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“What Not to Wear” and body postivity.

May 18, 2009

I don’t watch very much TV, but when I do, I can’t get enough of TLC’s “What Not to Wear“. It’s a makeover show with a pretty basic premise: people who dress “poorly” are nominated by their friends and family and given $5000 to buy a whole new wardrobe, given that they agree to get rid of all their unacceptable clothes. As television goes, it’s pretty mindless and sometimes a little grating. But I think it does something right that so many other shows get wrong: encourage people to accept their bodies as they are and help them look fabulous without trying to change their bodies.

“What Not to Wear” is hosted by Stacy London and Clinton Kelly, two style experts. Although Stacy and Clinton’s sometimes cruel criticism is a mainstay of the show, they always reserve that criticism for the participants’ wardrobe choices. Never, ever do they criticize a participant’s body or recommend that a participant lose weight, get plastic surgery or otherwise change his or her body. And in fact they often counter participants’ claims that they are “too fat” for this shirt or “don’t have the figure” for that dress. They take into account insecurities while pushing participants to leave their wardrobe comfort zones a little and dress in a way that flatters their body and lets them feel beautiful.

Here’s the first part of an episode (you can link to the second part from the page on youtube). The whole thing’s good, but you can see what I’m talking about starting around 8:00.

Although the show is by no means perfect, it really makes me happy to see a make-over show telling people that their bodies are beautiful the way they are, that they don’t need to “wait” to lose 10, 20, 50 pounds to wear cute clothes, that they deserve to feel good about themselves no matter what their bodies look like. Stacy described the show’s approach to fashion in a recent Washington Post feature:

The sweat-shirt phenomenon [wearing baggy clothes to cover a body you’re ashamed of] is a slippery slope, and a symptom of something deeper. Style is the instrument you can pick back up when you want to regain some of the confidence you’ve lost. Style offers concrete rules you can follow. You can use it as a resource rather than a barrier to feeling good about yourself.

You have to look in the mirror and see that what you’re wearing looks good on the body you have now. Wearing a larger size is just . . . wearing a larger size.

This is refreshing to hear, and has always been exciting to me. Yes, my body is great right now, I deserve to wear things that make me feel good, and I shouldn’t have to hide in my clothes. And guess what? My dress size is just a number, not any measurement of my worth as a person. This message is hard to come by in the world of “extreme makeovers” and “weight-loss interventions“, but I think “What Not to Wear” does it pretty well.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Lisa permalink
    May 18, 2009 11:58 PM

    Thank you so much for writing about this. I know we’ve talked about this in person, but I’ve loved this show for years. Only after we started blogging did it really occur to me that they really do have a wonderfully body-positive message. Your size doesn’t matter, but your confidence does. Stop hiding your body under baggy clothes and start wear things that are flattering to your figure (no matter what that figure may be). They also place a really great emphasis on finding clothes that not only look good on you, but that also reflect your personality and your inner beauty. Most of the people nominated for the show are nominated because they are fabulous, fun people and their friends and family members want their clothing to better reflect who they are on the inside. I really like the idea of wearing clothes that represent your inner self, rather than wearing clothes to try and further your social status etc.

  2. Ashley permalink
    May 19, 2009 10:29 PM

    I’m glad that this blog has shown me some of the possibly positive things about this show since I have always had some beef with it and still do. It probably has a lot to do with my own personal disinterest in clothing overall. Whenever I would watch the show I always felt that they were saying that what I felt comfortable in probably didn’t suit my body and therefore I shouldn’t wear it. I always felt like regardless of whether I’m wearing a great big baggy shirt or a fitted dress that accentuates my curves, my body is still the beautiful body it is and I know that so it doesn’t matter what I’m wearing. I don’t wear baggy or loose clothing to hide; I wear it to be ultra comfy. And I’m not saying that this show is against people wearing comfortable clothing but the whole thing always made me feel off and just a bit angry, I suppose. Granted it’s been several years since I’ve watched the show.

    Another thing that I remember bothering me about the show was that, at the end when the person (most often a woman; I think very occasionally they’ll have a man, correct me if I’m wrong) came out with their new look they would always be happy and glowing and saying how they love it and how they feel like a new person. And I would feel slightly torn. Glad for them that they have this new confidence but I think after seeing the idea that to boost a woman’s confidence all it takes is a makeup job or new outfit in so many places, in media and real life, I became annoyed with it. And again, this stems from personal preferences; I don’t get a boost from that kind of thing. And so, while I recognize the connection between confidence in one’s body and confidence in one’s self overall the show still left a bad taste in my mouth. I felt like the people are often unfairly bullied by the hosts but more so by the people around them, who seem utterly obsessed with what they’re wearing.

    My disregard for fashion and clothing undoubtedly makes me biased on this subject. I wear what I feel comfortable in, knowing all the while that beneath those clothes lies a beautiful, confident, and happy body. Regardless of what the clothes look like. But I realize that not everyone can feel like this. So I can definitely see where a show like this is good for some people. I appreciate that your blog helped me to see a bit of that.

  3. Emily permalink
    May 19, 2009 11:58 PM

    Ashley, I totally agree with your criticisms of the show and have considered most of them myself. It’s pretty shallow sometimes and does present a “new look” as a panacea for a whole bunch of other issues. It also tends to have a homogenizing effect on participants’ fashion, which can be a little frustrating. Most of the people on the show do seem to look and feel better after the makeover, but I’m sometimes sad that they had to give up their patterned socks or silly sweaters, which were maybe unfashionable or not flattering, but which showed personality and were unique and fun. And as you pointed out, the focus on a new haircut or new clothes as a boost to self-esteem is a little simplistic.

    But “What Not to Wear” is a product of the media and fashion industries after all, so even when the hosts are trying to convince a participant to spend more time on herself, value himself for who he is or know that she is beautiful, they do it through the ‘lens’ of physical appearance. It’s definitely not a revolutionary show, I agree. But in trying to teach self-esteem through body positivity and self-acceptance, rather than promoting weight loss or plastic surgery, I think it’s preferable to many many other makeover shows.

    …all that to basically agree with your comment. 🙂

    • Ashley permalink
      May 20, 2009 7:23 AM

      Haha, yes, well long comments are fun! And I do see how next to shows that opt for plastic surgery or dramatic weight loss as the solution, What Not To Wear would be preferable. But I guess this is why I stay away from television overall. ^.^

  4. Crystal permalink
    February 28, 2010 7:33 PM

    I agree with you that it is refreshing and healthy that they never criticize bodies on this show. I have found, however, that I can’t watch it because most of the time I think that the participants look perfectly fine to begin with. There was one episode with a woman who had a lot of plaid shirts and loose jeans and she looked comfortable and confident, and they told her she needed to find a way to dress girlier. Not in so many words, but that was the message I got.

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