Helen Reeves is shocked at Make Me Perfect: a programme that encourages women with low self esteem to comply with mainstream sexist views on beauty rather than question them.
I have a problem regarding the new ITV1 afternoon programme ‘Make Me Perfect’. By nature, I am rarely one to complain, or be easily offended by simple television programmes. But this is not a minor concern – the programme appalled and disgusted me. The fundamental sexism, and relegation of women as objects requiring physical beauty to become of worth, was shockingly visible in this programme.
The promotional blurb on the ITV1 website explains the premise behind the show:
Make Me Perfect offers a total transformation to fifteen women who have suffered emotional trauma because of their looks. These women have endured a lifetime of teasing and taunting from friends, family and even complete strangers who’ve deemed them ‘ugly’. With a combination of psychological counselling and major cosmetic surgery, the programme will make their dreams come true with a physical, emotional and mental makeover of a lifetime. They will then get the chance to strut their stuff and show off their new selves to their loved ones in a live, grand final extravaganza. These brave women will be transformed with a renewed confidence, self – esteem and great looks!
This is 2006: women excel as politicians, doctors, business executives, athletes, teachers, aid workers, and so forth. They are of the same mental and physical ability as men, and thus should be no more obligated to look like any perceived ‘ideal’. In this environment, rating people on beauty and attraction is demeaning. Were the programme focused on both men and women, the concerns regarding the overall message and its negligence would still be the same; however the fact is that it is not – the programme accentuates the apparent need for physical beauty in women only, and this worsens the issue.
The show was advertised as focusing on helping women with low self esteem, the interest being to help them overcome this and feel better about themselves, functioning more effectively and happily within everyday life. This sounds like a good idea (albeit appearing to lack support for men with issues of confidence) as it is well known that women are often inclined to worry about physical appearance and levels of attractiveness, hence, perhaps the recent surge in eating disorders and media focus on those appearing ‘fat’. A programme that sought to relieve women of this burden, to help them feel of worth beyond the realms of physical merit, would indeed be a breath of fresh air. Perhaps, helping them to exercise other skills and abilities, helping them to realise that no matter what they look like, they are intelligent, credible and worthy, would be a brilliant and motivating step.
However, this is not what the programme does. Although the ‘help’ given to the women selected, whose self-esteem is unfortunately low, does include an extent of psychological counselling, the focus of the show is not on redefining the cognitions of these women, and helping them to understand that they are worthy and can warrant respect as themselves; that they are highly important as individuals, as living thinking people, regardless of what their body looks like, or how well this aligns to current ideals of ‘beauty’ or ‘perfection’ – no, the focus is on ascertaining what body parts they think are most ‘ugly’ and then using this information to plan cosmetic surgery, to remove such ‘imperfections’.
This results in physically altering the women in order to bring them nearer to their ideals and images (such as bigger bust, thinner waist, slimmer thighs, etc) through a series of rigorous bodily and facial surgery, cosmetic dentistry, tattooed make-up, hair-styling and so forth. Surely this reinforces the idea that physical beauty is what one must gain in order to feel worthy. This is wholly irresponsible. The answer to these women’s low self-esteem regarding their body appears to be in physically correcting them – not mentally correcting them. Removing such physical ‘faults’ rather than helping the women to realise that such ‘faults’ are not important sends out a completely abhorrent message. Surely the message should be that there is no reason why women must be ‘beautiful’, and must be ‘physically attractive’, where men needn’t worry.
In modern psychology, where cases of low self-esteem are treated, particularly in relation to eating disorders (a symptom of low physical evaluation), the approved step is almost always to help alter and improve the cognitions of the patient – not, perhaps, to offer them help dieting.
The level of irresponsibility with this programme is also apparent through the massive importance placed on the cosmetic surgery the women undergo. Such surgery requires both a massive amount of psychological help, guidance, care and advice, along with really serious consideration for the health and medical concerns involved. Such invasive procedures are not something that should ever be taken so lightly. It is important to remember that not all surgery is foolproof, not only can procedures go wrong and lead to serious problems, physical alteration also cannot always provide a full answer in ridding oneself of the negative self evaluation that led to the initial esteem problems. Inherent feelings of low worth and confidence may still remain, regardless of how the body has been changed. Surgery should not be expressed as the complete answer, whether or not the particular women documented in the programme did or did not benefit.
Along with this, the cost is hardly touched upon in the programme – though the sum of all the procedures must be considerable. An average woman viewing the programme would realistically be unlikely to be able to afford the surgery, or dentistry, etc. shown, yet this is clearly displayed as the answer to problems of esteem they may be experiencing. What message does this perpetuate? If women of low self-esteem are told the issues with their body are best solved by removing them by surgery – what are they supposed to do when this is not an option for them? Those who cannot physically change their image are, it seems, just left to despair, instead of being told more correctly, that they have worth, and they have all the components necessary to feel good about themselves, no matter how they look.
Indeed, I doubt ITV would advocate a programme that helped homosexuals feeling concerned about their sexuality try to become straight, or helped black people experiencing low self-esteem due to racial abuse undergo surgery to become white.
Whether or not the message of the programme ‘Make Me Perfect’ was designed to send out such patronising and unacceptable advice to women, or was designed to subordinate them to the position of objects with only physical and superficial worth, this is the clear and unfaltering message. This programme is offensive and wrong, and more worryingly, may have damaging consequences for the women who watch it. I would hope that steps are made, if not to remove this programme from viewing time, to at least make it more socially responsible and less insulting. Without doubt, apology, along with corrective real and competent advice regarding the esteem issues on which the programme focuses, is certainly due.