From makeovers to makeunders

Women's magazines are embracing two seemingly contradictory beauty transformations

Published April 16, 2010 11:01AM (EDT)

Once women's magazines have found a successful gimmick, count on them to stick with it. Recently, they seem to have found two, albeit ones whose messages completely conflict with each other. 

The first: Girl-zines' penchant for making over "regular" women who become stars. That includes anyone who doesn't fit the mold that the publications themselves have created of females who are ultra-thin, creamy-skinned, young and beautiful. Call it the Susan Boyle Treatment. Harper's Bazaar took the famously frumpy British singer, and bestowed on her many appearance upgrades when it featured her in its pages. Ditto for Precious star Gabourey Sidibe.

The latest ladies to get sanitized by Harper's Bazaar are the female castmembers of Jersey Shore, famous for their cheap, shiny outfits and, um, un-ladylike behavior. "As TV's breakaway stars, the Jersey-ites are finding themselves in surroundings more rarefied than nightclubs," the magazine rationalizes; hence the need to paternalistically teach these girls a thing or two about style and charm (ignore the irony of having Tinsley Mortimer, herself a castmember of a reality show in which girls similarly behave inappropriately, help scrub the Jersey Shore girls down).

It's not just Harper's Bazaar that has gotten in on the act, either. South Africa's You magazine undertook a similar effort with Caster Semanya, the young track star who was forced to undergo gender testing when her muscular build drew the attention of sports officials. Semanya withdrew from the public spotlight, only to re-emerge on the cover of this glossy, caked in makeup and sporting a tight, girly getup and heels. "Wow, look at Caster now!" blared the headline.

The message seems to be clear: If you're not conventionally pretty and feminine, you need to find a way to get there right quick if you want to grace the pages of a fashion magazine. But if that's the case, then how does one explain the other en vogue magazine stunt of the moment: "revealing" those stars who are classically, typically beautiful in all their natural, unretouched glory. French Elle lit the fire for this trend by showing its models sans makeup or computer enhancements in its May 2009 issue; since then French Marie Claire and Harper's Bazaar have also put out retouching-free issues. Now, celebrities are joining the push, with Jessica Simpson appearing on the cover of Marie Claire without makeup or airbrushing; and Britney Spears releasing unretouched photos of her most recent Candie's ad campaign.

It just goes to show that the grass is always greener on the other side. If you're not already the picture of feminine beauty, you need to undergo whatever amount of styling, hosing-down, dolling-up will get you there; and if you are, well, you need to shrug off all that beauty by appearing au natural to make it seem like such attractiveness comes effortlessly.

By Sara Libby

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