The makeover trap

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From transgender celebrities to fitness fads, pop culture loves reinvention. But the drive to ‘find yourself’ has a dark side

Photo by Annie Engel/Getty

Michael Lovelock is a lecturer in media at Cardiff Metropolitan University and recently completed his PhD at the University of East Anglia.

Every Tuesday on Instagram, millions of users, mostly in their teens to their early 30s, upload an image for #transformationtuesday. On one side of the shot, there’s a selfie of a young man, topless or in underwear, his body slim, pale and unflatteringly lit, phone in hand before a mirror; or a young woman, similarly undressed, lumpy, undefined, slouching. In the second half of the frame, it’s the same body, but changed, enhanced. The young man is now tanned, his pectorals are bigger, his biceps more defined, the filter enhancing the contours of his abdominals. The young woman, in contrast, is smaller and more svelte, arching her back as she positions her legs just so. Often neither image has a head. The accompanying caption will state the time that’s lapsed between the two images – sometimes years, sometimes months, sometimes merely days.

The mainstream media views this sort of thing as proof that young people are turning into self-absorbed narcissists. Sensationalist articles report on young men enraptured by the likeness emanating from the reflective pool of their iPhone screens, or driven to the brink of suicide by a selfie addiction. But these depictions don’t capture the nuance of this layered and complex cultural practice.

The metamorphoses on show for #transformationtuesday are invariably bodily ones. But in the text beneath their posts, users frequently describe a more intangible, emotional or existential transformation. Captions speak of ‘pushing yourself’, ‘no excuses’, and ‘perseverance’, as well as overcoming break-ups, depression and low self-esteem. For these young men and women, improving the physical body is far more than an exercise in vanity. It has come to stand for a host of wider values and beliefs: self-discipline and strength of mind and, most profoundly, a conduit to self-realisation, to becoming the person you were always meant to be.

A fixation with ‘the makeover’ has been present in popular culture for decades. Its depiction in film, television and online has been a barometer of the shifting understandings of what it means to be an individual in the modern world, in response to changing norms of gender, youth, work and identity. The makeover is akin to what the French philosopher Michel Foucault called a ‘technology of the self’ – a script or story through which we make sense of our identity. But why does the makeover possess such cultural force? Where did it come from? Whose interests does it serve, and what are its social, political and cultural effects?

Walt Disney’s Cinderella is a poster-girl of makeover culture. Unveiled in 1950, the film asserted the power of changing our appearance as an escape from drudgery and a route to romance and the happily-ever-after. Now the spirit of Cinderella lives on, in a more digital and dispersed form across the media landscape. In makeover shows on TV, the Fairy Godmother and her team of talking animals are incarnated as the fashion stylist, the hairdresser, the make-up artist and the plastic surgeon. Cinderella herself becomes the dowdy ‘mother of three’ who has ‘lost her confidence’, or the pensioner in need of a style update to match her youthful spirit. The logic of Cinderella has even spread to young men pumping iron in the gym, where dumbbells, protein shakes and the tanning booth stand in for the glistening gown and pumpkin coach.

The makeover narrative has seeped into the corners of everyday life, crystallising a series of seemingly commonsense ideas about what it means to be a ‘good’ person. In makeover culture, looking good doesn’t just equate to feeling good. More profoundly, embodying physical beauty testifies to the fact that one is good; it becomes a means of realising one’s potential and of being true to one’s authentic self.

Shopping trips, a styling session and a haircut-and-colour are the conduit to reinvigorating a latent, ‘authentic’ character

The Disney film about Cinderella, for example, repeatedly stresses her ‘charm and beauty’. It asserts that, despite her life of servitude at the hands of her jealous stepmother, ‘Cinderella remained ever gentle and kind’. Her affinity with the animal world is proof of these qualities – in a motif that occurs throughout the Disney Princess oeuvre – as we see Cinderella awoken by singing bluebirds and rushing out of bed to rescue a mouse caught in a trap. The central message of the film is that Cinderella deserves to attend the ball, wear beautiful gowns and glass slippers, to be served by footmen and marry a prince, because all this confirms and rewards the purity, grace, nobility and benevolence she already possessed. Her famous physical transformation makes visible, in spectacular fashion, a beauty she already had inside of her. At the crux of Cinderella’s tale is an understanding of the body, not just as a surface for aesthetic display, but as a vehicle for becoming who you ‘really are’…



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