Friday, April 25, 2008

Downey: Media Analysis

How to Look Good Feminist

On January 4th 2008, Lifetime Television launched its first episode of “How to Look Good Naked.” The show features Carson Kressley from “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” teaching women how to love their bodies and destroy negative self images. Episode after episode, women of different shapes and sizes come to Carson seeking his advice on self image and, what is more important, fashion. Carson initially asks his participants about their bodies; about their likes and dislikes (although, naturally, it is mainly their dislikes), and then he shows each woman how to dress her body so that she can eliminate her “problem areas.” At the end of the show he photographs their newly found self confidence while they are, you guessed it, nude! “How to Look Good Naked” steps out of the standards of beauty and tries to teach women self love, but the show comes equipped with some standard reality TV issues.
In the very first episode Carson is mentoring, a 32 year old, woman named Layla. Layla is your typical woman who has been plagued with the intense feeling of being disgusting and fat. She tells Carson she feels that she needs to “loose 40 pounds in order to feel beautiful.” After confessing that she had no full length mirrors in her entire house, Carson plants Layla, dressed only in her underwear, in a room filled with full length mirrors. Immediately the tears start rolling down her face. Her biggest fear, looking at her own body, is coming true. She begins describing her body starting with her “disgusting arms,” all they way down to her “nasty hips.” She points out one of her biggest problem areas as her stomach. Layla tells Carson “obviously my stomach isn’t flat which is not what is perceived as beautiful.” After her inaccurate self report, Carson leads her to her next task. In front of Layla are six women standing in a line from biggest to smallest waist sizes (none of them being super skinny). The goal of the exercise is to show the participant how delusional their self image is by asking them to place themselves in the line-up where they feel they fit. Layla placed her self four spaces higher than where she should have been, adding six inches to her waist. Of course she was shocked that she belonged on the lower end of the line-up. Carson, then, plasters the under-garmented body of his participant on the side of a building and questions random people to comment on the body being projected. The video of their comments is then shown to the woman to show them what other people are really saying about their bodies. Unable to believe that people were saying such nice things about her, Layla, was skeptical and embarrassed. People were reporting on her “great rack” and “shapely legs.” One woman even called her a “real woman” (if that even exists). As for this first segment of the show, Carson is a charming and convincing self love teacher, but it is after the first commercial break that the show starts to take an uneventful twist.
And now back to “How to Cover up Your Body,” this is the part where Carson shows the lady how to dress her body so that she can hide the parts that she hates. First, he takes Layla to “the bra whisperer,” where a woman teaches her how to choose the right bra so that she can eliminate her back rolls, caused by all that “extra skin.” The only uplifting thing about watching this is that Layla finally admits that she feels sexy wearing a lacy number, and she is even liberated enough to run out of the dressing room in her underwear! Lucky for Layla, Carson gives her all his fashion secrets and tips as they continue shopping, such as wearing patterns that the eye can not focus on. Again, the clothes finally make her realize that she feels sexy. After a long day of shopping therapy, a spa day and makeover is much needed. The pair goes to a spa where Layla gets the works, including a new hairstyle and a makeover. Of course she feels even prettier with a pound of makeup on and a new fabulous hairstyle. She is all gussied up for her (and this is the part where Carson drops the bomb) nude photo shoot! After some coaxing, Layla confidently takes the tasteful nude photo, where it is projected on the same building from the beginning.
The women on this show may appear to be outrageous and delusional, but the fact is that they represent the majority of American women. Debra Gimlin, in her book Body Work, Beauty and Self-Image in American Culture, stated that “in a recent survey in the United States, a majority of women claimed that they fear dying less than they fear getting fat” (Gimlin, 4). This survey demonstrates the pressures that women feel to be thin and fit, and it doesn’t just stop at self hate, it also breaks into the bank. Media and advertisements attempt to convince you that products will fix you by “focusing on the body as a site needing constant improvement, actively and deliberately creating anxiety around issues of women’s appearance and capitalizing on that anxiety with an array of products that promise perfection” (Kelly, 200). Constantly products that fill your wrinkles, smooth your skin, make your hair shiny, help you loose weight faster, and help you get that flat belly you have always wanted, are being forced into the faces of women by way of the media. The media is constantly forcing women to “match unattainable conceptualizations of beauty” (Gimlin, 4). “How to Look Good Naked,” not only defies these unattainable standards but it celebrates the parts of the body that the media capitalizes on, including the curvy parts. The New York Times points out that “Mr. Kressley does not direct anyone toward steamed broccoli or a spin class,” which shows that the television show stays away from the stigma associated with being fat (Bellafante). The show does not assume that heavier people are less healthy than a person who is thin. “How to Look Good Naked” helps these women, and its viewers, to be accepting of their own bodies and “invest in size diversity” (Wann, 24). In Finding the F Word for It, Marilyn Wann points out that our society has drawn a line between fat people and thin people, and I think Wann would be pleased to see “How to Look Good Naked” beginning to erase that line.
If “How to Look Good Naked” was merely about helping women love their bodies, then feminists across the board would have been so proud. But as the show turns into another typical reality TV makeover show, the feminist self love concepts are thrown out of the window. Makeovers are based on the assumption that you are doing something wrong and that you look bad, and the only ways to improve or change “always involves spending money, lots of money” (Ensler, xi). When Carson so desperately tried to convince Layla that she was not as disgusting as she portrayed herself, the audience was let down to see that she hesitantly accepted the “lies” (as she saw them) he was feeding to her. But only after a few days of shopping for expensive outfits, getting facials, and getting a haircut and makeup done, Layla was finally able to see her “true” self. If only the women on “How to Look Good Naked” are able to “analyze the mechanisms of [their] imprisonment, so that [they] could be consumed by the sorrow of the world rather than consuming to avoid that sorrow and suffering” then those women could give the media and those stick thin models the proper finger they deserve (Ensler, xiv).
So Lifetime screwed this one up pretty bad right? I would say wrong. Although the show does not break free entirely from the consumerism that preys on women’s terrible self-images, it does, at least, attempt to do so. The show acknowledges that “repeated images of youthful, slender and beautiful bodies in advertising represent an impossible ideal” that women are constantly holding themselves to (Shields). Instead of taking the usual outraging approaches to fixing bodily flaws, “How to Look Good Naked” teaches women basic tricks that may help facilitate a new way of thinking about their bodies. Plastic surgery, exercise, and diets are disgraced openly on this show and not one woman was accused of being fat or unhealthy. By the end of the episode, Carson Kressley has convinced Layla that she actually is beautiful, and it is uplifting to see how happy she feels. The fact that the picture at the end of the show is a nude photo, brings us back to a feminist perspective, you should not need all those fancy clothes to feel good about your body because our bodies are beautiful. Quoting Carson Kressley himself America needs to “turn body loathing into body loving.”

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