I see that while I’ve been immersed in mind-twisting Argentinean literature, Jess has beaten me to the Trinny and Susannah interview in the Guardian. But no matter, we seem to have quite different views on the subject, and as we love different views here at The F Word I’ll bend your ears to mine for a wee while. As the title may suggest, I’m not the duo’s biggest fan, and while Jess finds What Not To Wear desperately watchable, it’s more likely to push me to crazed acts of rage-induced vandalism.
Now, back in the day, long before my feminist awakening, I used to enjoy watching this apparently harmless makeover show. Indeed, when I eventually started talking feminism with my long-suffering friend Lucy, I simply couldn’t understand her seething hatred for Trinny and Susannah. They make women happy, I thought, they give them what they want: simple guidelines on how to look good and boost their confidence. What’s wrong with that?
What’s wrong with What Not To Wear, as I now see it after months of thoughtful analysis of my own body-related neuroses, inspired by feminist theory, is that it plays by the rules of the system that oppresses us. Teaching women to look good may very well make them feel better about themselves, but it does so only because it teaches them to play the game, and to succeed as best they can. The essential problem here is that the game is based on the premise that women – as we are, in our natural state – are not acceptable. Women are flawed. This wouldn’t be so bad, perhaps, if it wasn’t linked with a dominant discourse – present in nigh on all our literature and popular culture – that women should be physically perfect, that beauty is the defining feature of Woman, that without it we are not truly Women. So, women are naturally flawed, yet real women are perfect beauties. We cannot win. This is where Trinny and Susannah come in. They teach us the tricks which help us escape our natural imperfection and come close to achieving real womanhood: the clothes, the body shaping underwear, the hair dye, the wax, the makeup. They help us feel a little better, perhaps make us believe that we can do it – that we can be real, beautiful women.
Yet in the process we become enslaved to these tricks. We feel naked and vulnerable if we leave the house without our ‘face’ on. Even when we’re dolled up to the nines and looking good, we constantly check ourselves in the mirror, check that we’re not revealing the imperfection that lies underneath. We look out for women who are skinnier, taller, more elegant. We judge them and we judge ourselves. And no matter how much money and expertise Trinny and Susannah throw at us, we will never be good enough, because what we are aspiring to simply doesn’t exist. There is no beauty perfection. It is a lie, a lie of chemicals and fabrics, advertising and Photoshop.
What does exist is women. People who want to get on with their lives, but who – in order to do so – have to be seen to play the beauty game. If we don’t, we are judged to have no sense of self worth, judged by the very people who purport to want to help us. Judged by Trinny and Susannah.
Why the fuck should we stand for that?
Now, I like clothes and, on occasion, I like making my face up. It’s fun. What I don’t like is being told that my existence as a woman is dependent on these two things, that if I don’t buy into fashion, and makeup, and all the other trappings of the beauty industry, I have failed as a woman and am a sad loser who has simply repressed her innate desire to express her supposed essential ‘femininity’, that I cannot possibly be happy with that arse, with those grubby baggy jeans, with that haircut and those bags under my eyes. I don’t like this attitude: I think it is profoundly anti-women, and so I refuse to play the game. That’s where I’ve found real liberty: a real freedom to appreciate my female identity, my female body, free of the judgements and pressures and ‘advice’ dispensed by the beauty industry of which Trinny and Susannah are a part. They make their money by humiliating women who have thus far managed to survive without tummy shaping pants, into believing that they are only worth something, that they are only real women, if they worry day and night about their appearance.
There is nothing – absolutely nothing – women friendly about that. And that, dear readers, is why they can both fuck right off.
Edit: It’s been pointed out that many of the women who go on WNTW are already unhappy with their bodies (having not seen later series I glossed over this point, apologies). This is only to be expected in our society, and for me I feel the way to deal with it is not to try and play the expensive, time consuming and ultimately unwinnable beauty game as T&S encourage participants to do, but to tackle the social norms, values and pressure put on women that makes us hate our bodies in the first place. I can’t speak for all women, of course, but the level of body hatred in even the most gorgeous and beauty ritual obsessed women, plus my own experience, leads me to think that we will never be happy if we continue to choose to play the game rather than liberate ourselves from it.