“A wonderful dream come true!” (Cinderella, Disney, 1950)
By Emma Jacobs, Endangered Bodies contributor
It’s the ultimate fairy-tale. Cinderella, the enslaved heroine — soot-stained, rag-ridden, oh-so-humble — holds her breath and makes a wish and with a shower of sparkles she is transformed, now a ball-gowned princess, at last lovely both outside and in. She’s worked hard, she’s suffered quietly, and so she is deserving of the Fairy Godmother’s greatest gift: beauty. “Why!” cries Disney’s Cinderella, “It’s like a dream! A wonderful dream come true!”
Cinderella stories have existed in countless variations throughout human history, from Ancient Greece to the Tang Dynasty to the Islamic Golden Age. We’ve always been fascinated by the “before” and “after” of the makeover. And like all good fairy-tales, the makeover is in essence a morality story. Beauty, it tells us, is something you earn; ugliness is for the lazy.
This moral lesson has been woven into TV makeover shows since they began in the 1940s and ’50s (incidentally, around the same time Disney’s Cinderella first came to the big screen). In US studio gameshows like Queen for a Day and Glamour Girl, women competed for the viewers’ sympathies by confessing their stories of misery, hardship and marital trouble. Whoever got the most applause from the audience was rewarded for her suffering with a beauty-queen makeover, and the obligatory sense of self-worth that accompanied it. As the NBC brochure for Glamour Girl noted, “the girl is changed not only in appearance but also in her outlook on life. We see her poised, secure and smiling. This creation of a new personality has great human interest appeal.” 
The crowning of the winner (Queen for a Day, 1961)
A new personality, a new look, a newfound optimism — it’s no wonder that this promise held a special appeal in post-war USA. The makeover show tied into a national spirit of regeneration, along with the re-domestication of women and a boom in the manufacturing of affordable beauty products. Now, it seemed, glossy hair and full lips and smooth skin really were achievable for anyone — that is, anyone who worked hard enough. As Naomi Wolf points out in The Beauty Myth, if beauty is seen as something any woman can (and should) achieve, then a lack of it is not just unlucky; it’s a character failure.
This idea remained at the heart of makeover shows as the genre grew, and found its peak at the turn of the twenty-first century with the birth of reality TV. The show that really defined the template as we know it today was the UK’s What Not to Wear (2001–07). As a pre-teen I was obsessed with this show. I sat glued to the screen as “brutally honest style gurus” Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine gave fashion overhauls to women who were “in desperate need” of their help. What “desperate need” meant was that the chosen target was not “trying hard enough,” not “making the most” of her potential attractiveness. She was usually middle-aged, perhaps grey-haired, often plus-sized, but her “sin” was none of these things; her real offense was that she didn’t particularly care.
As remedy (or punishment?) she was made to stand in an enclosed 360-degree mirror, where her body and clothes were subjected to the scrutiny of Trinny and Susannah, a close-up camera, an untold TV viewership, and most importantly herself. “Look at yourself,” Susannah says in one episode. “What has brought you to this point?” Broken and vulnerable, with self-disgust blooming in her eyes, the makeoveree replies: “Not caring enough. Not giving enough of a damn about what I look like. Not realising how important it is and how it diminishes me.”
“Look at yourself” (What Not to Wear UK, season 5, episode 6, 2005)
Trinny and Susannah then set about fixing this crime against femininity by educating her in “the rules.” My ten-year-old self drank in the advice thirstily. You don’t need to diet, they’d say, or get plastic surgery. Not unless you want to. What you need is to look at your body, really look. What are your “assets”? What are your “problem areas”? Be honest with yourself. It’s all about dressing to show off what you love and disguise what you hate. “If you’ve got it flaunt it; if you haven’t, hide it,” they instructed. “Then it’ll only be you, your gynaecologist and your mirror who know the real truth.”
After a two-day shopping streak (rife with hidden cameras, panic attacks, and product placement), there comes the Cinderella moment. The makeoveree emerges in her new outfit, hair coiffed, makeup lathered, tummy vacuum-packed into Trinny and Susannah’s famous “magic knickers.” Look at her: A Whole New Woman. In most episodes she is speechless with joy and gratitude, brimming with a fresh sense of her own value. One woman is told that now she can be a great role model for her young daughter, who used to be ashamed of her for dressing like a “tramp”; another is paraded in front of her male colleagues and praised for finally providing them with “an interesting and attractive woman” in the office. At long last she is deserving of womanhood, her moral character reformed along with her concealed wrinkles and uplifted cleavage.
The reformed sinner (What Not to Wear UK, season 5, episode 6, 2005)
“Reformed” is fitting, since the whole thing follows the arc of a religious conversion. There’s the straying lamb (“she has lost her way”), the spiritual guide (“you have to hand over your body into our hands”), the confession (“I’m so ashamed”), the penance (“you’ve got to get into high heels”), and the redemption (“she looks ten years younger”). The sinner — reluctant at first — has seen the light, renounced her ways, and been born again.
My younger self was converted, too. I asked for Trinny and Susannah’s books for Christmas, illustrated my own shape-enhancing makeovers, analysed my childhood frame in the mirror for flaws and assets. Some little girls model themselves on popstars, I idolized middle-aged high-street fashion. I bought into their message of cruel-to-be-kind discipline and self-scrutiny wholesale. The alternative — that perhaps there was nothing wrong with the makeoverees in the first place; that perhaps learning not to worry about how you look could be even better for your self-esteem — didn’t occur to me until many years later.
Trinny and Susannah’s evangelical mission spread throughout the 2000s. Versions of What Not to Wear popped up in countries all over the world, and spawned countless makeover shows with the same basic formula. I’d group these into two main types:
1) The “hard” makeover show, which uses cosmetic surgery to create unrecognisable transformations. This began in the US with Extreme Makeover and The Swan, and soon expanded into international versions like China’s Lovely Cinderella, Spain’s Cambio Radical, and South Korea’s Let Me In. Like the Cinderella story, these portray beauty as a reward for suffering and endurance, except in this case the pain is surgical and the Fairy Godmother’s magic is wildly expensive.
2) The “soft” makeover show, which focusses on reversable changes like clothing, makeup, and lifestyle choices. These include the UK’s How to Look Good Naked, France’s Nouveau Look pour une Nouvelle Vie, and — as the male grooming industry ramped up as well — the US’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The true power of these shows is in the way they seem to champion body positivity and respect (Gok Wan: “With body confidence you will look sexy in anything”; Carson Kressley: “We’re not here to change you, we’re here to make you better”), while actually still promoting the belief that your self-worth should be inextricably linked to your physical appearance.
In fact, it’s the “soft” shows that strike me as more dangerous than the “hard.” With their best-friend-forever hosts and pseudo self-love vibe, they’re more fun to watch and cosier to cuddle up to. Not to mention they’re easier to replicate, encouraging you to absorb their restrictive rules and constant surveillance into your daily routine.
Lessons in self-scrutiny (How to Look Good Naked UK, series 3, episode 3, 2007)
In the 2010s, however, the popularity of makeover shows has started to wane. The original ones have all ended by now, and fewer new ones are being created. Why is this? Have we just got bored of them, or does their decline reflect a change in attitudes toward beauty? The optimist in me thinks it’s a good sign. Many of the “hard” shows received heavy backlash and were cancelled in the late 2000s, reflecting a collective mistrust in at least the most blatant kind of beauty propaganda. But then I can’t help wondering if it’s less that we no longer want makeover shows, than that we no longer need them. If one of the central functions of the makeover show, like most reality TV, is a kind of self-policing — teaching ourselves cultural norms and chastising those who don’t conform to them — then maybe we’re over the makeover because its message has already well and truly sunk in…
Case in point: the British series Snog Marry Avoid?, which ran from 2008 to 2013. For me, Snog Marry Avoid? was Cinderella on speed; the makeover show eating itself. It was billed as “the world’s first makeunder show,” in which “fakery-obsessed makeup addicts” (usually young working-class women) were transformed into “natural beauties” by stripping away their layers of bronzer, fake eyelashes, and hair extensions. The makeunders were carried out not by a person but by a machine (the “Personal Overhaul Device,” or POD); and the measure of the transformation’s success was not the woman’s satisfaction with her new look, but the number of strangers on the street who answered “Snog,”  “Marry,” or “Avoid” when shown a photo of her.
“Phase 1: Public analysis” (Snog Marry Avoid?, season 5, episode 6, 2012)
These are the fundamentals of the makeover show sped up and stripped down into absurdity. There was always formulaic homogenization as if by machine; there was always judgement of the self through the eyes of others; there was always submerged class snobbery in the language of “elegance” and “professionalism”; but the blatancy of all this in Snog Marry Avoid? exposes it to the point of parody. It’s as if there was nowhere left for the makeover show to go but backwards — to undo its own work, to turn us back into pumpkins.
The women featured on Snog Marry Avoid? were often teenagers or early twenty-somethings, members of the generation that — like me — grew up watching makeover TV in its prime. We know better than anyone that today’s social-mediated world is all about appearances. We’ve been well educated in the lesson that beauty is a slap-and-silicon mask, something you can pay for with your credit card and enough hours in front of the bathroom mirror. And maybe we’ve even internalized the sermon that not to do so is a mark of depravity more than surface-level deep.
In 2017, the makeover show continues in dribs and drabs: the US version of Snog Marry Avoid? is still running, although without the POD machine and with the more conservative title Love, Lust or Run; and Netflix is reportedly making a come-back season of Queer Eye to be released later this year. But for the most part its heyday seems to be over. The lesson has been learned, and all too well: a Whole New You is only a makeover away.
 Quoted in Marsha F. Cassidy, “,” in Dana Heller (ed.), The Great American Makeover: Television, History, Nation (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006), p. 126.
 British slang for “kiss” or “make out.”
Emma Jacobs is a freelance editor from the UK, currently based in Buenos Aires. She studied Literature at the University of Warwick and UC Berkeley.