What if your non-surgically altered body just doesn’t cut it? (Beauty Imperatives part 1)

Reality TV shows that suggested the non-surgically altered body was in dire need of transformation had their heyday a few years back. Shows such as Extreme Makeover, Dr. 90210, Miami Slice, and I Want a Famous Face revealed that inhabiting an ‘average’ body was no longer acceptable.

While the surgical fest of these earlier shows has been replaced with the likes of Ten Years Younger, America’s Top Model, She’s Got the Look and Battle of the Bods, which also argue appearance is the be all and end all, the surgical imperative has not abated. Rather, surgery has gone underground and, instead of featuring cosmetic surgery as the key to beautification, beauty competition shows hide the fact that many of their contestants have been surgically sculpted. As with the many movie stars who don’t advertise their surgical alterations, these shows pretend the bodies on display are natural. This stance is perhaps even more insidious than the surgical celebration offered by shows such as The Swan because it denies the extreme diversity of natural bodies, insisting that the tall, ultra-thin, white-smiled, small nosed, big-boobed, wrinkle-free bods are natural rather than constructed via abnormal exercise, eating, (and all too often surgical) regimens.

Back in 2005, I published a paper examining the show The Swan entitled “Excessive Performances of the Same: Beauty as the Beast of Reality TV” in Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory Special Issue. While the show itself is no longer running, I think the analysis is still pertinent in our appearance-obsessed society. Due to the response to my “What if we gave up the ‘top model’ paradigm rather than expanding it” post, I will be posting arguments from this paper in blog sized bits in order to keep the analysis of the beauty paradigm going. Hope you enjoy!

For those of you who never had the displeasure of watching The Swan, the show aimed to transform so-called ‘ugly ducklings’ into ‘beautiful swans’ via multiple surgical alterations. Undergoing up to twenty surgical procedures, contestants were then given three months to recover before being judged on national television in a beauty pageant style competition. Again and again, contestants would confirm the claim made by so many cosmetic surgeons (and their patients), that ‘improving’ one’s looks would lead to happiness and success. For example, the first season’s winner, Rachel Fraser, responded to criticism of the show by arguing “I don’t think anybody should fault anyone for making themselves a better person.” Yeah, because cutting away bits of your body and adding in fake booby bags really improves the type of person one is.

I don’t intend to suggest, as some critics have, that enjoying the ‘performance’ of beauty is somehow non- or anti-feminist. Rather, I am troubled by the pervasiveness of a very narrow beauty imperative and especially in the growing cultural approval and faith in the ‘surgical fix.’ Quite problematically, surgical makeover shows and their top-model variety descendents tell us that the appearance of our bodies is more important than the contents of our minds, that our twisted social attitudes towards beauty are entirely acceptable, that our identity is lodged in the size of our nose or the firmness of our thighs, that liposuction and breast augmentation are two key elements in the fabrication of ‘better people’.

Such messages are particularly appalling when we consider that one of the former Swan contestants is an elementary school teacher – a teacher who now daily offers her surgically altered self to her young students as an embodied reminder that success in America is reliant on appearance – that one day, they too can grow up to fulfil the ‘American Dream’ and have their noses whittled away, their fat sucked out, and their faces lifted.

Such messages are also problematic when we note that another Swan convinced her young son that he needed to lose 45 pounds to be happy after her own Swan induced weight loss; that another enthused during season two’s premier that her own transformation inspired her mother to go for Botox. How wonderful – now all ages and genders are being encouraged they must lose weight to be happy, be wrinkle free to be successful, undergo the knife to achieve confidence and self esteem.

Most worryingly, these beauty=success messages foreground individual agency while simultaneously ignoring or failing to assess a social cure. For, shouldn’t society be taken to task for its rigid beauty conventions, its mass dissemination of unreal standards, and its excessive valorisation of a very narrow beauty imperative? Instead, shows such as The Swan and the more recent Ten Years Younger suggest that the unease many feel towards their appearances and identities is not socially constructed and maintained, but is an individual problem that can and should be fixed.

And, as revealed in the narratives of surgical makeover shows, the body beautiful is not fat, not disabled, not gay, and not ‘too ethnic looking’. It is a body chiseled, sculpted, dieted, and surgically altered into a fairy tale version of beauty.


5 thoughts on “What if your non-surgically altered body just doesn’t cut it? (Beauty Imperatives part 1)”

  1. Instead, shows such as The Swan and the more recent Ten Years Younger suggest that the unease many feel towards their appearances and identities is not socially constructed and maintained, but is an individual problem that can and should be fixed.

    Exactly I could not agree with you more on this point. Shows like what not to wear also perpetuate the idea that appearance is more important that character and I take huge issue with it. These shows are also largely directed at women. I believe I have only seen 2 men appear on this show since it started.
    The other factor that really bothers me are the groups of industries that profit from creating these “deficiencies” in people. The garment industry makes a fortune selling clothes that project a certain image while running slave sweat shops. The diet industry makes a fortune selling their sodium loaded foods, in “meal size” portions. The exercise industry makes a fortune selling exercise machines, videos and gym memberships and now we have the medical establishment pushing biatric surgery, vagina lifts and botox (which is botulism)as the cure for unhappiness. It is simply criminal behavior. This is part of the reason I am so committed to to pointing out the fallacy of these ideas when I see them. These social constructions exist simply to other and we need to remember that. Sorry about the vent in your comment section…I just have a real passion for this issue.

  2. Renee,

    NO NEED to apologize for the vent! Venting is welcomed and encouraged here!

    I am a big fan of critically analyzing (and slamming) all that is wrong in our world — venting is necessary, just as washing machines, air conditioning units need a vent or they will explode, so do we humans! Some wankers then call us venters “angry feminists” but I think ‘venting’ is far healthier than spewing misogyny.

    You make many great points Renee (love the points about sweat shops/diet industry/consumerism in general) and your bad ass womanist venting is always welcome here!

  3. “…Some wankers then call us venters “angry feminists” but I think ‘venting’ is far healthier than spewing misogyny.”

    Yep, I vent constantly! It will keep you from going ‘splody all over the place….

    So many are blind to the fact that there are companies profiting from making us (esp. women) feel insecure or “less-than” if we are not wrinkle-free, fat-free, etc.

    Recently, these companies have stepped up their drone of “being perfect” to include men…as demonstrated by the current trend of “manorexia”…

    On a similar note: I saw some old pix of a fave singer of mine…I didn’t realize he had a nose job, until I saw the old pix!

    It’s a shame, because, I thought he was way more attractive with his “ethnic” (read: italian) nose….

    I wonder where it will stop? After vaginaplasty and anal bleaching…what’s next?

  4. Has there ever been any substantial follow-up on these contestants? I’d be curious to know if some might regret certain surgeries or procedures, diets, etc; if there have been side effects, lingering pain, uncontrollable weight gains/losses (yo-yo effect) and so on.

    As I get older, I realize nothing we do physically is without some lingering unforeseen result. For example, this year I had a vicious root-canal infection of a tooth done over a decade ago… I just wonder what kinds of health complications some of these women might have experienced? Some of this stuff was fairly extreme, hence the words EXTREME MAKEOVER…

    How did their families, friends and co-workers react to them afterwards?

    I’d be really curious to hear about that.

  5. DiosaNegra,
    Thanks for commenting! Love the coinage “manorexia” — I have not come accross that before.
    As for being sad to find out a singer you liked had his nose chopped — I have had similar feelings when I find out a person is “surgically sculpted.” I prefer natural bodies and faces.

    As for where it will stop — as long as its profitable, and as long as corporatism keeps thriving, I don’t think it will (unless people themselves stop being sheeple).


    Thanks for commenting and for your interest in the topic.

    There was a follow up, actually. It ran about a year after the finale. I believe it was called “where are they now.” The ENTIRE show focussed on whether each ‘swan’ had found a man or not… UGH AND UGH. This only furthered the message that their surgical fests were big “I need a man” to validate me actions extravaganzas. Puke.

    As for a long term follow up, I don’t know of one. I did hear the surgical shows went off air due to too many lawsuits and post-surgical complications though.

    I agree that what we do to our bodies has long term consequences. And in the case of silicone boobs, they will be around in graveyards long after the body decomposes. Perhaps those who have such implants should donate them to the next generation. And to Bob, I leave my testicular implants… To Sheena, my left boob…

    On the shows, family, friends, and coworkers were always portrayed as loving the ‘surgical results’ and gushing about how much happier so and so Swan was. However, this was of course all edited for the ‘reality’ show. If I recall, they had to sign contracts limiting their ability to release info to the press, so the unhappy Swans may have been legally bound not to share negative things…

    I know Jennifer Pozner from WIMNs voices is working on a book about Reality TV. Perhaps it will cover more on this topic.

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