In addition to the worrying (mis)representations of race, gender, and sexuality in reality TV, economic class and body size are represented in ways that either put monetary hardship under erasure (via the ‘we are all middle class or above’ syndrome most shows represent), that mine the body insecurities US culture creates for profit, and/or that perpetuate damaging beliefs in regards to class and body image.
Class was largely put under erasure in The Swan and other surgical shows, with matters of economics being ‘written out’ of the picture via the fact that makeovers were paid for. Questions of affordability, of the relative monetary driven exclusiveness of the surgically altered club, or of the fact that many of the ‘Swans’ could never afford such alterations on their own were never addressed. This plays into the myth of democracy the show upheld, the idea that “anybody can be a Swan,” and ultimately also colluded with the mythical American Dream of individualism – a dream that handily overlooks factors of class, race, sexuality, and ability.
The Swan also predictably emphasized perhaps the most overarching standard of the body beautiful in America today – the thin body. Equating happiness with the removal of ‘excess’ flesh, the show’s surgeons happily ‘liposculptured’ numerous locations on each of the contestant’s bodies. On the show, ‘ugly duckling’ contestants were codified as horrifically fat if they dared to move beyond the region of size 8 and all the women seemingly required not only liposuction but also excessive diet and exercise regimens. Drawing on repeated ‘before’ shots of contestant’s bodies, the camera zoomed in on supposedly disgusting butts, thighs, and stomachs, while contestants repeatedly made comments like “I feel so fat and ugly in my own skin.” Here, the show presented average female bodies as disgusting, as all too fleshy and out of control.
The show, perhaps unwittingly, also revealed that our fat-hating culture has created various lucrative possibilities. For example, when a doctor on the show enthused during a liposuction procedure “See how nice and golden the fat is. That’s a lot of cheeseburgers,” he not only objectified the female body he was working on, but also significantly equated fat with gold, illuminating the links between flesh and revenue.
Similarly, on Extreme Makeover, a female contestant was told she had to lose 30 to 40 pounds or she would not be given her makeover. Claiming her weight of 175 pounds was “medically unsafe,” her surgeon threatened to disqualify her and effectively coerced her into losing weight. Later, after the surgeon performed liposuction on this same patient, he giddily proclaimed, “It’s gold! It’s gold! It’s gold!” while storing the liposuctioned fat in beakers. These shows thus offer us haunting visual evidence of the ways in which flesh quite literally translates into profit for cosmetic surgeons while underscoring the cultural belief that the public performance of the body, to be acceptable, must be a fat-free performance.
I wish I could say this racist, sexist, classist, heteronormative fat-hating beauty imperative had gone the way of surgically based reality TV shows. Unlike the shows though, this imperative has not ended. Rather, it was displayed in all its horror during the July 13th airing of the Miss Universe pageant where women from around the globe trotted around in ball gowns and bathing suits, sporting light skin, long straight or wavy hair, white smiles, and small waists. Even though 80 countries were represented, the women looked hauntingly similar. From what I could bare to watch (about twenty minutes) there was not one disabled women, not one very dark skinned woman, not one woman with a nose that didn’t look like it came out of a surgeons ‘after ‘pictures, not one flat chest. I hope we soon wake up and put an end to all such beauty contests and, in so doing, begin a new approach to beauty, one that realizes that beauty comes in all colors, shapes, sizes, sexualities, and income brackets. For this to occur thought, the beauty industrial complex, which rakes in billions a year, must be dismantled for yet another ugly side of corporatism is the way it mines our bodies (and the socially constructed insecurities surrounding them) for profit. So, next time you are hating your body or feeling unbeautiful, please ask yourself who is profiting from this belief… It certainly isn’t you.
(This concludes the 5 part Beauty Imperative series. But, no doubt I will continue to post on these issues as it doesn’t look like our body image issues in the USofAppearance-obsession will be going away anytime soon…)