waiting to be chased away.
(As a side note: I feel that the body-image issue is addressed much better on Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style, although he also falls trap to the slimming mentality, he makes an effort to truly teach the women about their body shape, and show them the types of clothes that will accentuate what they love about their body, rather than just slimming them down. I also feel like that show is just a little less catty, without losing the breakthroughs that the participants have. However, I did not write about this show because it does have a major flaw – most of its participants are well-off, fairly thin career women… it’s not relatable to many and I feel it does not try to be as inclusive as it could be. And then there are shows like Making Over America with Trinny and Susannah that, in my opinion, just suck in terms of positive messages.)