I’ve always enjoyed changing my appearance, and clearing out my wardrobe; I do it constantly, as a kind of cleansing ritual. As terrible as it sounds, it makes me feel like I have my shit together, even if I don’t. But there is a difference between personal spring-cleaning and being indoctrinated by fascist beauty standards into overhauling everything about you that doesn’t fit some hegemonic idea of sexual attractiveness, right?
I’m guilty of indulging in shows like Extreme Makeover and The Biggest Loser. I must have watched every single episode with a sick fascination, slurping my cereal as I watched people being cut open and stitched up; mummified in gauze like the helpless, tortured victims in a horror movie, or running on a treadmill until they vomited or passed out. I don’t feel disgusted watching those shows, because in the context of transformation, of a make-over, my mind interprets it as entertainment. I don’t want to generalise too much about them, because my feelings can swing from completely inspired to downright nauseated within the space of an episode, but a lot of these shows stem from a bullshit “post-feminist” approach to media that basically teaches that fascist beauty standards are not fascist at all, but rather, empowering. That life gets so much better once we conform. That deep down, we want to conform – not for the boys, but for ourselves. There was always that moment on Extreme Makeover when the young wife (who said her sex life was crap, she was insecure, she wanted to be pretty for her husband blah blah blah) returned to her overweight, out-of-shape redneck spouse and everyone cried with happiness at her transformation, while I’m there thinking ‘why the fuck didn’t he get a make-over?’ But of course I already know the answer.
In teen movies, from Mean Girls to The Breakfast Club, the make-over features as a rite of passage; a way for a character to gain entry into a new way of life; to have a fresh start, as well as gain acceptance. We’ve all seen Molly Ringwald’s home-coming queen turn gothic, introverted Ally Sheedy into another pastel miss popular, complete with preppy headband, and my feelings are quite ambivalent about the whole thing. It’s supposed to be a happy moment. I’m meant to gasp in admiration at her, like I am at the girls on Snog Marry Avoid (if you live outside Britain you’ll have no idea what that is, but look it up on YouTube) who are often told that they’ll never get their dream job or find a boyfriend if they continue dressing ‘like streetwalkers’; but instead I feel kind of sad that people think they have to change themselves in order to change their life. We walk around feeling like perpetual ‘Before’ pictures, in a constant state of pre-transformation. It doesn’t really matter if what we need, by society’s standards, is a make-over or a make-under. They all teach that when we want big change, we have to start small, and start with ourselves; our eyebrows, our wardrobes, our cleavage.
On one hand, I feel very powerful when I see the control I have over my appearance. Bleaching the past out of my life, and turning my hair into a blank white slate to be written on again, makes me feel like I can do anything. To not be hindered by our physicality, to be able to mould it to our own desires is an amazing thing; but if we can mould it to ours, others can mould it to theirs as well. Our bodies, faces, personalities, are not set in stone; they are being constantly renewed by inside and outside forces. Made-over again and again.