Beauty in a Wicked World: Hair, Homes, and Fashion as Feminism

Nick ArrojoLast week, Vidal Sassoon announced the charitable initiative Hairdressers Unlocking Hope, which, through Habitat for Humanity, will raise money for thousands of hairdressers to build a community of 18 new homes in St. Tammany Parish, La., this November. So far, they’ve raised $895,593 for the project — to be sure, a mere drop in the $81.2 billion bucket of damage there, but still, 18 families will have new homes, and that is not nothing.

One of the stylists involved in the project is Nick Arrojo, whom many of you will recognize as the hairstylist on the TLC reality show What Not to Wear.

To follow Kate’s earlier admission about “The Hills”, I must confess that I’m completely and delightfully addicted to “What Not to Wear,” and I think it is fantastically progressive and feminist. Now, don’t you want to know what I mean?

Stacy London and Clinton KellyFor those who haven’t seen it, each episode follows stylists Stacy and Clinton as they overhaul one person’s wardrobe to better suit them. The participants are nominated by their family, friends, and coworkers for having terrible fashion sense.* After the participants buy a whole new wardrobe, they’re helped out by hairstylist Nick Arrojo and make-up artist Carmindy. And at the end, the participants show off their new look to their community, always to uproarious cheering and joy.

Here’s why I love the show — ultimately, it’s not about fashion trends or clothes. It’s about women learning how to take up space in the world. So many of the makeovers are on women who’ve been wearing huge clothes that hide their bodies, or tight clothes that show everything, or wild clothes that draw more attention to the outfits than the woman herself. There’s a lot of simmering self-hatred or, at least, self-disdain in these women when they first appear.

It’s a fascinating look at how closely and narrowly women self-identify with their clothes and styles — you often hear women saying, “I can’t wear that,” or “that’s not me,” or “I never wear dresses/suits/heels/etc.” The footage illuminates how much courage it takes to redefine your self-image of what will flatter you.

Stacy and Clinton make their points subtly. They never come out and say, “Why don’t you love your body? Why do you think you’re not worthy of fabulous clothes?” Instead, they play the roles of “harsh fashion critic” when they’re clearing out the woman’s initial closet, but as soon as the woman starts shopping and trying on clothes that suit her, they encourage her and compliment her very genuinely.

“Do not marry yourself to your size — that’s psychological torture. Size does not matter; only fit matters,” said Stacy on today’s lunchtime re-run. How refreshing to hear a fashion stylist say something like that!

I used to hate shopping, and I used to demonize fashion designers. I still don’t love the marketing push that tells women they should always buy the newest expensive trends Just Because — but I do love the feeling that I get when I wear something that flatters my body and makes me look stunning.

I also think that dressing well leads to less clothing waste — instead of buying cheap, made-in-sweatshops trendy clothing (probably made of synthetic fabrics) that’ll fall apart after five outings, investing in one or two well-made, adaptable, and timeless pieces (probably made of more natural fabrics) makes sense in the long run, economically and environmentally.

At the end of the show, the women almost always feel more comfortable in their bodies, more confident, and they look fantastic. And it ain’t just about the clothes. In my mind, a woman who feels good about taking up physical space in this world is more likely to insist on taking up space in all areas of her life — in her career, in her relationships, in society, in politics.

Obviously, most of us don’t have $5,000 to spend on new wardrobes. Nor can everyone afford the finely-tailored high-fashion brands that will always look stunning. But it’s a great reminder that appearance and image do matter in this world — and you don’t necessarily have to spend a million dollars to show that you care about how you’re coming off to the rest of the world.

*I’ve only ever seen women on the show, which brings up some fascinating gender issues for me. (Though I’d love to see men on the show, as I know that there are fellows out there making poor fashion choices, too.)


Filed under Career/Life, Gender, Pop Culture

6 responses to “Beauty in a Wicked World: Hair, Homes, and Fashion as Feminism

  1. JGL, thanks for spelling this out for me because I never would have seen this. The idea that women shy away from their own fullest, richest beauty is a really powerful one. I have felt this inclination since middle school where standing out meant being commented on, losing control of my own image and the way it might be perceived.
    But…I guess I can’t get past the “harsh fashion critic” role. Why do they have to dress it up in that if the real motive is to help women buy clothes that will make loving their bodies easier?
    I’ve caught the show before and they seem like they are torturing a lot of the women who get picked, making fun of them, mocking them, really cutting them down. Doesn’t that part make you mad? Do they think that their ratings would plummet if they were actually nice to these women? Maybe they would…

  2. I think you’re talking especially about the secret footage and the 360 degree mirror part of the show, right? (For non-viewers — the participants are secretly taped in various outfits and excursions for two weeks prior to the show. Once they agree to the makeover, Stacy & Clinton sit them down and they watch and heckle the secret footage. And the 360 degree mirror is just that — a small room of mirrors where participants get a chance to see what their clothes look like from all angles.)

    Yeah, sometimes they can be harsh — but I’ve noticed that it is NEVER about the women themselves or their actual physical bodies. The teasing is only about their clothing, and is usually accompanied by compliments on their actual bodies. (ie. “Do you see how this t-shirt makes you look like you’re 20 pounds heavier than you actually are? You have an amazing curvy hourglass waist and you should be dressing to accentuate it.”)

    Some women do get upset, but sometimes they even admit that they don’t believe what they’re saying about their style. For most, that kind of extreme clothing criticism is exactly what they need to shake them up and make them aware of how poorly they are serving their beautiful bodies.

    I don’t think their harshness is what draws viewers. For my part, I know that I LOVE watching the show because of the amazing transformations that happen in these women. And also for the excellent tips on how clothes should fit on my body.

    P.S. I should also say that I have no idea what the real motive of the show is, but this is what I take from it. However, I must say that I’m watching a lot of TLC these days, and they show some pretty progressive programming (including commercials featuring non-homophobic situations with gay couples).

  3. There actually were some men on in the first couple of years, before they dumped Wayne (who had seriously long hair) and added Clinton (who reminds me of either Don Knotts or Hank Williams Sr., I can’t tell which).

    I understand what you say, and I think I agree, but I can’t get past thinking that Nick and Carmindy are better at giving advice than using it themselves….

  4. Richard — you are cracking me up — you’ve described Clinton so well! I think adore him probably exactly because he’s similar to those two guys.

  5. What I love about this post is what you love about the show. You like seeing women feel empowered and good about themselves. You like women getting out of their own way and finding freedom in expressing their most beautiful, put together selves. Here’s to that!

  6. Sarah Court

    Jennifer – I love that you hit on exactly what it is that I adore about this show as well. That it’s never about belittling the women or pointing out their flaws, but uncovering their beauty by allowing the clothes to truly reflect their insides. I love that more often than not, the women are crying at the end, not because they’re demoralized and shamed, but out of the relief of this inside-outside match.