What Not To Wear

I’ve been watching “What Not To Wear” on BBCAmerica lately, and it fascinates me to see how women perceive themselves, and how others perceive them. A few rules I’ve noticed:

The women who dress badly out of insecurity are always with even dowdier and less appealing men, or are without a partner.

A lot of overweight women labor under the assumption it’s better to hide how overweight they are under enormous tented clothing instead of wearing stuff that makes them look like an attractively shaped overweight woman. Gee, I wonder where they get that idea. Could it be the bullemic women who make fun of them? Or maybe the young men cruising down your local strip, drunk, yelling insults at any overweight woman walking by? Yeah, I know overweight men get teased and left out from time to time, but the world is far more tolerant of them, as evidenced by shows like “King of Queens”, which features an overweight guy married to a bullemic-looking supermodel.

I can’t decide if I think the show’s doing women a service or a disservice. Maybe a little of both. But if you watch it from the perspective of learning about people, and where they get self-image, and how one can manipulate others by presenting a different look, it’s pretty interesting.

For example, in the episode I just watched, there’s a woman named Marie who teared up when they asked her what had happened to her self-confidence, asked who had taken it from her. She wouldn’t answer. Later in the show, the hosts accosted the couple on holiday and set up a romantic evening for the woman and her husband. They sent the woman to the spa to get ready, and then one host went to talk the husband into making an effort to improve his appearance for the evening, too.

His response: “You can’t improve on perfection.” And that’s our subtle clue who took away this woman’s self-confidence, because this guy looks like Elton John, only more overweight and uglier. And he is deadly, deadly serious. He eventually condescends to allow them to change his hair and clothes, but there’s a distinct sense he thinks he’s doing them a favor. It’s nothing to do with his wife.

This man is not confident. He is a narcissist. A confident person is aware of his or her flaws, but believes he can overcome them, or has much to offer besides. A narcissist derives his false confidence from eroding the confidence of others. If you think I’m making my judgment without much basis, let me add that the children were ashamed of how their mom looked and didn’t want to be seen in public with her, but were not ashamed of dad, the sloppy ubergeek from hell? Narcissists are good at pulling off that sort of thing. Marie turned out to be gorgeous, by the way. Overweight, but in all the right places, which is a look that can really work if you present yourself with confidence. The husband, even post-transformation, was still a dud.

In contrast, a lot of the other husbands and sisters of women who get makeovers on this show are obviously supportive. The usual comment is that the makeover has finally allowed the woman to in herself the beauty they’ve always seen.

What’s different about this show, compared to other makeover shows, is that the women are transformed as soon as they start wearing the “right” clothes, which takes no more time or effort than wearing the wrong ones. Other makeover shows encourage women to stand in the bathroom for hours, working on hair and makeup, which only serves to reaffirm the idea that they’re flawed and in need of correction. Simply dressing your body differently can teach you that you were always okay, and correcting any bodily flaws you feel you have would just be icing on the cake.


  1. sbg says

    I think it’s a natural knee-jerk to think it’s horrendous of folks to approach others and offer this kind of help. It’s embarrassing to be told you’re a schmuck in private, let alone on TV.

    That said, I have yet to see an episode of WNTW where the person being made over doesn’t feel amazingly different about themselves after the whole thing is done. That’s the true makeover, and if figuring out how to make clothes work for you rather than against you (how many women have done the shopping-oh-hell-I’m-so-fat-and-ugly-gimme-ice-cream thing?) helps with that – it’s a service.

    I’ve cringed several times watching the American version, because the hosts can be ruthless and I wish they could figure out a way to make mannequins in non-standard sizes, so people could see what the clothing types that are being suggested would actually look like on them…

  2. scarlett says

    OMG, can you imagine if someone made an image-creating machiene where it scanned your body, scanned the outfit, and shows you what you’d look like in the outfit? You could do away with mannequins completely and not have to waste time trying it on. I, for one, would much prefer to spend five seconds to look crap in an image then a few minutes struggling into a dress onto to look crap in it…

  3. Mecha says

    Just as soon as we even get fully realistic modeling for clothing, maybe! Fabric and such are still really hard problems for graphics people, which is a shame, because who really wants to try on a score of outfits in a slightly drafty dressing room? ^^; Although what would be even neater is after that scan, it could give a tailor/seamstress dead-on measurements for adjustment, or even for your own personal shopping.

    Clothes shopping in the Star Trek era, maybe. 😉


  4. says

    I’ve only seen one episode the American WNTW – and they really stressed tailors and altering. Granted it was because the woman in question was maybe 4 feet tall and habitually dressed in little kid clothes, since that was all that fit her.

  5. says

    I really enjoy the American WNTW; they can get a bit mean, but I’ve never noticed them doing so to anyone who seemed upset by the situation – when the people appear to be getting overwhelmed or upset, they tend to be really nice. And I love that over and over again, the message they emphasize is that every body type is beautiful, and you don’t need to be skinny to be sexy. (And they at least seem to try to tailor their advice to the person’s preferences and personality – not always successfully, but it seems like they give it a good shot at not erasing all personal touches.)

  6. Jennifer Kesler says

    I don’t doubt any of what you’re saying, Reb, but I have seen two eps of the American one that troubled me. One, I detailed here: they basically tell a very large-breasted woman that it’s her responsibility to disguise those boobies so other people will notice she’s smart. Another episode involved a mother making the comment that, now that she knew how to dress and look pretty, she could become a role model to her daughter. The host agreed heartily. WTF? She wasn’t a character role model before? All she has to impart to her daughter is how to look attractive?

    Which is not to say the British one doesn’t also pander to stereotypes under the flag of “hey, we didn’t make the rules, that’s just the way it is”.

    Overall, though, the idea that women are so freaked out over needing to change their bodies is being counteracted by the idea that just changing your clothes can change your attitude, and THAT is where real change comes from, is potentially coming across from both series.

  7. says

    I saw the British version first and I’ve always liked it better. The hosts have such respect for the women they are making over, even as they complain about their wardrobe. That respect isn’t always there in the American version and it’s is rarely present in make-over shows in general.

    Even the first few times when I watched it and felt like they were being mean in the beginning, the editors did such a good job of jumping quickly enough to the hosts talking about the woman’s good qualities and how she can dress differently to show them off.

    So it never felt like they were telling her she was stupid or ugly, just that she needed to believe in herself more.

    Combined with the hosts being honest about their own feelings about their bodies, it even begins to hint at a feminist critique of standardized beauty.

    Which I think is another flaw in the American one. The British hosts are different enough in terms of body shape (although still pretty standard) that just about any woman they deal with has an easier time seeing their advice as advice coming from experience rather than criticism. But the American show only has one female body shape because the other host is a man. Granted, I like him better, but it does pose problems.

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