“If Tron had a hooker, you would be it,” style expert Stacy London chirps from the television.
“We want people to see you and be like, ‘Wow, she’s hot!’ not, ‘Wow, she thinks she’s 12,’” London’s equally snarky partner, Clinton Kelly, snaps back.
“She’s just like a turkey — she goes toward anything shiny,” London quips.
Welcome to an episode of TLC’s What Not to Wear.
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London and Kelly’s clever put-downs — in this case aimed at a fading hippie mom of three — are what give the long-running reality makeover show its spark, easing viewers through the embarrassing “before” and guiding them through to the shiny, near-perfect “after.”
Over the course of nine years, the What Not to Wear duo has dressed down, and subsequently built back up, hundreds of America’s dowdy, mismatched and just plain tacky, much to the amusement of the show’s loyal audience.
Yet beyond getting a good laugh at the oft-outrageous closets of clueless fashion victims, what viewers are really after is a good transformation.
In this age of perfectionism and the “more is more” mentality, ushered in by superhuman celebrities, countless makeover shows and absurd standards of beauty, it’s no wonder so many Americans can’t get enough of the before-and-after game.
“What I think is catching our attention is that it has hit the media in such an omnipresent way and been popularized, so it’s no longer the Cinderella story for celebrities or the wealthy. This is now the American story,” says New York psychologist Vivian Diller. “It holds up the possibility that by doing over oneself, one will achieve beauty and, therefore, happiness.”
Diller, who co-wrote Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change, adds that messages about impossible ideals regarding appearance influence our appetite for makeovers, no matter how extreme.
“We’re living in such a youth- and beauty-obsessed culture that there’s an obsession about that possibility. . . . I think the draw to better oneself with some magical makeover is very compelling.”
Our cultural love affair with transformation is clear, but it all begs a more compelling question: What’s going through the minds of those actually being made over, either voluntarily or by coercion?
Why do they do it? How do they feel during the change? What is different about their post-makeover lives? When does the quest for perfection end?
On What Not to Wear, the friends and families of fashion victims undertake a covert mission to secretly document and then submit footage of their fashion-victim loved ones, all in the hope that they’ll be chosen to receive a $5,000 shopping spree and spend a week in New York with co-hosts London and Kelly.
In real life, however, the incentive for being made over, whether by choice or by force, may be less glamorous.
“I am asked — most often by a CEO, a human resources professional or an athlete’s coach — to step in and help an individual transform something that the person or team is being strongly urged to change,” explains Patrick Parks ’01, CEO and founder of the executive coaching firm MVP Group. “Executive presence is a large component of leadership, particularly in the corporate context.”
Such a clear directive for specific change can bring opposition. “The resistance can range from someone trying to intentionally undermine my efforts to help them, to someone who wants to change but is subconsciously resisting change because they are being asked to do something different,” Parks says.
When people enter into a makeover pact voluntarily, often a major life event has triggered a desire for further change. In an effort to get to their best selves, they may seek professional help to reach the optimal “after.”
“Most of my clients are in some type of transition, such as recent college graduate, new mother, regional move, job promotion or ready to date,” says Robin Fisher, CEO of the Washington, D.C., image-consultation company Polished Image and Style. “At the end of the day, I admire all of my clients for taking the power of their image seriously. The way you present yourself truly tells people a story.”
Other times, it’s as simple as wanting some new clothes.
After undergoing weight-loss surgery a few years ago, Rose Ann Robertson, an American University journalism professor and associate dean, sought out an image consultant to help transform the packaging for her new body.
“I was excited to start building a new wardrobe,” she says. “My goal was to be able to go into a normal store and find what I consider ‘normal’ clothes. I just thought it would be wonderful to be able to walk into a store and say, ‘Oh, I need something for this party’ and to be able to easily buy it.”
Before working with a stylist, Robertson says, shopping had been a chore because she was dissatisfied with the limited selection of clothing she could buy in her former size.
“One of the best things about the shopping trip was I didn’t have to buy everything just because it fit,” she remembers. “I could say, ‘Well, this fits but I don’t like it.’ You have choices.”
Once clients are in the clutches of the expert being tasked with making them over, the experience becomes a chain of epiphanies concerning everything from body shape to lessons in textures to combating aversions to certain colors.
“During consultations I look for the head nods, the subtle grins and sparkle in their eyes that let me know the light bulb has turned on,” Fisher says. “It’s important to me to let them know that they are worth the work and they will look and feel 100 percent themselves while having an image that is fabulous.”
Indeed, when a person sees themselves literally become someone else in a fitting room mirror, that high of discovery becomes something they want to experience again and again.
“I remember preening and sort of going, ‘Wow — that does look good,’ or ‘I do have a waist,’ or ‘Who would’ve thought that print would’ve done something for me,’” Robertson says. “I spent most of the day amazed that I could actually wear some of this stuff.”
Parks says a person’s response to a makeover of any sort is often contingent upon the attitude and capacity for change they exhibit before the transformation even begins.
“Some people are in awe of themselves, while others passively respond. In some cases, a client’s actions say that they knew the change would happen so they are not wowed,” Parks says. “Whereas others may believe so much in the plan that we have set together that they are now emboldened to take on other change agendas in their personal and/or professional lives.”
While makeovers can certainly be beneficial, Diller warns that they cannot be quick fixes for deeper body image or emotional issues, should they exist.
“Often people believe that changing what they look like will make them feel better. These shows try to help people match what they feel on the inside with the change on the outside, but that takes a lot of work,” she advises. “When you go through those makeovers, just because you’ve changed yourself to look more like some ideal image doesn’t necessarily change how you feel. Change comes from internal work.
“People who try to change the outside without understanding why they don’t feel happy with how they look goes further back than adulthood,” Diller adds. “That goes back to the way in which your very first mirrors in life, which are usually your mother and father, were viewed.”
Diving into that introspective, internal work is often the legacy of the makeover experience. How a person lives life after being transformed is just as important as the act of transforming itself.
Diller, a former dancer and model, says being bombarded with images about ideal standards of beauty and an overarching cultural aspiration for perfection (via celebrities and other tastemakers) can run counter to engendering feelings of acceptance and attractiveness, even post-makeover.
“They don’t know, often, how much work and effort goes into keeping themselves in that so-called ‘made over’ state,” she says. “It’s an army of people and then an everyday effort on top of the fact that it’s lighting and airbrushing. They don’t know when you go for an extreme makeover that you have that army there for one week or one day. It’s what you do afterwards that frequently makes people feel like, ‘Who is this person?’”
Robertson says that even after her weight loss and sessions with a stylist, issues from her childhood complicated her relationship with clothing and shopping.
“When I was a kid, my mother, who was a tiny person, would always say, ‘Oh, if you lose 10 pounds, I’ll buy you this new dress.’ It was always a reward. So the psyche, I think, is that I’ll never be quite good enough for those clothes,” she admits.
That is not to say, however, that every makeover will inevitably come crashing down.
“I’ve had clients dance in the fitting room, jump up and hug me or say ‘You’ve changed my life,’ and look me in the eyes and say, ‘Thank you,’” Fisher says. “I get emails from my clients weekly that touch my heart. I feel very honored to be able to help my clients make the connection that often gives them the confidence and courage to go after their own dreams and goals.”
Whether a post-makeover experience is ultimately positive or fraught with deepening self-image issues, the questions remains, does the quest for fundamental change ever end?
“I liken most behavioral change to learning how to walk again,” Parks says. “Your mind knows how to walk, but let’s say your body has been injured and you need to reconnect those pathways.”
Fortunately, exercising and strengthening those pathways can help ensure healthy change over time that matches a person’s overall plan to achieve goals, no matter what they are.
“Renewal, connection to body and mind, and confidence from the outside-in are the most salient feelings one achieves through a makeover,” Parks adds.
Diller agrees that the positives of makeovers can certainly outweigh any potentially negative outcomes, especially when considering ongoing, progressive change.
“Learning and being open to learn how to make the most of what you have has a positive element to it,” Diller says.
Robertson, who continues to struggle with her weight, remains optimistic about her body image and sense of self because she still believes in the power of change.
She is wistful when talking about a blouse she bought during one of her shopping trips that no longer fits but that she considers a tangible reminder of what her transformation looked like and how it made it her feel.
“I absolutely loved that top. I felt — wow — I felt spectacular. I felt the first thing that someone would notice about me would not necessarily be my weight. Even though I wasn’t a size 6, or anywhere close to it, I felt normal and I felt hopeful,” she says. “Unfortunately, that top doesn’t fit anymore. I feel ashamed. I think anybody who loses weight and then gains it back is ashamed of it, and it’s not like something that you can hide. [That shirt] is still in the back of my closet, and hope springs eternal that one of these days I will get back on the wagon and wear it.”
Arienne Thompson is a Washington, D.C.-based fashion and celebrity reporter at USA Today.