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.