When I was younger, I remember watching TV shows with my mum like ‘What Not To Wear’ and ‘10 Years Younger’ every week without fail. I loved them. I loved seeing ordinary people get made over and learning how to dress for their body shape. I loved seeing how makeup transformed them and the skills of the incredible stylists. The ‘reveal’ at the end was my favourite bit, when their families would gasp and the woman would cry. It always made out that from then on, just by being thinner, wearing more makeup and expensive clothes, that everything in the woman’s life would be perfect. I’d coo ‘how great does she look?!’, fully suckered in to by make believe, fairy godmother moment and all of the subliminal messages that it sent my young, fragile mind.
It makes me shudder when I think of it knowing what I know now.
What I was oblivious to as a child was that fact that these women had gone on television, been shamed for looking a certain way, insulted by the public and the program hosts, had every ‘flaw’ scrutinised and were told that they only way anyone could think of them as beautiful would be to change everything about them. Trinny and Susannah were brutal with their insults, often reducing the women to tears in the name of being ‘honest’. On ‘10 Years Younger’ they even underwent huge cosmetic surgery procedures to try and look ‘better’.
It’s only now that we are openly talking about body image and seeing a wider range of people in the media that I realise just how twisted these TV shows were. They were basically made to play on every insecurity anyone could think of and then use them into a money making scheme.
And boy have people made money from them! Trinny and Susannah are multimillionaires, Spanx sales went through the roof and cosmetic surgeries are popping up on high streets all over the world. The corporations that sell us bodily hatred on a daily basis clapped their hands with glee as we all blindly devoured these shows that were wrapped in up ‘feel good’ packages and falsely advertised as promoting ‘real’ beauty.
But what effect has shows like this had on the world?
When I think about it, I can’t think of many positives. I look at people in the spotlight that are my age and am horrified to see how many of them have had unnecessary surgery and blamed it on low confidence and low self esteem. Think about it – how many ‘celebrities’ go to places like Turkey for cheap boob jobs or bum lifts? This trend has hit us ‘normal’ people too, with increasingly younger people going under the knife because they want to look ‘pretty’. What no one has told them is that they already are pretty. Seriously, what 21 year old needs Botox? Who told people that your lips can only be attractive if you pump them full of a filler? Who said that breasts need to look like floatation devices that defy the laws of gravity?
This isn’t to attack people who have had cosmetic surgery because it’s a personal choice, but to me people who cannot see their own beauty and feel they have to change who they are to be accepted and ‘beautiful’ is one manifestation of the negative messages sent out by these shows. Another message is the crippling plague of insecurity that every single person I know feels or has felt in some way. It seems that there is a twisted, warped sense of what beauty is. You only have to read the trolling comments on Daily Mail photos to realise that we have no idea that people are not meant to look the same as each other or have any understanding of what ‘natural’ ageing is anymore. I saw comments saying Hilary Duff’s face is fat and wrinkled, that Emma Watson has the legs of a 90 year old and that Priyanka Chopra looks butch. How can anyone think that those things are true? How can anyone say that to someone else?
Oh, I remember now – because we all switched on the BBC and watched Trinny and Susannah say poor Sue from Barnsley who had four kids and just lost her mother to cancer was fat, saggy, old before her time and unattractive and call it constructive criticism.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. We have progressed since then. I can’t imagine anyone giving shows like ‘What Not To Wear’ or ‘10 Years Younger’ the green light these days without a lot of heavy tweaking and culling of certain segments.
We also had the original body positive hero himself, Gok Wan, coming in and ripping up the rule book. In my opinion, he was one of the first people who changed that self hatred narrative with his show How To Look Good Naked. Sure he still did the whole ‘wear this to flatter your shape’ and ‘have your hair done on me’ thing, but with him it was done in a pampering way. He never shamed people. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone love women of all shapes and sizes quite like he did. He celebrated every scar, stretch mark and curve and went with people on an emotional journey to finding their confidence. He held their hand every step of the way. He told every woman, regardless of whatever the rest of the media wanted them to believe, that they looked good naked. He made them believe it. He made us all believe it. I wanted Gok Wan to be my best friend. I still do.
We all have a responsibility to be a little more like Gok. We have seen where the rigid beauty standards, the hateful self talk and the constant comparisons have got us and it’s not good. We need to Gok ourselves and our friends. We need to celebrate the fact that we feel comfortable in that outfit or in that bikini. We need to normalise scars and stretch marks. We need to see diversity when we turn on the TV.
That all starts with looking in the mirror and liking what you see. Despite what you’re made to believe, you really are beautiful just as you are, even if right now you can’t see it. Start small – your eyes look beautiful, your hair has grown, your freckles are stories, your wrinkles are memories, your stretch marks show where you carried life, your scar shows where you survived. They’re not flaws, they’re marks of life. They’re beautiful.
So the next time you look in the mirror, forget what you’ve been told before. Speak to yourself like you would a friend, like Gok would to someone who came on his show desperate to just feel good again. I promise after a few days of kindness you’ll never look back. Go on – Gok yourself.