Clinton does seem totally fabulous, though

I have a love/hate realtionship with TLC's What Not to Wear.

For those who are unfamiliar with the show's premise, it goes like this: a friend or family member nominates someone (usually a woman) whose fashion sense could use a little fine-tuning. The show arranges to film the nominee for two weeks, cataloging her crimes against fashion. At the end of the two weeks, the unsuspecting victim is ambushed in a public place by Stacy London and Clinton Kelly, the stylist-hosts, who inform her that they will give her $5,000 for a whole new wardrobe if she spends a week at the WNTW studio in New York learning new fashion rules. Oh, and she has to bring her entire current wardrobe for them to pick through, make fun of, and throw away. The nominees usually express their shock by a) laughing nervously, b) getting angry at the people who did the nominating, or c) crying. Once a nominee accepts, the typical reality TV humliations ensue, including a viewing of the secret footage with each victim's friends/family/coworkers, an unflattering modeling session in a 360 degree mirror, and a sarcastic (sometimes downright mean) critique of her clothing by Clinton and Stacy.

Now, I'm no fan of reality TV, and in addition to all the sins of that particular genre, WNTW commits a few additional crimes against women that get my feminist knickers in a twist. Predictably, the show works hard at reinforcing gender roles, encouraging women who dress in shapeless, baggy clothes to dress "more feminine" and incorporate such fashion staples as skirts and high heels into their ensembles. The final segment of the fashion makeover includes a new haircut by brilliant hairstylist Nick Arrojo and a lesson in makeup from makeup artist Carmindy.

I'm embarrassed that I didn't even have to look up their names.

So let's start with the obvious: I find it offensive that the entire show exists solely to help women be prettier. (Granted, they have given fashion makeovers to men, too, but they represent only a tiny fraction of a fraction of the total number of shows. This, as all women know, is due in large part to the fact that our worth as people is very often judged solely by our hotness, whereas men can be both ugly and poorly-dressed without anyone concluding that they must be deranged/incompetent/negligent.) They harp on the ideas of "lengthening the line of the leg" and "creating an hourglass shape," carefully showing self-conscious women how to create the illusion of a silhouette they don't actually have. Clinton and Stacy blatantly work to reinforce this idea that there is a "right" shape is for a woman's body.

They also advance the notion that there are right and wrong ways of dressing-- some women dress in styles that are "too young," some dress "too old," and some are just plain "trashy." While I can respect the idea of work-appropriate wear, sometimes the descriptions of the offending wardrobes-- "trashy," "slutty," etc.-- grate on my nerves.

But they don't get everything wrong: Stacy and Clinton are very good about emphasizing that each woman should dress the body she has, take care of herself now instead of beating herself up for not fitting into the right size jeans. They help women realize that they can look beatiful in flattering clothes that fit, no matter what their measurements, and that's the thing that I love most about the show. Just the other night, I watched an episode in which a lovely young mother wept at the end of her makeover, saying, "I never thought of myself as an attractive person before this show." Those episodes always make me cry; I can't help but be moved by the sight of a woman who has realized she is beautiful even though her body doesn't fit into a size 2.

I guess my ambivalence about the show stems from the fact that it encapsulates the contradictions inherent in our social concept of what it means to be a woman. We are encouraged to "accept" our bodies and ourselves, but if our looks really don't matter, why should we care about whether the rise in our jeans is too low or high, or whether our structured jackets create a nice narrow waist? There is this strange emphasis on makeup looking "natural," keeping the colors soft and believable, but if "natural" is so good, why do we have to paint our faces in the first place? The average woman in our society is a walking contradiction. We've been socialized to believe that we don't look good enough without makeup, but also that vanity is unbecoming; as a result, we obsess over our faces and paint them meticulously, but we cannot allow ourselves to be seen doing this lest someone think we're too self-absorbed.

These things make me angry because, although I can recognize and criticize the things I find wrong with the system, I still exist inside it. I think the whole idea of makeup is absurd, but I still wear it when I want to look nice. I think high heels are ridiculous, but you can rest assured that I'll wear them to my next job interview. I'm irritated by fashion, but I know I won't be taken seriously if I don't look "put-together." It's a maddening circle, and it's the reason that a show like What Not to Wear both entertains and infuriates me.

Posted byMJ at 1:22 PM  

2 comments:

DWF said... 3/15/2007 11:18 AM  

Yes, you've pretty much summed up my feelings about the show. And as someone who now works at home, I'm seriously battling with the fact that 1) I am simply more comfortable writing all day wearing something more like sweatpants and a T-shirt vs. 2) OMG am I totally "letting myself go" by not putting on a jacket to work in my own home?!

I work in advertising and barely work skirts or heels to the office when I was working there. But like I posted over at Feministe, I hate that even the clothes I previously liked and felt good in I'm now criticizing, thinking I'm not hourglass-y enough. Sigh@

Yancy Wilkenfeldt said... 4/12/2007 11:20 AM  

Well, you know how I feel about it, Molly, so I'll save you the recap. But I will say, I wish Clinton was my best friend! He's adorable.

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