Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–Remember when the typical New Year’s resolution consisted of a pledge to lose weight and exercise more?

If you’re a woman who gets her image inspiration from prime-time television, signing up with Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig on Jan. 2 doesn’t cut it anymore. Cutting–as in plastic surgery–is what cuts it.

Major and minor networks and cable channels have pulled out the stops on the makeover act.

Programs such as TLC’s "Ten Years Younger" begin at the modest end of the transformation spectrum, focusing on the right foundation undergarments, flattering clothing styles and better diet and hygiene. But pain, risk and lost privacy mark programs such as ABC’s "Extreme Makeover" and Fox’s "The Swan," which feature sad people convinced that a new outside will help them heal on the inside.

I’m incredulous that anyone still buys into this notion or wants to spend their evenings watching people who do. These programs promote plastic surgery, implants, liposuction and "fat transfer" (in which your lipo-suctioned fat is injected elsewhere in your body for "contouring" purposes, a gruesome thought) as panaceas for low self-esteem, bereavement and years of self-neglect. The overall message is that one’s success and happiness will increase with body parts that aren’t original. The message is expressed by subjecting pitiful people to pitiless scrutiny.

Weeping and Fairy Tales

The weepiness of the participants is revved up to make the fairy-tale endings seem more miraculous.

On "The Swan," the relentless camera kept zooming in on a tearful Patti, still mourning her late husband, and Dore, despairing at not being able to conceive after 10 years of fertility treatments.

On "Extreme Makeover," Bubba’s sad eyes showed his heartbreak over the death of his fiance. They had reasons to be bereft and their grief was painful to watch. Although the programs say they offer therapy and counseling, their real focus is on getting you that new bod, the one that will make all your friends and family at last see you as being "hot." Being told that you’re "hot" or "a rock star" are the coveted pronouncements made at the "reveal," when we finally see the result of all that making over.

Raising Morale by Undergoing the Knife

It’s obvious from looking at these programs that more women than men feel an urgent need to go under the knife to raise their morale. Why?

"When I would ask my patients coming in for cosmetic surgery why they wanted to have it done, they would say,’my husband thought my boobs were too small,’ or ‘he thought my tush was too flabby,’ says nurse practitioner Irid Naver, former director of women’s health at Mercy Medical Center, Baltimore. "It was usually about an opinion or criticism they received from someone else, not something they necessarily wanted for themselves."

Indeed, in a where-is-she-now feature on "Extreme Makeover," trainer Michael Thurmond asked his makeover alumna, "So how does your husband like this body?"

Naver says she’s concerned that viewers–watching three months of surgical recovery compressed into 40 minutes–will underestimate the suffering involved in the procedures makeover participants undergo. And she’s repelled by the humiliation participants are willing to endure to obtain the makeovers (such as a woman on "Ten Years Younger" agreeing to stand in a cage on a Los Angeles street while passersby are asked to guess her age).

‘Great Face for Radio’

On "The Swan," a woman named Amy, an aspiring singer, was described as having "a face that held back her singing career." Weeping, she herself confessed, "I was told I had a great face for radio." Piling on, her plastic surgeon said, "She doesn’t have a feminine face." The childless Dore also would be re-sculpted because, according to her doctor, "I want to feminize her." The comments validate Naver’s observation: These individuals are giving themselves over to someone else’s vision of who they should be; not their own.

The results of these endeavors all look pretty much the same at the end of the day: Long, swingy hair (usually blonde), lots of cleavage, slinky gowns; very Vegas, very predictable. At the end of the makeover, regardless of each woman’s wants, needs, hopes, dreams, they’re all made into the same creature.

So why do people watch?

‘Horrific Accident Scene’

The spate of reality TV shows has made voyeurism a constant in prime-time programming, and the makeover shows capitalize on that. Viewers dissatisfied with their lives may look at the makeover sad sacks and the grisly surgery they endure and decide their lives aren’t so bad after all.

"I can’t not watch," said a viewer in a November posting on "The Swan’s" message board. "It’s like a really horrific accident scene."

As with so much of what’s depicted in media, there are bound to be copycats. These shows are leaping off the TV screen and coming to the mall.

Partners in Beauty, a network of Southern California beauty and health services, invited military wives to receive what they billed "the first-ever Extreme Military Makeover." The winner, Marine Corps spouse Lori Brown, 31, is to receive a variety of services valued at more than $45,000, including breast augmentation, abdominoplasty, liposuction and facial rejuvenation procedures. Brown will also receive laser vision correction and cosmetic dentistry. Her "reveal" will take place in January at Saks Fifth Avenue in San Diego’s Fashion Valley Mall.

In the press release announcing her selection, you can discern the front-loading of emotions that is the trademark of the makeover mania: "Having given the ultimate sacrifice, supporting her husband, an enlisted Marine for 10 years, and caring for her children, including a son suffering from cerebral palsy and epilepsy, Brown is being given the gift to finally care for herself." But what is really going on here is that, just as on television, Brown is being given a starring role in an infomercial for her makeover providers. (A note to the publicist who produced the news release: Had Brown made "the ultimate sacrifice," she wouldn’t be around for a makeover.)

People generally feel better when they believe they look good.

Far be it from me to begrudge anyone that warm glow, but the merchandising of self-worth through surgery is a big prime-time lie.

You can’t inject self-confidence with a syringe, or improve your love life with bigger breasts or bigger hair. You won’t love yourself more, or be more loved, if you have your toes shortened or removed to get into today’s narrow stilettos or even, for some women whom no detail escapes, have your labia reshaped to get the picture-perfect vagina.

When it’s all over, the makeover queens have to go home to themselves and the families who knew them when. Whether or not they surrendered their internal pain at the TV studio along with the excess pounds and their former body shape is anybody’s guess.

My guess? Probably not.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing, Inc., which received the 2004 "Texty" Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association, and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World," Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.



For more information:

The Swan:

Partners in Beauty–
Dedicated Marine Wife and Mom of Special Needs Child Chosen to Receive Extreme Military Makeover:

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