The Geopolitics of Beauty 5

Beauty is inherently political.

Down Syndrome and Cosmetic Surgery

“About Faces and Down Syndrome” talks about the unnecessary cosmetic surgeries done on children with Down Syndrome solely to look “normal”. It’s interesting to see how the appearance of “normal” can mean more than other characteristics and physiological problems associated with the disorder. It’s also done to increase the resemblance to the rest of their family members. There are other syndromes that can also have physical appearances that some parents want to correct on their kids. This, of course, talks about the way we see and judge people that look different and that we identify as having a disorder. There’s even the informal medical acronym of AFLK, a funny looking kid, which explains this judgment. Our definition of what is ugly also comes from the dysmorphophobia as explained in the article where, as a society, we’ve attributed certain features to look normal and/or beautiful. This reminded me of our previous reading on intersex children and the violent, invasive surgery that was justified as being “medical” when it was really about keeping the gender binary in child that biologically questioned that. Another similarity of the cosmetic surgery on Down Syndrome children and intersex kids is that they are too young to realize they look/are different. The decision is made by the parents and doctors with the belief that the trauma of looking “other” will affect the kids when they’re older. This borders the talk of eugenics and how problematic that could be as it’s historically been tied to white supremacy. This, of course, has had real life impacts from colonization to institutional racism. It also related back to the article we read, “Politics of Whiteness” and when the “other” is included in whiteness but is limited by whiteness as well. The disabled Miss America is probably the closest example that relates to this article as her narrative was also framed around whiteness. It’s interesting to see how race plays a factor even in the classification of disorders by doctors. It also made me think about what we refer to as “special needs” when we talk about disabled people or those with disorders. The link below is a funny twist of what Down Syndrome individuals consider special needs and make us think that at the end of the day, we all need basic things. This language of “othering” people with disabilities or disorders is seen in almost all parts of society.

-By Aldana Cardich



Citizenry and Mia’s Makeover in The Princess Diaries

One of the most memorable movie experiences I had as a child is perhaps this scene in the Princess Diaries:

Considering that this clip alone has received over four million views on Youtube, it’s safe to say that for many of the film’s viewers at the time, this scene was an impressive and formative example of the power of a makeover. It is also an example of what Brenda Weber defines as the makeover genre’s “[participation] in projects of citizenship” within the first chapter of her book Makeover Nations (38). Focusing particularly on makeover television and its reproduction of “Americanness” and neoliberal ideologies,

Weber argues that achieving “full citizenship status” according to makeover logic requires the subject to change their body and all representations of their body “as coded by upwardly mobile employment, racial anonymity…and glamorous heterosexuality” (73). All three of these recodings of the character Mia’s body occur as she is transformed into the image of a princess—that is, a figurehead and symbol of citizenship itself: 1) She is presented with the smiling, open, confident face of the upwardly mobile, 2) her curly hair, which is frequently coded in media as racially Other (often in relation to Judaism), is made silky and straight, and 3) her beauty post-makeover suggests that only now is she glamorously beautiful enough to attract men. At the scene’s end, the stylists announce that they have taken Mia’s “Before” body and reshaped it in order “to give [the Queen] a princess.” Their statement suggests that prior to her makeover, Mia was not the pinnacle of citizenry that a princess represents. It is her makeover that accords her full citizenship status.

Furthermore, Weber argues that makeover subjects are “disciplined into citizenry through a combination of shaming and love-power that reinforces divisions between the abject alienation of Before and the normative celebration of After” (40). This blend of shaming and celebration occurs within the scene as well. In response to Mia’s Before body, the stylist Paolo screams and half-heartedly compliments her beauty. In response to her After body, both the impressed gaze of the Queen and the swelling music playing over the scene celebrate Mia’s transformation. As a result, not only are the divisions between abnormal-noncitizen and normal-citizen reinforced for the fictional character of Mia, but they are also reinforced for the film’s viewer. While the citizenry that Mia enters is that of the kingdom of Genovia, this fictional makeover’s message is much the same as that of real makeovers: to be a “true” citizen, and to escape shame, you must conform to the dominant standards of beauty.

Good Fatties vs Bad Fatties

I often time struggle with my own identity as a fat woman, trying to rectify my body positivity with how I, Jordan, wish to live my life, and the makeover culture of before and after pictures that dominate our visual culture. Seeing as how the representation of fat women is predominantly limited to before pictures in weight loss ads, or headless walking bodies in news segments dedicated to how fat the United States is, I often get caught in a cross roads when thinking about my public image. Mainly, I do a lot of dance in heels, and in this image that I put out into the ether, with my dance videos on instagram, I consciously am saying to the world, “I am a good fatty”. This dichotomy of the good vs bad fatty exists in all spheres.

Fat people who live in the heart of the “obesity epidemic” are bad fatties. Bad fatties are too lazy to get to the gym or eat healthy. They are obscenely unaware of what they are doing to their bodies, and are enabled by the culture that surrounds them. Good fatties, on the other hand, go to the gym, eat healthy, take care of their appearance, don’t watch too much tv, and more than anything, are trying as hard as they can to not be fat. It is very interesting for me, because I often find myself taking part in activities, and displaying myself to the world as a good fatty, while the reality of the situation is that I do none of this to lose weight. I often feel like I am duping people into believing something about myself, when I am really just existing.

I had my 15 minutes of fame last year when I was low key tumblr famous for a few months. I had multiple videos of me in dance class get tens of thousands of reblogs, and would constantly wake up to comments and messages from people who were inspired by my confidence. I also was often frustrated by people who assumed by goal of dancing was weight loss. Makeover culture is so pervasive in our lives between weight loss ads and “glow up” and “transformation Tuesday” pictures on Instagram, the idea of self improvement is always on the mind. It is very curious to me where the line is of self acceptance, and if you can truly accept yourself AND have a goal of self improvement. How much can one truly improve before there is nothing else to do? Can one be truly body positive and be working to change things about their bodies?


This is a very good reference, if you’re interested in the good vs bad fatty dynamic, and what is means:)

“Normal” isn’t real

I have come to understand this week’s 3 readings as operating on different levels of “correction” or “revision” such that a person (who is not always considered fully human prior to their transformation, such that their outsider position necessitates the change they undergo) achieves some level of “normality,” whether this is socially constructed, state defined or based on the rules of inclusion in imaginary communities. Fiedler talks about the “freaks” and the “monsters” of travelling circuses and how poets understand these Others better than doctors or scientists ever will, Lyon focuses on people with Down’s syndrome and how elective cosmetic surgery is more for the people around them than they themselves and finally Weber casts an analytical gaze on the media, specially reality TV, and how Americanness and neoliberalism are perpetuated in the process of the makeover as means to become a better citizen.

This brought to mind a question that I have been ruminating on since the beginning of the semester when we had to ask ourselves, when faced with the conflicting views of Gimlin and Douglas: do we engage in body work to fit in? Or do we/can we engage in it for ourselves? Elective cosmetic surgery, as described in all 3 articles, medicalises body work and can be considered the most permanent and usually most costly form of body work, even if it is sometimes considered “cheating” as the “work” aspect is removed (Weber, 73). However, it must be noted that this view this does not take into account the labor that the person must have done to afford the procedure and also the emotional labor in deciding to get it.

In Fiedler’s essay, it seems that her position is that body work is mainly for others as she states that “more often than not, [the Freaks] have survived and coped; sometimes with special pride and satisfaction because of their presumed “handicaps,” which not a few of them have resisted attempts to “cure”” (42). She asserts that “there are no normals” and that “we seem forever Freaks to ourselves” (42). Her suggestion seems to be acceptance of this perceived “less-than” state of appearance and a promotion of self-love as she cites Barbra Streisand as a way in which “children of “lesser breeds” no longer [ate] their hearts out because they [did] not look like Dick and Jane in their primers” (42).

Lyon’s position on body work being for others rather than the self is stronger than Fiedler’s as she states that “with a scalpel and a mirror, normal invades the complex of phenomenological experience of disability and hollows it out into a waxwork figure for its museum of tolerance” (15). Lyon particularly implicates the rest of society in the body work that the community of people with Down’s syndrome feel the need to engage in as she says that “the trouble with normal, in this case, is that it masks a practice of disability-phobia as a practice of aesthetic improvement” (15). Her position is that there is nothing inherently “wrong” with the way that people with Down’s syndrome look – other people just don’t want to look at people who are different and make them change for their own comfort and security in socially constructed and accepted “normalcy.”

In Weber’s chapter, it seems that the answer she comes to is: it’s complicated. As much as she criticises reality TV shows for their racist, classist and gendered approach to makeovers and body work (though she includes work on houses, cars, clothes and so on as well) and shows how these makeovers function to package Americanness and neoliberalism as a life goal or a dream. However, she also shows a recognition that body work does often result in liberation in terms of social acceptance, elevated social standing and ease in navigating systems and institutions which were previously unaccessible to people who were not “acceptable.” She acknowledges that she does not want to “accuse makeover participants of having a false consciousness…the very notion of false consciousness oversimplifies the complicated power dynamics invested in desire, body image, and self-worth” (79).

The more I learn about beauty, the more I learn about the pain people undergo to achieve it, the psychological and historical workings behind constructing it, the malicious and ill-intentioned ways in which beauty has been coopted to further racist, sexist and eugenicists projects, the more I am confused about what I thought I knew. What have we done to ourselves and the people around us such that it has become so hard to simply exist?

Marsha Ho

Race and Otherness in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings

In “the Tyranny of Normal,” Leslie Fiedler describes the violent nature of normalcy and its compulsory nature in the primordial fear of the Other, of Freaks, and of Monsters. The social and cultural fear of congenital malformations marks people as unfit for life, to be exterminated, historically through ritual slaughter by the family and state. Janet Lyon expands on the rigid boundary of normalcy as it intersects with race and disability, describing the ways the “stigmata” of individuals with Down Syndrome is a physical marker of disability, of deviance from the norm. She argues that when cosmetic surgery is performed to “render disability invisible, in order to preserve some fictive public code of unmarked normativity.” These cosmetic surgeries and Hitler’s state extermination of “dwarfs and other useless people” are driven by the same desire to incorporate the Other into the realm of normalcy or if impossible, to exterminate them.

This logic of perceiving congenital malformations as markers of Otherness to be eliminated aligns dangerously closely to the logics of eugenics and scientific racism. The invisibility and unmarked nature of normalcy goes hand in hand with whiteness as the default; it is disability and non-whiteness that stands out as marker identities. In Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, this delineation of what is normal and what is Other is at the center of the conflict that drives the films. Through visual cues, it is immediately clear who is meant to be the heroes and who is meant to be the villains; the hobbits, men, and elves are all played by who are the epitome of normalcy as able bodied, conventionally attractive, and white. The Orcs and the Uruk-hai, are in contrast ugly, savage and barbaric in appearance, and cruel, and are without exception always the enemy of the narrative’s heroes, grotesque and evil enough to be a fearsome race but not capable enough to rise above ordinary foot soldiers. The only POC actors in the LoTR trilogy play these enemy races of Orcs and Uruk-hai, including Maori actor Lawrence Makoare and Nathaniel Lees, who is of Samoan descent. The Orcs and Uruk-hai have dark skin tones of dark blue and grey hues, and their mouths are always open to display their sharp pointed teeth. Narratively and visually, there is no room for the audience to sympathize with the Orcs and Uruk-hai, and there are no memorable individual characters like the protagonists.

Jackson’s film trilogy is a classic fantasy narrative tale of good vs evil based on the book series written by the father of the fantasy genre. It may not have been an intentional decision to make a statement on race and the markers of Otherness, but by having this iconic narrative of good vs evil represented by white men vs the unintelligent dark skinned savages, Jackson has made Lord of the Rings an unmistakable statement on the heroic and just victories of white victory and conquest.

When a Makeover Goes Wrong

Deleese Williams, a Texas woman, was slated to appear on Extreme Makeover.  Williams, who had long considered herself ugly and a “freak,” was promised a host of cosmetic surgeries.  During the home visit, Williams’ family gave testimonials to the camera crew, goaded by producers into making horrific comments about her appearance and how it impacted them.  In Los Angeles, the night before her surgeries were to begin, the producers told Williams that they would not be going through with it after all.  The surgery to break and reset her jaw had a lengthy recovery period, meaning she no longer fit the show’s schedule.  When Williams returned to Texas in humiliation, her familial relationships and self-esteem were in ruins.  Williams’ sister, plagued by the guilt of what she had said about her sister, committed suicide months later.  Williams sued the television network for emotional distress and settled out of court.

Williams’ makeover story, though it was ultimately a failure, demonstrates Brenda Weber’s assertion that makeover television shows are projects of citizenship-making.  What the show promised Williams—a new smile, a new body, a new life—was the American promise; self-actualization and success were available through radical changes to her self.  To makeover Williams, and to fashion her as a desirable citizen, firsts it had to confirmed that she was not fit for citizenship in her current state.  She had to be subjected to the humiliation of having “experts” list her deformities and unattractive features, which were to be fixed.  The producers had her own family denigrate her appearance, and by extension, Williams herself.  Yet she endured it all because she was promised a “Cindy Crawford smile.”  The show promised to mold her in the image of Crawford, the embodiment of American feminine beauty and ideal citizenship.

After making a spectacle of Williams’ ugliness, her existence outside the limits of acceptable society, the show then denied her the transformation.  She had seen the promise of American success through physical improvement, but was ultimately deemed unfit.  Her isolation worsened after her worst fears about herself were confirmed.  Williams’ family was irreparably damaged by the comments they had made about her to the cameras.  As Weber writes, their comments were acceptable within the context of her self-improvement.  She had to experience the shame and humiliation in order to be worthy of her new body and life.  But when she did not change, the comments were cruel and hurtful.  Williams’ marriage suffered greatly.  This failure was especially stark in the shadow of the heterosexual success her new, beautiful appearance was expected to bring.  Williams’ sister’s death was the embodiment of the shared trauma of this failed citizenship effort.

The reason producers gave Williams for the cancellation of her surgeries confirms Weber’s assertions about the motivations of Makeover Nation.  Williams would take too long to heal, meaning that her great unveiling would never make it to television sets.  This lays bare the veiled purpose of makeover TV programs.  The objective was not the transformation of Williams into a beautiful, suitable citizen.  The success of this narrative relied on its visibility.  Williams’ transformation hinged on its availability for public consumption.  The tangible effects it had on her life and the lives around her were not truly the focus.  Her makeover was meant to both reify the audience’s notions of American reinvention and upward mobility and generate profit for the network.  Because she could do neither, her makeover was no longer viable.  Unfortunately for Williams, this decision came after she and her family were already made to revel in her “ugliness,” her shame, her inability to be a successful member of decent society.

Clinton Kelly of TLC’s ‘What Not To Wear’

In this radio interview, Clinton Kelly, one of the two hosts from TLC’s What Not to Wear, speaks about fashion, and his thoughts on the industry, trends, and What Not to Wear. Contrary to what the show pushed, Kelly believes that fashion and clothing shouldn’t adhere to certain, strict standards – rather, they should work to aid in self expression.

“It doesn’t matter what i think of what you’re wearing. It doesn’t matter one bit. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks you’re wearing, except you. Your clothes are meant to make you happy.”

Yet, he admits that he has been complicit in telling individuals, especially those with “freakier” style, such as purple hair, that they didn’t look good and needed to change.

His show serves as one of the tools used to build a makeover nation, a concept Brenda Weber uses to describe this imagined nation created from neoliberal values of self care and an egalitarian America (“Makeover Nation: Americanness, Neoliberalism, and the Citizen-Subject”). What Not to Wear and other similar shows use the transformation process of the makeover to create after-bodies that are “beautiful, stylish, uncluttered, well-mannered, financially successful, heterosexually fulfilled, and, most of all, confident and welcoming of he gaze” (Weber 38). In this process, value is placed on the appearance of these bodies; correspondingly, these after-bodies are rewarded with greater citizenry rights (as opposed to before-bodies). And because this imagined nation falls within an egalitarian space, anyone can supposedly achieve this status – if they undergo the makeover. However, we have come to understand that this imagined nation is an illusion, constructed through a neoliberal framework.

It’s interesting then to look at Kelly’s interview, where he challenges the idea of making over oneself as a path to success. It was all for the show. However, later in the same interview, Kelly gives fashion advice on what wash of jean is appropriate for certain age groups; as someone gets older, they should try and stick to darker wash jeans, as they look more polished. While changing jeans isn’t a full blown makeover, it’s still a decision made to better one’s image and status in society. So, the concepts behind the makeover don’t cease to exist if we choose not to believe them. Like Weber, I believe that we are entitled to a certain amount of agency and that making ourselves over can function to empower us. However, I remain critical completely agree with Weber’s concept of after-bodies as manifestations of the “flex-subject”, or one that is “interconnected, nomadic, self-reflexive, and flexible” (53). These terms are vague and don’t necessarily take into account factors of class, race, gender identifications, etc. Value, as it is portrayed in this makeover nation, clearly isn’t equal, and certain, usually marginalized, individuals cannot surpass certain values just by undergoing a makeover.

Makeovers & Media

Brenda Weber analyzes “Makeover Nation” in an excerpt of Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity. She defines the trend as the obsession with self-improvement, whether an individual is bettering their body and physical appearance, or their home, their car, or lifestyle. These aspects which can be “made over,” she argues, often resonate with ideas of romantic, financial, and emotional success (43).


This reading reminded me of “Narcissism as Liberation,” Susan Douglas’s piece that we read earlier this semester. Like Weber’s analysis, except through the lens of advertisements and capitalism instead of makeover television, Douglas described the trend of loving oneself through changing one’s appearance. Both excerpts highlight how the traditional idea of a makeover has been turned on its head, from something oppressive to a revolutionary act. After all, the person being made over is the one in control; in Weber’s words, “one engages in such self-care, makeovers suggest, not to appease the critical eye or the taunting bully, but for the self alone” (62).


This is a theme that, for some, can be empowering—it’s okay to care about your image and want to look good for the sole purpose of feeling great about yourself! Even if you want to look good for others, it’s a choice that you, an autonomous individual, have the agency to make! But Douglas suggested that the “because you’re worth it” mindset cannot be separated from the negative ramifications this culture has imposed on young girls.


Because of Weber’s “Makeover Nation,” communities have sprouted of individuals supporting each other in pursuit of becoming “better” versions of themselves. These communities are often facilitated by the internet, from blogging platforms like Tumblr to more picture-heavy media like Instagram. While searching through YouTube looking for patterns in beauty videos, I stumbled across a disturbing community: girls, often younger than teenage, posting clips of themselves talking and asking viewers to comment on their appearances.


These videos show children not only obsessed with the concept of being beautiful versus ugly, but looking towards others to judge them, to tell them how they could improve, if there’s any hope for looking better. Weber would say that this is indicative of the makeover culture we live in; young girls are taught that we will be happier if we “fix” ourselves. “The notion that good looks, a beautiful house, or a pimped-out ride are requisite for full citizenship in a larger dating, employment, and social culture manifests consistently through all of the U.S.-based makeover shows,” she writes (45).


Makeover nation can have positive undertones. But is it possible to choose to redo our looks entirely, and separate this decision from outside pressures, from this culture that has been forced on us since the conception of “the makeover?”


Video below:

Want to Turn Your Life Around? Put on Some Make-up!

In the article Makeover Nation, the author Brenda Weber talks about the makeover TV shows trend in the U.S. Brenda specifically focus on the makeover shows that emphasis on beauty and appearances. Brenda described the culture and the TV shows for makeover as “Makeover Nation” ( Weber, 38), and in order to win to ticket to live in the Makeover Nation, a person needs to be “self aware” (39) in order to know that he or she has flaws and also needs to be an “active participant in consumer culture” (39) to sign up for the shows. Many of these shows invited guests who have distorted figures to go under plastic surgery to obtain beautiful looks. However, the shows seem to all give a conception to people that: if you look good, you can get rid of all your other problems. Brenda discusses about how all these shows have one commonality and that is they all seem to indicate that once a person has obtained a good-looking face, he or she can then live like the so called American Dream, or Americanness in her words, of upward social mobility and rights to many privileges that were previously restricted to them. The goals of the shows are to achieve simply more than just “me but better” experiences, but instead, they want the person who has physically humiliate himself/herself in public by showing his/her weaknesses and traumatic experiences to have live a whole new life. The author ended the article with the following lines: “ Give me your tired, your poor, your cellulited and your wrinkled, the cluttered and the ramshackle, the huddle and ugly masses, yearning to breath free” (Weber, 79).

Such makeover shows are also now very common on social media such as Youtube. Many popular makeup bloggers have created blogpost and videos of helping a random girl who is not as good looking as they are and turn them into a super model with makeup and dressing. All these before and after videos often win a lot of views due to many viewers’ desire and fantasy to see an ugly duckling turning into swan and hoping that one day the same miracle will happen on themselves too.

Youtube Makeover Video: How to look Bomb!? Total BEAUTY MAKEOVER


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