Friday, October 25, 2013

The Genius of "What Not to Wear"

If it’s bad enough to arrive late to a party, it awful to arrive after the party is over.

I had heard of the television show “What Not to Wear,” the TLC makeover show, but hadn’t quite gotten around to watching it… until last night.

Then, fortuitously, I chanced on the final episode of the ten year series and learned a few things that are worth pondering.

The show offered women simple makeovers. That is, makeovers that involve fashion, hair and makeup. It did not offer the kind of cosmetic surgery that can make a woman barely recognizable.

Those who are familiar with the genre of makeovers-- in the past a staple of Oprah’s show-- know that often the transformations are so radical that they are frightening. It often seems like a butterfly has emerged from a cocoon.

It’s worth mentioning, on theoretical grounds, that the show did not try to make any of the women into some someone they are not. It did not teach them how to adopt new personae. As host Clinton Kelly said on the finale, the show wanted to show women at their best.

Being your best means being who you are. It does not mean trying to trick people into mistaking you for someone else.

On the finale, WNTW paid visits to some of the women who had had successful makeovers. And it threw a party for many of the show’s participants in Las Vegas… to suggest that the women it had chosen to highlight were not exceptions.

As I was watching I was struck by the fact that the experience of appearing on the show, of spending a few days buying a new wardrobe and having a new haircut and new makeup had produced, for so many of the participants, a radical transformation.

As I was thinking that a lot of therapists would be thrilled to have such a good record of helping their patients, lo and behold, one of the made-over women declared that her experience was like “therapy.”

I gave myself a few, but not too many extra credit points for insight.

One might think the comparison inapposite. The women who were made over on the show were manifestly not mentally ill. And yet, most of the people who present themselves for therapy are not mentally ill either. They are often is distress. They might feel anguished or demoralized. Most of them are not sick.

I would take it a step further. The Stacy/Clinton therapy seems to have been more effective than most of what is on offer in professionals’ offices.

The makeovers were not cheap, but they were not outrageously expensive either.  With an allotted $5,000 the women were not shopping at Prada and Gucci. I suspect that their haircuts would have been fairly expensive, but they would probably not cost more than an hour of a senior therapist’s time.

So, how did these makeovers help so many people so quickly? Therein lies a mystery.

Before appearing on the show, many of the women participants had been sporting outfits that advertised their inner depressed states. I am confident that a good psychiatrist would diagnose many of them as suffering from a mild form of depression.

Often they had simply let themselves go. One woman had chosen an absurd appurtenance as a signature: she tied a raccoon tail to the back of her jeans and declared it a sign of her individuality. Many of the “before” photos showed women who seemed never to have had a haircut and seemed never tried to use cosmetics to look their best.

To the mind of a seasoned therapist, however, the WNTW approach must have smacked of superficiality. It looked like a mindless effort to change the outside without changing the inside, an effort to paper over problems without getting at root causes.

Obviously, cognitive and behavioral therapies have challenged this perspective. For that, they are routinely denounced for being superficial. People who think of themselves as deep thinkers cannot—for all their deep thought—grasp how something as superficial as a makeover can snap an individual out of a mild depression and produce long-lasting benefits.

In many cases, makeovers are more helpful than long term psychotherapy or psychoanalysis… but then again, long term therapy and analysis were never designed to be helpful, anyway.

Take the concept of resistance. In psychoanalysis patients are said to resist the darker truths that are lurking in their unconscious. According to Freud they resist coming to terms with their fundamental desire to copulate with their mothers.

Participants in the WNTW experience also resist. They fight when Stacy and Clinton throw away all of their clothes.

In therapy an individual is supposed to get in touch with his or her past. In WNTW an individual was supposed to throw away the past, to put it out of sight and out of mind. And to do so without having any insight into why she had accumulated such a dreadful wardrobe.

Moreover, where our therapy culture tells us all that we should never judge other people, Stacy and Clinton were nothing if not judgmental.

When the choice is between how you see yourself and how other people see you WNTW is saying, significantly, that the latter is vastly more important than the former.

It’s worth underscoring that when it comes to resistance, the average human being will more easily accept that he wants to copulate with his mother than that he has been walking around town looking like a fool.

Most therapists do not comment on their clients’ appearances because they know that if they did they would be encountering fierce resistance… to the point of losing their patients.

Patients will happilyaccept that they have an Oedipus complex or control issues, but they will rarely tolerate hearing that they don’t know how to dress.

If someone tells you that you have been looking like a clown you will immediately understand, not only that this has been going on for quite some time, but that there is very little you can do in the immediate to erase the impression. In many cases it is easier to denounce the messenger or ignore the message.

As therapy, WNTW is based on a hoary Aristotelian concept: the best way to get over a bad habit is to replace it with a good habit.

If the show’s participants had become so habituated to looking bad that they did not even know that they were looking their worst, Stacy and Clinton were at the ready to drag them, kicking and screaming out of their bad habit and into some good habits.

Where far too many therapists believe that their job is to help their patients get in touch with their worst,  WNTW wanted people to be their best, at least on the level of outward appearance.

Apparently, when you get in touch with your worst you do not get better, either inside or outside. If you work at refashioning your appearance, you are very likely to get better, both on the outside and the inside.

The effectiveness of the Stacy/Clinton treatment depends on the woman’s ability to keep with the program. It does not depend on her gaining any insight into why she had been letting herself go.

WNTW seems to disprove the commonly held belief that we are what we feel deep inside. The show was saying that we are the way we look to other people. If we want to change for the better we should improve our appearance and the way we conduct ourselves in public. It will produce a palpable improvement in how we feel about ourselves.

[For the record, the same principle does apply to men. It was the premise of an excellent makeover show called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.]


Sam L. said...

Sounds like Cary Grant. Archie Leach liked the character so much he played him for the rest of his life.

Hamlet's Fool said...

This makes sense on several levels. Often people will make some sort of change to get out of a "slump." The change will vary -- start exercising, change reading habits, etc. And often the change has nothing to do with the underlying problem. However, the fact that they are making a positive change of any sort can help cope with said issues.

Leo G said...

I believe I first saw this research on your site. Hormones and all ya know....