Brand Me! – a critique of Makeover shows

Here is a paper I wrote for one of my Communications classes back in 2010 on Fashion Makeover shows and how they create a ‘branded self’. Note: Though I provide quite a harsh critique of these shows, I must confess (in the spirit of remaining genuine) I do enjoy What Not to Wear and think that Stacy & Clinton approach the show with good intentions; however, the overall message of these types of shows (such as Extreme Makeover – which, thank goodness, is no longer running, Style Her Famous, 10 Years Younger etc…) contribute to the idea that being ‘acceptable’ to society lies in Celebrity-esque makeup, youthful looks (even if achieved through unnatural means), and – above all – never wearing yoga pants.

Brand Me! – a critique of Makeover Shows

Personal makeover shows claim to bring higher esteem to their participants as they take an “ugly duckling” and transform her into a “swan.” However, despite their claims to the contrary, shows like Style by Jury, 10 Years Younger, Style Her Famous and What Not to Wear work to promote low self-esteem and create a self-branded public.

In these shows, a contestant is nominated by family and friends who consider the victim “plain” or “frumpy.” The contestant is defenceless as the show’s hosts inform her of her flaws, seemingly force her into an amateur therapy session and then offer the contestant ‘hope’ through a new wardrobe and, if she is so lucky, a new set of teeth or pair of breasts.

Alison Hearn, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Information Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, says, “[These shows provide] the means by which contestants can become saleable image commodities or branded selves” (Hearn, 2008).

“A brand,” she says, “refers to an entire ‘virtual context’ for consumption….Personal makeover shows, in particular, can be seen to promote this mode of persuasive self-presentation, or ‘self-brand’” (Hearn, 2008).

What is it that attracts people to becoming a self-brand?

I suppose with the right catch phrase anything can be appealing. On their website Style by Jury claims to be “…a makeover series that focuses on making the best first impression possible….[and] show[s] how you can look 10 years younger and get that “wow” factor” (Style By Jury, 2010).

But wait, who said that the “wow factor” is dependent upon youth?

Apparently looking your age has become a fashion faux pas. And, according to The Style Network’s Style Her Famous, so has looking ‘normal.’

“Celeb-inspired makeovers turn ordinary women into glamour goddesses” (Style Her Famous, Celbrity-Inspired Makeover, 2010), the show’s website states. I suppose looking ordinary is no longer tolerable; yet these show’s opposition to looking ‘ordinary’ does not limit their popularity.

With an average of four million viewers per week (Stilson, 2003), TLC’s What Not to Wear is not lacking faithful viewers.

Each week viewers tune in to watch hosts Stacy London and Clinton Kelly track down a victim (nominated by friends and family) and haul her into their studio to be branded.

The hosts shove her in front of the ‘dreaded 360º mirror’ and give her an opportunity to defend herself. At this point Stacy and Clinton laugh at the subject’s ‘feeble’ (yet surprisingly confident) attempt at defending herself and then expose to the subject (and the general public) the flaws that she has.

Once this is done, they attempt teaching the subject how to conceal imperfections using clothing and accessories. The hosts then take the subject shopping; coerce her into buying what they consider “acceptable” clothing, and then chop off her hair and paint her face with makeup.

And this is all in exchange for $5000 and a trip to New York.

At the end of the show, the hosts introduce the subject to her “new and improved” self, and then parade her in front of her nominators who show their approval. This teaches the subject the power of the “self-brand.”

Annie, a What Not to Wear contestant, said, “This experience has helped me to sell myself” (Hearn, 2008, p. 499). It’s a powerful testimony with a solid message – to learn to love thy self, one must learn to sell thy self.

Alison Hearn says, “Indeed, the meta-message of these shows is that cultural legibility and high visibility is productive work and we had all better get cracking at constituting our own attention-getting self-brand” (Hearn, 2008).

But is this a positive message?

Shows like What Not to Wear masque themselves in claims of good intentions to create powerful, self-loving individuals. However, maybe they have missed the mark or maybe it is the viewers who are missing the mark. If the only way to become self-loving is by selling yourself to TV hosts and letting them remodel you into what they consider “ideal” or “sellable”, at what point do we face the reality that in trying to improve ourselves we end up losing ourselves in the process?

But as long as the ratings remain high the shows will carry on. Sadly, these shows will not cease to exist as long as people continue appearing in droves to be branded.


Works Cited

Hearn, A. (2008). Insecure: Narratives and economies of the branded self in transformation television. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies , 22 (4), 495-504.

Makeover Shows Correspond With Increased Body Anxiety. (2009, January 25). Retrieved February 24, 2010, from Science Daily: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/01/090122163319.htm

Sender, K., & Sullivan, M. (2008). Epidemics of will, failures of self-esteem: Responding to fat bodies in The Biggest Loser and What Not to Wear. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies , 22 (4), 573-584.

Stilson, J. (2003). TLC’s Fashion Police. Television Week , 27 (43), 20.

Style By Jury. (2010). Retrieved February 24, 2010, from W Network: http://www.wnetwork.com/Shows/Style-By-Jury.aspx

Style Her Famous, Celbrity-Inspired Makeover. (2010). Retrieved February 24, 2010, from My Style.: http://www.mystyle.com/mystyle/shows/styleherfamous/index.jsp