Hannah Weintraub is a 17-year-old high school student and one of RH Reality Check‘s youth voices.
“Step into the 360-degree mirror.”
Those dreaded words have been said to hundreds of “fashion nightmares” on TLC’s hit show What Not to Wear. “Did you want to look like a space hooker?” Clinton Kelly, one of the show’s hosts, said on one episode, berating a single, working mom who confidently said she thinks she looks sexy in whatever she wears. When another woman stepped out in a clown-like costume, explaining that her outfit makes other people smile, the show’s other host, Stacy London, simply rolled her eyes.
What has made this critical twosome so eager to give women makeovers? They believe clothes are the key to confidence.
“Everything needs to be sort of polished and fit you very well,” Kelly explained to one of the show’s alleged fashion disasters, suggesting that these are the key ingredients to finding a job. But what about her intelligence? Her determination? Her expertise? While qualifications are obviously necessary to scoring the job, a baggy shirt, Kelly seemed to say, can overshadow even the brightest applicant.
Kelly and London are not alone in overemphasizing the role feeling good about one’s looks should play in a woman’s self-confidence. Seventeen magazine once advised its readers to look in the mirror and fall in love with one piece of their body every day. My friend read this suggestion and guffawed. Was she supposed to adore her shins? That patch of skin on her elbow? Most importantly, why did she have to “fall in love” with every part of her body? She’s a confident young woman who does not want her physical appearance to define how she feels about herself.
Of course, “body love” movements are better than one possible alternative: self-hatred. In an environment where even “faultless,” airbrushed celebrity photos are criticized, it sometimes seems like having a perfect or even acceptable body is impossible. This feeling of never being good enough is amplified by all the negative advertising telling women and girls to be thin, have flawless skin, or wear cool clothes. These messages needs to be challenged in some capacity, and “body love” campaigns have been that countering force. They seem especially poignant when even airbrushed celebrity photos are picked apart, suggesting that achieving perfection is impossible.
But responding to a focus on beauty with a different focus on beauty misses a big point: Women don’t need to be beautiful to have confidence. Personally I would rather be smart, caring, determined, or creative than simply “pretty.” I don’t need to “love my body,” but I do need to love my personality, my values, and my moral code. Being beautiful is OK, but it won’t get me where I want to go.
This relative apathy toward my appearance seems to be an abnormality in itself. No, I don’t hate how I look. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. But some campaigns, like this one from Seventeen, do not allow disinterest to be an option. Such campaigns exist to help me regain a body confidence I never lost.
Besides, if the magazines and companies supporting many of these campaigns were really so invested in raising confidence—and not just marketing products to young women who are trying to find peace with their bodies—then where are the ads and pro bono campaigns encouraging women and girls to be more confident in areas besides physical appearance? How about, for example, encouraging young women to go into science? With an overwhelming majority of male leadership in science and engineering, this field could use some positive role modeling. But, to use one well-known example, the only thing Dove’s “real beauty” campaign wants to boost is your skin.
I am tired of young women’s physical appearances coming under such scrutiny while many guys can sidestep the whole issue of whether or not they “love their bodies.” Men don’t have to attach their bodies to their self-worth in the same way that women are expected to. Sure, men have pressure to look a certain way, but the stakes for not meeting this expectation seem much lower than they are for women. This difference becomes apparent in gendered reactions to weight: Many people call tummy rolls or love handles “pudge” or “fat” on a woman. Men with larger body sizes are often just “hefty” or “better for cuddling with.”
The sad truth behind What Not to Wear is that many of the women Kelly and London pull off the streets don’t care about the clothes they wear, and they feel just fine. They’re too worried about their families or their careers to think about something as trivial as finding a perfect A-line skirt. Ironically, these women are condemned for their lack of style rather than commended for their accomplishments and admirable ability to transcend societal expectations of how a woman should present herself. With What Not to Wear coming to an end after a long run that started in 2003, maybe we can finally stop tricking ourselves into believing that making a woman look beautiful is just as good as making her feel intelligent or important.