There is an excellent piece by Lakshmi Chaudry about the madness of makeover reality shows published today on Alternet. Chaudry explains how these shows thrive on making people feel as though their personal choices are unacceptable -- even worthless -- as one participant on the show "What Not to Wear" says, "They had to break me down in order to build me up again." Chaudry discusses how, particularly for women, they are an exercise in public humiliation and consequently, a reinforcement of class divides.
The public humiliation, Chaudry explains, "entails ritual debasement in various forms, beginning with the painfully embarrassing 'secret footage' taken by the unsuspecting woman's family and friends, who have nominated her for the show. (Think shots of her ass stuffed into too-tight plaid trousers interspersed with those of her eight-year-old telling the camera that she dresses like 'a tramp.')" What is further insulting about this, Chaudry points out, is that the contestants, or "fashion victims," are "for the most part, really nice women, many of whom are working moms with low-level white-collar jobs who simply don't have the money or time to preen in front of the mirror."
As the hosts of "What Not to Wear" throw the contestant's former "trashy" clothes gleefully into garbage bags and pick out "dry clean only" suits and accessories that require maintenance many of these women don't have time for, it becomes abundantly clear that looking good inevitably means having money and the luxury of grooming time. A makeover in reality world isn't actually about making you feel better about yourself; it's about fitting in, at least for a few moments, before the camera moves to the next disaster.
So why do we watch this crap? As Chaudry says so well, "All of us do a pretty good job of beating up on ourselves already; the mean, bullying voice of the makeover host is no more than an external manifestation of our inner critic. 'What Not to Wear' offers its female audience a potent mixture of aspiration and Schadenfreude. It makes us feel better about ourselves -- 'God, she looks like crap!' -- even as it promises to free us from the pain of not meeting our culture's punitive standards of beauty -- "I could look hot too!" All we have to cede in return for this faux version of empowerment is our respect for our innermost selves."