F**k Flattering: Makeover Culture and Unrealistic Expectations

Mel Campbell reflects on makeover culture and the unrealistic expectations that come with it - that a sophisticated new look will deliver a new self (and life) to match. But even when it works, who does the social power of beauty serve? And why should the approval of strangers matter more than your own personal sense of style, and self? She takes us on a tour through popular culture, from Pretty in Pink to The Hunger Games, to Snog, Marry, Avoid.

Whenever I’ve longed for a makeover, it’s because I wanted people to change their minds about me. I wanted to show up to the school formal looking so sophisticated the mean girls would all grovel to be my friend, and their boyfriends would want to date me instead. I wanted an expert to say, ‘You’re awesome,’ and to transform my appearance so the rest of the world saw it too.

Being plucked from unfair obscurity, and having your inner worth recognised and transformed into outer beauty, is certainly, in the words of Disney’s *Cinderella*, ‘a wish your heart makes’.

I have fairytales and Hollywood romances to thank for such unrealistically high expectations. Pretty in Pink (1986) is the only movie I can think of that contains a makeover as pathetic and misguided as in real life. Poor but plucky Andie (Molly Ringwald) has spent the film pining after yuppie douchebag Blaine (Andrew McCarthy), even though her adorable best friend Duckie (Jon Cryer) is clearly crazy about her. Determined to show the mean kids at school how fab she can look at the prom, Andie spends a feverish montage assembling her dream prom dress from several different vintage garments.

We’re primed for her to look, well, pretty in pink … But on the big reveal, the dress is just an assault to the eyes. It’s a shapeless triangular sack with holes cut out for Andie’s shoulders! She looks like a piece of rolled-up ham of the sort you’d find on an antipasto platter. I’m appalled that she mutilated those perfectly good dresses for this! But somehow, Blaine smarmily accepts Andie anyway, leaving Duckie to flirt with some random extra who’s clearly been shoehorned into the film to paper over this extremely depressing deánouement.

Being plucked from unfair obscurity, and having your inner worth recognised and transformed into outer beauty, is certainly, in the words of Disney’s Cinderella, ‘a wish your heart makes’. This satisfying makeover story has been told for millennia; it has appeared in ancient Egypt, Greece, Arabia, China, Vietnam, Italy and Korea, as well as in the familiar French retelling by Charles Perrault. It’s lovely to imagine that somewhere, we too might have a benevolent fairy godmother like Queen Clarisse Renaldi (Julie Andrews) in The Princess Diaries (2001), Nigel (Stanley Tucci) in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), or Shelley (Anna Faris) in The House Bunny (2008).

But some Cinderella stories critique the social power of beauty, asking whose purposes it serves. Suzanne Collins’ 2008 dystopian young adult novel The Hunger Games subjects the protagonist Katniss Everdeen, one of twelve desperately poor teenagers competing in a televised death-match, to a comprehensive makeover that symbolises the wealthy Capitol’s power over her life. But as Collins’ trilogy progresses, Katniss’s successive makeovers become subversive, politically charged statements, and her fairy godmother – her stylist Cinna – deliberately uses the makeover not to woo the prince but to topple the kingdom.

The Pygmalion story – epitomised by George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play of the same name – dramatises the moral hypocrisy of a socially powerful person taking someone ‘inferior’ as a proteágeá and setting out to ‘improve’ them. In Strictly Ballroom (1992), champion dancer Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) discovers new passion for his art while coaching Fran (Tara Morice) from a clumsy, frumpy beginner to a tempestuous beauty. Meanwhile in Pretty Woman (1990), jaded tycoon Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) transforms the life of Julia Roberts’ spunky prostitute Vivian Ward, who ‘rescues him right back’.

Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling (1843) speaks powerfully to our conviction that we belong … somewhere. We’ve all felt awkward, unwanted and out of place, and it’s reassuring to believe that we already hold a nascent beauty – if we can just find a place or a group of people that will bring it out in us. Muriel ‘Mariel’ Heslop (Toni Collette) moves to Sydney in Muriel’s Wedding (1994); in Sabrina (1954), Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn) blossoms into a swan by studying cordon bleu cooking in Paris.

But makeovers don’t only happen in fiction. They leak into our everyday lives through reality television shows in which self-appointed experts transform the appearance of awkward, semi-willing participants. As my housemate and I loll on the couch at night, brains numbed after our respective workdays, we trade banter about the shows we’re watching. We, too, are being trained … in their language of scrutiny and moral judgment.

The British ‘makeunder’ show Snog Marry Avoid? thrusts heavily made-up, flamboyantly dressed women into the Personal Overhaul Device (POD), a fanciful, female-voiced artificial intelligence that, paradoxically, ‘only understands natural beauty’. (Imagine a fashion- conscious version of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.) The candidate is confronted with vox-pop footage of ordinary British men commenting callously on whether they’d snog, marry or avoid her. (Mostly, they choose ‘avoid’.)

Then POD sets to work, forcing the candidate to adopt more understated hair, make-up and clothing. Now the vox-pop dudes overwhelmingly choose to ‘snog’ or ‘marry’ our new ‘natural beauty’. This kind of slut shaming isn’t new: Godey’s Lady’s Book, the nineteenth century’s answer to Cosmopolitan magazine, advocated only ‘moral cosmetics’, such as going to bed early. The take-away message from Snog Marry Avoid? is that women’s own sartorial tastes are less important than the approval of total strangers.

And now to Trinny and Susannah, and their repulsively invasive TV show What Not to Wear. These mean girls ambush their makeover candidates, mercilessly mocking their dress sense and sometimes even cutting their clothes up with scissors, before dispatching them on a remedial shopping spree. If the candidate fails to comply with their advice, our gurus promptly show up in person to criticise her taste.

In the guise of being honest and straight-talking, they’re more like bullies ganging up on a victim; they can be angry and rude if one of their makeover candidates timidly says she doesn’t like the prescribed clothes. But more often, orthovestia is delivered in the seductive form of kindly, well-meaning advice. We listen out of a desire to please others and be accepted, but we are really agreeing to make ourselves invisible.

The plus-size or ‘fatshion’ blogging community rejects this notion. One of Australian plus-size fashion designer Gisela Ramirez’s most popular items is a cropped T-shirt printed with the bold slogan ‘F*CK FLATTERING’.

‘If I dress to trick people into thinking I don’t have a large tummy, and that I’m not indeed 175cm tall, I am nullifying parts of my body,’ writes Brisbane illustrator and fashion blogger Natalie Perkins on her blog Definatalie. ‘These parts belong to me and even if I flatter them away as much as possible, they still exist and I still see them when I stand naked in front of a mirror.’

Portrait of Mel Campbell

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and critic who co-hosts the fortnightly literature and culture podcast The Rereaders. She is a columnist on writing at Overland magazine, and a university lecturer and writer-for-hire on film, TV and media. Her first book was the nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (2013), and she’s currently co-writing a second romantic comedy novel with Anthony Morris; their first was The Hot Guy (2017).

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