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The trouble with makeovers.


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Myrna Blyth

This past Monday night was a makeover marathon on TV. While President Bush outlined his plans for the makeover of Iraq to the Army War College on the Fox News network, much of America was tuned into The Swan, the mother of all makeover shows, on the other Fox channel. Also on was NBC’s Fear Factor.

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It is sweeps month, after all, and the major networks chose not to carry the president’s address. Both these shows, I’m sure, got much higher ratings than Bush, who was trying ever-so-gamely to dampen his critics and lay out his plans for Iraq and our country’s future.

I used to think, before September 11, that reality programs such as Survivor and Fear Factor showed how safe, complacent, and downright bored Americans were: We needed to get our jollies by watching people eat bugs or crawl through sewer drainpipes. Wrong. Even when confronted by real and present dangers several seasons later, we would still rather thrill to ersatz terror than hear about how to handle the real thing.

Maybe those moronic soldiers at Abu Ghraib thought they were taking part in some kind of reality show, only slightly more grotesque than the ones that are now a staple on television, during what used to be family hour. Reality shows, we are told, are especially appealing to young viewers–both men and women–that important demographic the networks and their advertisers are always desperately seeking. Expect even more next season. For all we know, dimwitted Lynndie England and her companions were recording their misdeeds to serve as their very own audition tapes.

As for The Swan, its tastelessness is so over-the-top that it makes ABC’s Extreme Makeover–yet another current show devoted to transformations–look downright prissy. In case you missed it–fear not, it will be back again next year–during the nine-episode series 18 women (who, we were told, were ugly ducklings “lacking in self-esteem”) were made over with the assistance of a panel of “experts.”

A few of the women, I grant you, did have misshapen teeth, and one or two had a nose that could have used some work. But most would have looked just fine with a haircut, a little make-up, and a membership to Curves. It was The Swan’s “experts”–a plastic surgeon, a cosmetic dentist, a psychologist, and a “life coach” (who also happened to be the show’s creator and executive producer)–who decided what the women really needed. And they needed plenty. No a la carte plastic surgery for these girls.

Everyone, no matter what they looked like or what age they were, got the whole menu: nose job, brow lift, cheek implants, chin implant, upper-lip lift, lip augmentation, tummy tuck, breast augmentation, and breast lift. Add to that gum surgery, mouthfuls of tooth veneers, and one-length-fits-all hair extensions.

As part of the show, viewers got to watch the procedures, some of which lasted eight hours. The other operations shown on TV in the last few days–the videotape of Saddam’s surgeons cutting off the hands of Baghdad businessmen, aired on cable-news channels–filled us with disgust; but the grisly ones aired on The Swan were “entertaining.” Terry Dubrow, whose L.A. practice jumped from a five-month to a nine-month wait once he started appearing on the series, explained, “Plastic surgery as entertainment is here to stay.”

On the final show, a two-hour special, the nine women who were deemed “pageant-ready” competed to be crowned “The Swan.” After all that extensive work, they looked almost identical, like soft-core porn actresses, as they paraded in their stilettos and lingerie, smiling gamely with swollen lips and chicklet-sized teeth. The grand-prize winner’s bicuspids looked bigger than her nose.

In truth, makeovers, even ones this drastic, rarely work. When I was a magazine editor overseeing the more traditional makeovers of the past–which consisted of paint, polish, and a change of hair color–we knew that within a week the makeover candidate would go back to looking like herself. Even extensive plastic surgery simply cannot create beauty, and sometimes the transformation isn’t even appreciated. On one news report about makeovers, an unimpressed husband complained, “I used to be able to see her mother’s face in hers. I can’t see that anymore”–which proves that at least some men prefer the woman we are becoming to the girl we might have been.

Knowing what I do about the problems with makeovers, I am concerned about what we are hoping to achieve in Iraq. We all believe the Middle East needs more than a cosmetic change. It needs a far-harder-to-accomplish transformation that must come from the inside out.

Given all the work and sacrifice put into the liberation of Iraq, I only hope our much-hyped handover at the end of June does not turn out to be as misguided or, ultimately, as depressing as the finale of a tacky reality show.

Myrna Blyth, long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.



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