Why I Watch What Not to Wear,
Or, How Women Get in Gender Trouble

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2008, Volume 7, Issue 1


Jennifer Douglas
Trinity Christian College

As a gender studies scholar who attempts to be aware and wary of cultural gender norms, I feel some embarrassment in admitting that every Friday night I look forward to watching TLC’s makeover show What Not to Wear (WNTW). My desire to see the show stems partly from its promise of transformation, what I might call the “ugly duckling complex.” Women (and the occasional man) are nominated by family or friends because of their lack of fashion sense, are given $5000 to spend on new clothing according to the fashion gurus’ rules, receive a new haircut and makeup routine, and emerge as seemingly more beautiful, more confident people. Their transformations do not involve drastic plastic surgery, losing one hundred pounds, or spending years in therapy. By many reality show standards, this show’s focus on mere externals – clothing, hair, and makeup – sets it up as an innocuous counterpart to shows such as The Biggest Loser or Extreme Makeover. This rapid summary of the show’s weekly plot skims over its most important parts, however: the conflicting values at the heart of the show’s success. Although the hosts, Stacy London and Clinton Kelly, spend considerable time touting self-affirming rhetoric about dressing the body you have and becoming more self-confident through a better wardrobe, their words and actions continually undercut this rhetoric by enforcing a narrow notion of feminine dress and body type, professionalism, and age appropriateness. By ridiculing the participants about their “bad” clothing choices and rewarding them for their “good” choices, the show cloaks its gender normativity in cashmere and silk. The seemingly happy transformation from ugly ducklings to swans regulates the performance of gender and reshapes the bodies of participants to meet gendered expectations.

Scholars in gender studies have increasingly looked at popular culture to see how cultural ideas about gender are being created, sustained, transmitted, and reinforced. Television shows such as WNTW, targeted toward a female demographic, are part of a genre of shows that might be called self-improvement shows, not so different from TLC's popular home improvement series except that WNTW focuses on body improvement through wardrobe. The hosts' interactions with participants make explicit their views on what a professional, appropriately dressed woman should be, and in doing so they reveal their assumptions about what constitutes femininity. If, as Judith Butler claims, gender is a continual performance reinforced by repetition, praise, and censure, then WNTW specializes in honing that performance even while asserting that the new clothes reveal an inner, true self that can be expressed through externals. In other words, the show promotes wearing one's identity through clothing but also naturalizes the new clothing as expressing the "real" self. The show makes an argument for the importance of what we wear but simultaneously casts the body as derivative of an essential self, thus reinforcing the Cartesian dualism of mind and body by disciplining the body. Through a cycle of embarrassment, reformation, and praise, participants are indoctrinated into a specific image of femininity as the professional, white, upper class woman. Current scholarship on the show comes largely from a communication perspective, which I draw on to analyze the show's rhetoric. My analysis crosses into the arena of gender studies by examining how the show uses this rhetoric to shape the bodies of the participants and encourage a particular performance of gender norms.

Susan Bordo’s work on the shaping of the female body through cultural pressure forms the foundation for my analysis. In her book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, Bordo argues that the quest for femininity is a never-ending process that requires constant regulation of the body. She explains,

Through the pursuit of an ever-changing, homogenizing, elusive ideal of femininity – a pursuit without a terminus, requiring that women constantly attend to minute and often whimsical changes in fashion – female bodies become docile bodies – bodies whose forces and energies are habituated to external regulation, subjection, transformation, “improvement.” Through the exacting and normalizing disciplines of diet, makeup, and dress – central organizing principles of time and space in the day of many women – we are rendered less socially oriented and more centripetally focused on self-modification. (166)

Bordo’s work draws on the Foucaultian structure of the docile body to explain how cultural power generates a particular concept of the body and helps create the pressure for women to want to conform. We know this pressure well through our media, but makeover shows such as WNTW help to sustain this pressure in the form of embarrassment and then desire. The participant's external change showcases the transition from anxiety to affirmation that accompanies the change.

Often the hosts of WNTW refer to their job as an “intervention” as they watch secret footage in preparation for surprising the unwitting participant. The initial scene of the show is also staged as an intervention in which family and friends of the participant gather in order to surprise her and watch her secret footage together. The language of these scenes could easily be replaced with that of drug or alcohol interventions: “we love you so much, and we want to see you live your potential.” Or, “you have come through a difficult time, and now is your opportunity to do something for yourself.” In the 2008 season, for example, a forty-one-year-old named Sherri was nominated for the show after years of recovering from a car accident. Her friends’ motivations, then, seem positive in wanting to commend her for working hard to recover physically, but the message of the show nevertheless treats her fashion choices as mistakes that need to be fixed. Likewise, friends of Lisa, a thirty-six-year-old professional photographer, nominated her because she had lost fifty pounds and had not learned how to dress her thinner body. Lisa’s friends and the hosts applaud her thinner silhouette while scolding her for wearing too much camping gear and making her heterosexuality ambiguous. When Lisa admits that women sometimes approach her in bars, the hosts snatch that opportunity to define femininity and sexuality in the narrow terms of the hourglass figure. Another participant, Tomasita, a twenty-one-year-old paralegal in training, protests that the secret footage is too embarrassing to view publicly, but Stacy and Clinton are quick to say, “That’s the point.” Public humiliation and the rhetoric of shame provide the basis of the change that the participants will undergo. In fact, this humiliation sets up the crucial question: In order to receive this $5,000, will you give your wardrobe to the hosts and shop by their rules? Since participants are being publicly chastised for their lack of fashion sense, who would not agree?

Myra Mendible, writing in the journal Feminist Media Studies, examines how the rhetoric of humiliation undergirds reality television as a whole. She bases her position partially on the social theory of Fredric Schick, who "argues that a defining characteristic of the process is that the victim is made passive and conscious of the humiliating act, while perpetrators must be aware of the victim's condition and derive satisfaction from it" (Mendible 336). This two-way exchange positions the hosts in WNTW as the "perpetrators" who willingly inflict humiliation on the "victim" in order to force change. These intervention scenes set the stage for Stacy and Clinton to critique and ridicule the participant for her fashion blunders, often by referring to ways in which she breaks gender norms, class status, or age levels.

During the first several scenes of each episode, Stacy and Clinton publicly critique the secret footage in front of family and friends, and then fly the participant to New York for an in-depth dissection of her wardrobe. Having brought all her clothes with her, the participant must try on outfits in a 360 degree mirror and justify her clothing before Stacy and Clinton throw it all away. The 360 degree mirror is itself a version of panoptic surveillance: the participant steps into the mirror and sees herself reflected on all sides while the hosts view her from the outside and prepare their response. Although the participant knows she is being watched, she cannot see the hosts and does not know exactly when they will burst through the back of the mirror space to enter the shot. The audience joins in this critique by looking at the participant head on but seemingly from outside the mirror box; we are also monitoring this woman externally. The mirror itself becomes important because of the way that the hosts often stand behind the participant and talk to her reflection in the mirror rather than talking to her face. Thus, the image of the body replaces the actual body as the hosts attempt to make the participant see herself according to their guidelines. Mirror images figure prominently in the punishment and reward scenes of the show, as I will discuss later.

Amanda Gallagher, a communication scholar, classifies the participants’ physical changes as being motivated by anxiety induced by the hosts. In the beginning, the woman often believes that her clothing is acceptable and is happy being “the woman I am most of the time.” The hosts, however, convince the woman that she falls into the category of “the woman I fear I could be,” thus pointing out how her clothing is projecting a negative identity. By the end of the show, the woman becomes the “woman I want to be,” so she has successfully altered her self-image through physical changes (Gallagher 67). Although these categories provide an interesting assessment of the show’s power to change the participant’s perception, the category of “woman” itself goes undefined and unchallenged. On one hand, the conflation of “woman” with her external appearance highlights the sense that gender identity must be performed through external cues, such as clothing. On the other hand, if “woman” is reduced to appearance alone, then gender becomes an essentialistic binary of man/woman based on the flimsy criteria of clothing. Either case alerts us to the fragility of the category of “woman” and the idea that the show plays on women’s anxieties about feminine identity.

Throughout the mirror scene, sarcasm reigns as the hosts banter about the horrors of the participant’s clothing. More importantly, inappropriate clothing comes to be defined as that which is too masculine, too casual, too old, or too young. Kim, a thirty-three-year-old life coach, receives criticism for wearing baggy men’s shorts that give her “man crotch.” Rather than sitting close to her body, the fabric remains loose in a way that sends mixed signals about gender identity, the hosts claim. By construing Kim as butch, Stacy and Clinton enforce a heteronormative dress code while also making gender divisions very clear: women’s clothing should suggest female anatomy and feminine heterosexuality. Another participant, Vandy, a twenty-six-year-old corporate relations representative for the Sundance Film Festival (2006), is nominated because of her devotion to her alma mater, Notre Dame. Rather than dressing in business clothes, she dresses largely in Notre Dame attire. In critiquing her college wardrobe, Stacy and Clinton focus on the fact that college gear is androgynous and covers up the shape of her body. Repeatedly, they make statements such as “you’re a girl; you’ve got a great body for a girl; what are you doing?” and “you’re a girl; that’s what we know to be true.” By focusing on the way that clothes shape a body, the hosts emphasize the embodied component of gender identity: she must look like a girl in order to be a “good” girl.

In the 1999 preface to the tenth anniversary edition of Gender Trouble, Judith Butler summarizes her concept of the performativity of gender by writing, “In the first instance, then, the performativity of gender revolves around this metalepsis, the way in which the anticipation of a gendered essence produces that which it posits as outside itself” (xiv-xv). Put differently, there is no stable essence of gender but only that which is continually produced. She continues, “Secondly, performativity is not a singular act, but a repetition and a ritual, which achieves its effects through its naturalization in the context of a body, understood, in part, as a culturally sustained temporal duration” (xv). Gender, then, must be continuously reinforced in and through the body across time. According to Butler, gender is not a stable essence but a continual performance mediated by cultural norms. The show demonstrates the importance of clothing in performing gender but, unlike Butler, denies that gender is a performance. Instead, each episode begins with the idea that this identity as “girl” is fixed and stable and that clothing will merely exhibit the identity that is already established. By essentializing gender identity as the given, WNTW cloaks its intentions of molding the body through clothing that announces a particular kind of heterosexual femininity. When Vandy defends her college gear by saying, “But I’m a girl who likes beer and football,” she aligns herself with a more stereotypically masculine self-image. Drinking beer and watching football makes her like one of the boys, and her clothing projects a certain ambiguity about body shape, according to the show’s critique. To Stacy and Clinton, Vandy is exhibiting gender trouble, and they encourage her to dress in more feminine ways: lace hems, flutter sleeves, fitted tops, and skirts. Although they don’t deny her the right to watch football or drink beer, they believe that she should be proclaiming her femininity while doing so. In this way, actions that blur gender lines will not ultimately blur gender identity because Vandy will still look like “a girl.”

Other participants look too girly in the erotic sense. Sohni, a twenty-six-year-old, has a habit of re-styling and cutting her own clothing, and she fears becoming a “cookie cutter” dresser. Stacy responds by telling her that “you’re a serious exhibitionist” and that she projects the sexual message of “why buy the loaf of bread when you get the slices for free.” Sohni’s look represents the opposite of Vandy’s; instead of wearing androgynous clothing, Sohni’s clothing makes her seem too sexualized. When heterosexuality becomes overly obvious or blatant, the rhetoric of the show emphasizes becoming “sexy” rather than “skanky.” Similarly, the twenty-one-year-old paralegal, Tomasita, garners criticism for her interview skirt, with a high slit, which earns the nickname of the “easy access” skirt for its supposed connotations of sexual availability.

As the participants are being scolded for their current clothes, the hosts present them with sample outfits demonstrating the rules they must follow for shopping. Despite the fact that these women are diverse in age, race, and background, the rules they receive are remarkably the same. All women are encouraged to achieve the hourglass shape by looking for tops that emphasize their thinnest part and fitted trousers. This shape becomes the epitome of femininity and the basis of proclaiming gender identity through changing the perception of the body. Sandra Lee Bartky, whose work focuses on a Foucaultian critique of discipline enacted on women’s bodies, argues that the feminine ideal ultimately subjects women to a lifetime of striving and failure because of its unrealistic quality. She writes, “The disciplinary project of femininity is a 'set up': It requires such radical and extensive measures of bodily transformation that virtually every woman who gives herself to it is destined in some degree to fail. Thus, a measure of shame is added to a woman’s sense that the body she inhabits is deficient” (139). Although WNTW claims to focus on superficial items, such as clothing, rather than more extensive changes such as weight loss, the show still works to produce shame and then counter that shame with praise when the participant conforms.

The hosts’ recommendations also bring femininity into the workplace by focusing on white collar professionalism, often making fun of less professional jobs and non-white ethnic identities along the way. Lisa, the photographer, receives criticism for her “Sacajawea braids” and her peasant skirt that “looks like [she] sell[s] corn at a fair.” Similarly, Sherri’s peasant skirt makes her suited for “fruit selling.” Tomasita, a Latina woman, even reinscribes cultural stereotypes by referring to her original clothes as "ghettoized.” These jibes emphasize the inherent class and ethnic distinctions in the show; the participants selected are primarily women in or aspiring for white collar careers, which are often conflated with ethnic whiteness. The participants are also steered toward expensive clothing stores, which would not be reasonable for most middle class women's clothing budgets. By pressuring the women to buy more expensive clothes and routinely get their clothes tailored, the hosts create expectations that the women may not be able to sustain after the show is over. In the pool of participants for the show, young professionals abound, as do women who are established professionals but whose clothes do not seemingly reflect their status. The show, then, creates an image of professional women as those who proclaim their feminine gender identity through body shape and clothing while also striving for a predominantly white, upper class image.

As the days of shopping begin, participants often experience anxiety about their clothing choices or actively resist the rules at first. Tomasita comments about the hosts “trying to impose” rules on her; likewise, Lisa claims, “They don’t know who I am as a person. They don’t know where I’m coming from.” She even adds, “Now I’m tainted; I don’t know what I think anymore.” The show breaks down the participants’ self-conceptions and convinces them to embrace a different version of femininity. As I have suggested, this process relies on producing anxiety in the individual and publicly embarrassing them to confirm the need for change. Alison Clarke and Daniel Miller, authors of an ethnographic study on women’s shopping habits, confirm that women’s shopping choices are largely motivated by “anxiety over potential social embarrassment” rather than a personal sense of style or identity (192). Most women who participated in their study wanted to be told what to wear or socially confirmed in their choices in order to feel confident. Clarke and Miller begin with the social theory that clothing is a form of “cultural capital” that requires external confirmation, and that women experience a high level of anxiety in making their clothing choices (193). WNTW plays into this theory by inducing the anxiety and embarrassment as part of the show’s format so that the participant will then feel pressure to conform to the rules being given by the hosts and will look for their approval when making purchases. Vandy, the Notre Dame fan, initially protests that pretty clothes “don’t fit my personality,” but she, like many of the participants, changes her rhetoric by the end of the second day of shopping.

For viewers, I would argue that the participants’ anxiety helps to make the show appealing. Part of the spectatorial pleasure in watching the show arises from the initial schadenfreude of watching the contestants be embarrassed. After all, these women have been nominated for their bad fashion, and it is funny to watch the hosts ridicule them – as long as they’re not ridiculing me. Psychology researchers Steven Reiss and James Wiltz surveyed a group of 239 people to determine their primary motives for watching reality television shows, based on Reiss's scale of sixteen basic motives. Their study found that viewers' most prevalent motive was status, meaning that the viewers experienced a large need for self-affirmation or superiority (Reiss and Wiltz 373). This motive makes sense in the context of WNTW because viewers might want to view themselves as superior to the fashion faux pas presented on the show, or because viewers might identify with the desire to gain status through a similar makeover. The second part of spectatorial pleasure arises in seeing the participants’ transformations as they shop. As much as they protest at the beginning of the show, they almost invariably repeat the hosts’ rhetoric by the end and accept the acclamations that they look more feminine, more age appropriate, and more professional. In other words, they drink the Kool Aid, and we the viewers do too. Why? Part of the answer stems from self-affirmation. As the participants start buying the clothes recommended by the hosts, they receive more compliments on their changing appearance. They are verbally rewarded for complying with the rules, and their rhetoric reflects this change in thinking. Tomasita claims that she wants to get clothes to complement “my own self-esteem and respect for myself.” She continues, “I started wanting [the look] also,” and “I feel like a woman now, not a young girl.” Vandy, the Notre Dame fan, states, “I’m still a girl who can drink beer and watch Notre Dame, but now I have a sleeker, classier look,” and “I must look absolutely fabulous because everyone’s been telling me that.” This external affirmation rewards a narrowly feminine gender identity based on bodily transformation, and it does so seductively. Many viewers probably identify with the ugly duckling feeling at some point in their lives, and they want to be affirmed as much as these participants.

The seduction of the show also arises from the way that the new clothes are portrayed as natural while the old clothes are seen as covering up the real self, literally and metaphorically. The internal/external dichotomy contrasts the “essence” of the person, her personality and goals, with the external manifestation of that personality in the form of clothing, hair, and makeup. If we see all clothing as performing gender, then the participants’ change demonstrates a transition from one form of performance to another. The hosts effectively punish the participant into thinking that the old clothing performed her inner identity badly and that the new clothing projects the true identity or the identity that she wants to have, similar to Gallagher’s category of “the woman I want to be.” Gallagher’s category is somewhat different, however, in pushing for change rather than revealing the identity that was already present but hidden. This tension between essential identity and changing identity points to conflicting notions of subjectivity that often overlap in the show. The hosts attempt to affirm the participant by drawing on the rhetoric of “the real you” while also pushing for a change toward “the new real you.” They fail to acknowledge, however, that the new clothing is also a performance; rather, their rhetoric reassures the participant that the new clothing accentuates her identity and is more authentic than the old.

Some of the participants make a connection between inner self and outer self, even claiming that external changes affect one’s self-perception. Sohni, the woman who dressed with too much sex appeal, claims that “once you change your clothes, you change your outlook about yourself.” She sees her new clothing, then, as a catalyst for changing her self-image or self-esteem, depending on what her “outlook” means. Interestingly, audience members of the show seem to be mimicking this rhetoric, thus pointing to the show's influence on viewers' notions of identity. Communication scholar Katherine Sender has studied audience reaction to makeover shows, such as WNTW. She finds that audience members of WNTW are especially prone to view external change as precipitating internal change rather than vice versa, the idea that internal change would need to precipitate external change. In other words, audience members repeat Sohni’s rhetoric, such as one audience member who said “what you see is as they get an outer change, that builds them up to their own potential,…it begins an inner change” (qtd. in Sender 11). This audience member, then, conflates the participant’s “real self” and the need for an inner change to take place in order to reach that real self. In the audience's response, we see the idea that identity is malleable and changes in identity proceed from physical transformation. This dualistic viewpoint asserts that if we change our bodies enough, then our inner selves will somehow follow. As the show continues, the mantra of change becomes one of accepting the new look as the "real" self.

In the penultimate scene of the show, the mirror again figures prominently in the attempt to naturalize the new clothing and sell the new performance as the transition to a more natural, authentic self. After the two shopping days, the participant receives a haircut and makeup lesson before returning to the hosts to reveal her new look. This reveal scene is a reconfigured repetition of the 360 mirror scene. Rather than viewing the woman from outside the mirror and emerging to critique her, the hosts wait for the participant to enter an open space, then allow her to see her new look in a full-length mirror. Instead of criticizing her look, this time the hosts enthusiastically compliment the woman, often expressing both shock and joy at the extent of the transformation. During this scene the hosts stand behind the participant again, talking to her (as well as themselves and the viewers) through her reflection in the mirror. The camera is often positioned alongside the mirror so that the audience sees the participant looking at her reflection, as if the audience has suddenly become part of the mirror. While the mirror earlier represented a scenario of punishment, now the mirror becomes a reward for accepting the rules of the hosts and performing gender correctly.

After watching the participant react to her own reflection, the hosts comment on the new clothing in order to affirm the ways in which it creates a more feminine hourglass figure that is age appropriate and professional. They often point to body parts which were perceived as problems, such as a stomach that is not perfectly flat, and demonstrate how the clothing camouflages that feature and provides the illusion of a flatter stomach or longer legs or a thinner silhouette. Although these transformations are not as potentially traumatic as the surgical alterations on shows such as The Swan or Extreme Makeover, this show’s strategy is more insidious. By advocating for a specific version of femininity based on a specific shape and clothing such as skirts and dresses, the show creates an ideal that may not correspond to the bodies or desires of many women. Relying on initial humiliation and later acclamation pushes the participant and the audience toward a rejection of the old performance and the sense that the new performance is not one.

WNTW is an important cultural text because it demonstrates the attraction for viewers in seeing a woman be embarrassed, reformed (literally), and then praised. Proponents of the show might argue that it provides a useful tool for women because we are judged on our appearance in our personal and professional lives, and it is better to know how to present ourselves successfully. Stacy and Clinton often employ this reasoning in justifying their rules to the participants. This message is, unfortunately, all too true because our notions of femininity and professionalism are based on clear delineations between masculine and feminine, and those who fall in the gray areas often receive censure for their ambiguity. The show, however, promotes a specious rhetoric of affirmation for women of all shapes and sizes while enforcing one body shape and understanding professionalism in ethnocentric, class-laden terms. Being marketed on TLC as a show about women and for women, WNTW encourages us to become our own best disciplinarians and enforce the show’s dogma rather than choosing to represent our bodies in our own ways.

Works Cited

Bartky, Sandra Lee. "Foucault, Feminism, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power." Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory. Ed. Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, and Sarah Stanbury. New York: Columbia UP, 1997. 129-154.

Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. 10th Anniversary ed. New York, London: Routledge, 1999.

Clarke, Alison and Daniel Miller. "Fashion and Anxiety." Fashion Theory 6.2 (2002): 191-214.

Gallagher, Amanda. " 'You Need a Makeover!': The Social Construction of Female Body Image in A Makeover Story, What Not to Wear, and Extreme Makeover." Popular Communication 5 (2007): 57-79.

"Kim S." What Not to Wear. TLC. 2007. Jan. 2008.

"Lisa." What Not to Wear. TLC. 2005. Jan. 2008.

Mendible, Myra. "Humiliation, Subjectivity, and Reality TV." Feminist Media Studies 4 (2004): 335-338.

Reiss, Steven and James Wiltz. "Why People Watch Reality TV." Media Psychology 6 (2004): 363-378.

Sender, Katherine. "Inner Selves, Outer Selves, and the Commercialization of Congruence: An Audience Study of Makeover Shows." Official Conference Proceedings of the International Communication Association. 2007. 1-29. Ebscohost. 26 January 2008. University of Illinois at Chicago library. Chicago, Illinois.

"Sherri." What Not to Wear. TLC. 2008. Feb. 2008.

"Sohni." What Not to Wear. TLC. 2006. Jan. 2008.

"Tomasita." What Not to Wear. TLC. 2005. Jan. 2008.

"Vandy C." What Not to Wear. TLC. 2006. Feb. 2008.

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