Issue 41 2005
Beauty, Desire, and Anxiety
The Economy of Sameness in ABC's Extreme Makeover
By BRENDA R. WEBER
| Note: Click on each
image to see an enlargement of it.
 In a 2003 episode of Extreme Makeover, ABC's makeover
show offering transformation through style advice and multiple plastic
surgeries, Amy, a "painfully shy 29-year-old cake decorator
from Indiana," exclaims in her post-makeover interview, "I'm
me now! I don't have to listen to what anyone else says" (Season
1- Episode 3, per epguides.com).
 Amy's words suggest that pre-makeover insecurity caused a split
between her sense of identity and her physical presence, exacerbated
by a social censure that diminished her self-worth. Like many victims
of trauma, Amy responded to pain through dissociation, separating
her sense of identity from her embodied experience, in many ways
mirroring what theorists identify as the postmodern condition.
After surgery Amy claims a unity of identity and body, a
sense she has finally become herself, thus believing she has also
transcended societal censure and can exercise complete autonomy,
allowing her to ignore all cultural mandates. The Extreme Makeover
proceduresa nose job, extensive reconstructive dentistry and
porcelain veneers, bags removed from beneath her eyes, breast implants,
hair styling and coloring, make-up and fashion lessonsoffer
Amy a classical sense of the subject, one that is internally coherent
and fully autonomous; she feels fractured no longer, a new-found
state that strikes her as liberating and empowering.
 Rectifying the postmodern divide is quite a promise, even for
the hyperbole of reality TV, but Extreme Makeover offers
this and more. (For general analyses on reality TV, see Home and
Jermyn, Murray and Ouellette; for helpful discussions on plastic
surgery's rise in American culture, see Haiken, Blum, Gilman, Davis).
Participants in the show claim both coherent subjectivity and new
modalities of power. Yet, in trying to reassure us that it can
eradicate embodied anxieties, Extreme Makeover also manages
to pointedly remind us of those very flaws, thus exacerbating both
anxiety and desire and promising relief only through "beauty."
And here, it's important to make clear that the sort of attractiveness
espoused by Extreme Makeover, and other popular culture makeovers
more broadly, is a "beauty by the numbers" that can be
calibrated and imposed by surgeons and clever makeup specialists.
Though Extreme Makeover rhetorically gestures to "inner
beauty," it clearly codes internal attractiveness as dependent
upon external appearance. This
external look, in turn, conforms to a fairly narrow palette of pleasing
looks (for both men and women) best demonstrated by glamorous movie
stars and airbrushed models in popular magazines. Indeed, there
is ample evidence that Extreme Makeover is in step
with larger cultural patterns in espousing these narrow beauty ideals,
as indicated by just a small sampling of popular texts, including
"A Beauty Formula?," a People feature that
rated Uma Thurman a D due to her "triangular-shaped face"
and Paris Hilton a C because her "eyes are too narrow for her
face". Consider also Fox's makeover show, The Swan,
where candidates/contestants are literally scored, or the website
www.beautyanalysis.com that offers a
formula for beauty based on a numerical analysis of facial planes
and their deviation from the "golden mask."
 What we're seeing in both Extreme Makeover and the present
media and makeover genre more broadly, then, is not programming
dedicated to individuated enhancement, but a clustering of makeover
shows working to underscore collectively the imperative of high-glamour
appearancegolden highlights, trimmed bodies, four-inch heels,
and double D breasts notwithstanding. There are, at this writing,
approximately nineteen home and body (and now car) makeover shows
on the air. Of these, it is the programming centering on appearance
and the body that most concern me: What Not to Wear (both
TLC and BBC), Nip/Tuck (F/X), A Makeover Story
(TLC), Dr. 90210 (E!), A Complete Story
(TLC), Plastic Surgery, Before and After (Discovery),
Made (MTV), I Want A Famous Face (MTV), Head
Toe (Lifetime), The Swan (Fox) and, of course, Queer
Eye for the Straight Guy (Bravo, NBC) and its parody, Straight
Plan for the Gay Man (Comedy Central).
 In this mix, Extreme Makeover has become
a "standard bearer," its influence traceable throughout
other media, as documented by, for instance, the random use of the
words "extreme makeover" in America's ubiquitous Sunday
supplement, Parade (see the March 28, 2004 issue), a front-page
star exposeé, several "family" comics, and the promise
of an "Extreme Makeover Here in Indianapolis". A commercial
for Pantene shampoo features Kelly Ripa who relies on her "extreme
makeover in a bottle." America's popular culture Bible, People,
ran a November 2003 cover celebrating "real-life Extreme Makeovers;"
People also reported at Oscar time that Catherine Zeta-Jones
stalled in leaving the Academy
Award ceremony because she had "become engrossed in a commercial
for ABC's Extreme Makeover" ("Hollywood Confidential"
74). Crain's Chicago Business reports that Chicago-area
plastic surgeons have experienced a surge since Extreme Makeover's
debut in 2002. "I love the show," says Chicago-resident
Theresa Hoban. "Every time I watch it, I see more things I
can get done" (Klein). In the summer of 2004, NPR reported
that congressional representatives would give their legislation
an "extreme makeover" before it went back up the hill
(Weekend Edition, July 10, 2004). Spin-offs of other televised
makeover shows (like MTV's I Want A Famous Face, which "documents"
plastic surgeries that make "normal" people look like
their favorite celebrities) also attest to Extreme Makeover's
influence, as do the number of cautionary narratives warning people
away from extreme plastic surgery procedures, such as TLC's new
series You Ruined My Looks. I thought I had witnessed the
greatest testament to Extreme Makeover having entered
the popular culture lexicon when Saturday Night Live parodied
the show (complete with over-processed noses that fall off in one's
SNL was supplanted soon after when I received e-mail SPAM luring
me with promises that I could "win an extreme makeover or $50,000
in cash!" To be SPAMed strikes me as indisputable evidence
of cultural saturation.
 Given this, it seems safe to say that Extreme Makeover's
language and concepts have entered a common cultural discourse,
aided and abetted by the fact that its primary locus of control
is the body itself. Since the body evokes our collective desires
and anxieties, I believe it's possible to achieve a more nuanced
sense of our broader cultural investments by putting Extreme
Makeover under the same sort of analytical gaze endured by its
I argue that Extreme Makeover offers viewers the promise
of the exceptional (coded as high-glamour beauty) built on an economy
of sameness. In effect, the show exploits the same bodily anxieties
that fuel the psychic pain it ostensibly cures, offering makeover
participants and home viewers a contradictory pairingthe despair
of anxiety, the (promised) joy brought by beauty. To salve the
wounds of this contradiction, we are offered a form of beauty-by-the-numbers
that is narrow, formulaic, and dependent on the very cycles of anxiety
and desire it promises to transcend.
Body Scan: Extreme Makeover's Place in the Genre
 Let me begin by saying that Extreme Makeover is a show
very easy to dislike (and thus to dismiss). With its rigidly formulaic
structure, its heavy-handed and melodramatic male voiceover, its
insistence on physical beauty as the only standard for self worth,
its deification of plastic surgery and surgeons, its encouragement
of voyeuristic indulgence, its almost exclusive fixation on female
bodies, its perpetual overwriting of race and class signifiers,
and its relentless endorsement of heterosexual relationships, Extreme
Makeover seems like just another one of television-land's productions
that pander to the latest fad. And make no mistake, it is. Extreme
Makeover is also a resonant text that speaks volumes about media
culture, the signification of beauty, desire, social power, modes
of gender, and pleasurable narratives.
 The story it tellsone of suffering and transformation,
of desperation and joyis as old as narrative itself. We can
see elements of Extreme Makeover's story played out
in myth cycles of death and renewal, in fairytales that depict the
heart's desire and the body's change, in operas, novels, films,
and television where suffering is interrupted by a benevolent spirit
(be it fairy godmother, good witch, or plastic surgeon) who brings
hope, revitalization, and opportunity for a newly lived life. In
terms of provenance, we might as easily point to Dracula
as to Now Voyager! (two very different sorts of makeover
narratives) to understand the fascination of the changing and changeable
body's relation to the psyche. The fact that Extreme Makeover
is a televised text, of course, links it to important forbears,
such as Queen for a Day, which searched for sad stories,
put them on display and rewarded each Queen's long-suffering. Yet,
there is a significant difference between a new washing machine
and a new nose, and if we are to look to television antecedents
to better understand Extreme Makeover, I believe we'd be
more likely to find them in an amalgam of soap opera and game show,
say General Hospital and The Price is Right, where
sad stories are the only sorts of stories worth telling, where consumer
knowledge is assessed and rewarded, where benevolent hosts select
from a pool of candidates to "come on down," and where
audiences vicariously participate in the tension and celebrate the
outcomebe it love in the afternoon or winning the grand showcase.
 For the particular makeover shows presently on the air, the
premise is simple: alteration equals entertainment. The sub-text
is more complicated, for the process makes clear that personal transformation
is the first and most necessary step in self-improvement and, thus,
to a sort of sublime American entitlement. Makeover shows celebrate
a teleology of progress, represented as empowerment, positive self-esteem,
and a winning personality, all purchased through the currency of
narrowly defined beauty. The genre also offers a version of novelty:
new beginnings that promise new stories, new sorts of passions no
longer undercut by shame. The promise of novelty seems a promise
of fascinationa body, a mode of presentation, a haircut that
will assure lasting interest. The disdain for "letting oneself
go" requires that makeovers be a constant "necessary thing."
Looks must be freshened, updated. Hair needs cutting. Spray-on
tans only last four days. Hair extensions, two months. Botox,
four months (if you're lucky). The commitment to continual makeovers
propels a necessary consumerism. In other words, buying into requires
buying. Adopting the makeover regime means committing oneself to
consistent and long-term purchases of style, beauty products and
cosmetic procedures. As if to demonstrate this very idea, ABC's
Extreme Makeover website offers physician referrals for people
considering plastic surgery, though ABC clarifies that web links
are not part of their official website (abc.go.com/primetime/extrememakeover/index.html).
It should be noted, however, that the rise of beauty as a consumable
commodity has historical links to women's increased purchasing power
and greater presence in the non-domestic marketplace after World
War II. Indeed, there is an intricate interconnection between consumption
and American womanhood stretching at least to the eighteenth century
and allowing for what Jane Gaines has called the "glimmer of
utopia" (Gaines 11, see also Haiken, Merish, Radner). As such,
the plethora of cosmetic options now available to both men and women
link directly to women's influence on the consumer market (and its
consequent skewing toward "women's" values), suggesting
that "buying into" is a polyvalent sign on a continuum
where lies both agency and subjugation.
 In addition to increased spending, makeover logic also requires
putting oneself firmly under an internalized monitoring gaze that
is diligent about reminding the body that it needs maintenance and
variety in its presentation (an interesting form of mind/body split
in itself). Because of this, there is a strain of compulsory normalcy
underscored through makeover programming that allows for no conscientious
(or lazy) objectors unwilling to expend money or energy in support
of appearance. Following this logic, Extreme Makeover reinforces
the very sorts of social stigma that seem to fuel the need for the
showthe pain of not fitting in, the judgment for being overweight,
malformed, or un-pretty. Here is the makeover ultimatum: if you
can change, you should; if you refuse to change, you deserve whatever
consequences come your way. In many ways, this attitude parallels
what Susan Bordo observes in the cultural policing of the slender
body. Speaking of obese persons who "claim" to be happy,
Bordo channels a societal voice that complains, "If the rest
of us are struggling to be acceptable and ‘normal,' we cannot allow
them to get away with it; they must be put in their place, be humiliated,
 On Extreme Makeover, where transformation is not just
about surfaces but about the body itself, social censure functions
as a way to legitimate the need for aesthetic surgery. In turn,
these pressuresmanifested in humiliation, self-consciousness,
self-loathingare held up as the necessary (and just) consequences
to resisting alteration. The reasoning creates a moralistic double-bind.
You'll feel bad if you don't and worse if you won't, all of which
you'll deserve. Capitulating to the body/beauty ideal stands as
the only form of relief from that ideal, suggesting, quite enigmatically,
that the way out of the maze is to go deeper into it. It's this
sort of puzzling logic that underscores Amy's statement starting
my essay. "Plain" Amy believes that finally achieving
a cultural standard of "glamorous" beauty offers her "herself,"
and thus the power to transcend the very standards that compelled
 At first consideration, her statement seems patently false,
or at best, oxymoronic. It doesn't make sense that one can establish
authority over hegemonic values by giving in to those values. Yet,
in a twentieth-century image-centered culture, such as ours, perhaps
no statement is more valid. From Walter Benjamin to Stuart Hall,
theorists note that the rise of imagistic technology has made the
twentieth centuryand now the twenty firstthe most visually
dominant epoch ever. Films, television, advertising and other mass-produced
imagesall contribute to the "empire of images" that
one must negotiate in making meaning and understanding identity.
But the empire of images also incorporates a degree of reflexivity,
particularly in relation to the body. So, as Kenneth Dutton puts
it, in our postmodern culture, the body not only carries the message,
it is the message (177). As media culture underscores the signifying
value of the body, it also allows for a dual-directionality between
agency and submissiveness, meaning that, as Virginia Blum notes,
those who "‘submit' to images are the selfsame subjects who
create them" (50). Does this mean that Amy's psychic pain
and sense of ugliness are self-produced fictions? Not at all.
It means that the delineation between consumption and production
does not adhere to a simple binarythat aesthetic ideologies
require subjects to both create values and feel controlled by their
own creations. This, in turn, gives rise to a set of "paradoxical
urges" for both freedom and domination, control and victimization,
urges not unlike the pairing of anxiety and desire offered by Extreme
The Skeleton: Extreme Makeover's Parts and Players
 To understand Extreme Makeover's deep structure, it's
helpful to get a sense of the strict formula it uses each week.
Though allowing some small variation for theme shows, each episode
works according to a 10-part scheme:
- Background on the participants
- "Surprise" announcement of selection
- Consultation with doctors and dentists in L.A.
- Medical work
- Recovery and (mandatory) homesickness
- Work out and styling (clothes, hair, and make-up)
- Drive to the "reveal," where the new look is unveiled
- Reveal, universal success, and uniform elation
- Before and after pictures, post-change interviews
- "If you want to be on Extreme Makeover"
The regularity of this pattern locks participants and viewers into
a common landscape, assuring a stability of both desire and potential
 Other certainties also prevail on this program. For instance,
all of the participants have experienced "severe" psychological
pain, which they attribute to their aesthetic "disfigurement,"
though none of the participants speak of abusive, addictive, or
criminal backgrounds. Most of the participants are women (roughly
75%), of these a large majority are white (81% are white, 14% are
black, and 5% are of Latina or Polynesian descent; of the men, 100%
are white). All participants speak of heterosexual desires, though
some say their "healthy" heterosexual impulses have stalled
due to their appearance. All of the plastic surgeons and dentists
are male, most are white (significantly, "doctors of color"
operate almost exclusively on what one doctor called "the ethnic
patients"). The only female physician is a dermatologist,
though there appears to be a woman psychotherapist, whose work is
seldom mentioned. The oldest participant is 56, the youngest 21,
the average age is 32.4. Participants come from all over the United
States, though there is a preponderance of small-town dwellers (from
places like Lebanon, Ohio or Wilson, Arkansas) over big-city residents.
 The end result of the makeover typically plays out according
to a Cinderella motif, with horse-drawn carriages and "enchanted"
reveal parties. The look for both men and women invariably conforms
to a narrow sense of celebrity-on-the-red-carpet beauty. For women,
this means figure-hugging dresses, high heels, dramatic make-up,
and elaborate hairstyles. For men, there is the polished GQ look,
a tan, and highlights in the hair. For both, there is a mandatory
"movie star" smile. This is not a show that would make
over a subject so that s/he could wear Birkenstocks and overallsor
for that matter, any sort of androgynous look. Particularly for
the women, the end result is high-glamour, intended to captivate
the gaze. It is also, and I say this with no small irony, a look
closely paralleling the drag queen in her over-determined signification
 Sometimes subjects have hair lips or cleft palates, other
times acne so angry that there are swollen eruptions on top of a
face already multiply scarred. Sometimes subjectsin this
case, entirely womenhave "lost" their good looks
through a life-time of being other-oriented, their pregnancies,
their care of husbands and children, their work-heavy burdens having
palpably written themselves on bodies that are flabby, falling,
and fattened. Just as often, "worthy" subjects are those
who have either been abandoned by heterosexual romance or look like
they might soon be expelled from the garden of marital delights.
So we see the bar waitress in Alaska whose lips are too malformed
for kissing, the overweight radio d.j. whose co-worker doesn't find
him sexy, the acne-scarred dancer, too embarrassed by her appearance
to date or audition. These people often get makeovers on the same
show as those troubled primarily by aesthetic considerations: the
woman who is mistaken for her husband's mother, the father who is
bothered because his two-year-old son laughs at his yellow and black
teeth, the widow who is too dejected by her looks to re-enter the
dating scene, or the nurse who is tired of "always looking
average." By pairing those with "legitimate" defects
and those with "aesthetic" flaws, the show effectively
collapses the difference between the twoif a cleft palate
merits surgery, so does a weak chin. The subjects are not selected,
then, according to their relative degree of "deformity,"
since all aesthetic anxieties signal crippling disability.
 This crippling displeasure with one's own looks functions
as a significant criterion for participation on the show. Extreme
Makeover's executive producer, Lou Gorfrain, also claims
the importance of the following:
- A great personality, a great story, and a not-so-great face
- The "right" desire for a makeover, rather than the
"wrong" one [as for instance, one motivated by revenge];
- The sort of makeover that would achieve a significant visual
impact [not, for instance, surgery for varicose veins, that might
be life-changing but not visually dramatic];
- A need for "not too much" plastic surgery. ("Making
Not expressed, but surely part of the selection process, are a
wide variety of tacit criteriano drug addictions, no sex change
operations, no nefarious criminal pasts or people seeking improved
images for public office. Equally, there are implied expectations:
the subjects must have suffered because of their looks, they must
be desperate for heterosexual romance, they must be grateful and
not bitter, enthusiastic not cynical. They must come fromand
go back toa loving and supportive group of family and/or friends.
(I'm still waiting for the episode when a participant gets to Hollywood
and refuses to go home.)
 Not surprisingly, the producers want "good story,"
and they are quite insistent that "good" not be synonymous
with "salacious." In fact, there is a vaguely nostalgic
version of traditional moralities on this show that is perhaps refreshing
in the postmodern miasma but also disconcertingly conservative.
Much like Disney (ABC's parent company), Extreme Makeover
dismisses or edits out "unpleasantness," from vanity as
a primary motivation to envy among family members who vicariously
experience the transformation, unless that resistance serves some
sort of narrative purpose. For example, when a participant's female
boss expresses concern about the risks of surgery, she is depicted
as both jealous and petty. The voiceover narrator calls her "extremely
negative," a rhetorical move that characterizes her as the
Evil Stepmother to the transforming Cinderella (2-4). In the "after"
segment of the show, the boss apologizes for her statements and
admits she was wrong. Here again, we see a version of plurality
(in this case resistance) completely excised in the name of self-improvement,
which apparently requires a unification of values. Extreme Makeover
is the happiest show on earthwith more tears of joy and hugs
of gratitude than any program since Queen for a Day. Just
like Queen for a Day, it is the suffering that makes these
 Indeed, Extreme Makeover is complicitous in their suffering,
asking participants to describe the pain they've experienced, inviting
the viewer to gaze and gawk at the pre-surgery body dressed only
in the standard-order beige bra and underwear seemingly provided
to all of the Extreme Makeover subjects (men wear white briefs
in their full-body before pictures). One woman noted about this
form of exposure, "I don't want my husband to see me like this,
and now I'm showing all of America" (2-15). Reliving the pain
inflicted on them by their bodies, complete with appropriate mood
music and a spectatorial male voiceover, seems one of the mandatory
links in the makeover chain. It's a modern-day Pilgrim's Progress
where worthy subjects must undergo humiliation and endure multiple
tests in order to arrive at a better place. Their suffering, coupled
with their desire to be better mothers, fathers and spouses, or
more committed participants in the marriage market, or more enthusiastic
pursuers of their own dreams, marks them as subject material whose
psychic pain can be seemingly neutralized.
 In a similar way, the show effaces difference in what the
subjects say about their transformations at the end of each episode.
To a person, each is grateful, enthusiastic, delighted. There is
a sense of recommitment to one's heteronormative engagements, a
feeling of new access to meritocracy. As one participant said,
"I feel as though nothing could stop me" ("Making
the Cut"). There is an interesting democratization in this
statement, a message of "come one, come all" that extends
beyond the boundaries of the program itself. When Extreme Makeover
participants extol "I can do anything I want to do" (2-14)
or "I pretty much can conquer whatever I want" (2-5) we
get the sense that all of uswith the aid of payment plans
and credit cardsare eligible for empowerment through plastic
surgery. And yet, on Extreme Makeover there is a homogenization
in this celebration, a sense of sameness that saturates each person's
story. The overall effect leaves one thinking that individuality
counts for less than regularity, a regularity brought about through
the rigid formal properties built into the show itself and now crafted
onto "beautiful" bodies.
 Pairing rigid (and primarily Western) norms of beauty with
the ideals of democracy also suggests that there will be no equal
treatment or opportunity until there is equal (pleasing) appearance.
This notionthat one must fit within the boundaries of the
"normal" before he or she can participate in democracycreates
a zero-sum game in our increasingly pluralized and globalized society.
Although it's evident that no matter how many people Extreme
Makeover churns through the surgery machine, it can never address
all of the "ugly" bodies in the world, there's another
irony here. The ideology posits normalcy as synonymous with beauty-by-the-numbers.
But, since it is clearly more normal to be "plain" than
to be statistically beautiful, we have to wonder just how desirable
actual normalcy is. In the arena of beauty, it seems, it may not
be so bad to be different from all others if that difference exists
on the "extreme" end of the beauty scale where psychological
pain apparently does not reside.
The Anesthetized Body: The Body and Pain
 Though the pain of psychological humiliation clearly figures
in the construction of Extreme Makeover's narrative, bodily
pain does not. There are brief televised moments depicting surgery,
and each episode contains a post-surgery shot of patients delirious
or bandaged, but these images are short in duration and overwhelmed
by the larger temporal field of the show. Indeed, time's manipulation
is a critical way of managing pain. In the show, we witness a collapsing
of the temporal, so that an eight or ten hour surgical procedure
becomes a two-minute video clip; similarly, a three-week recovery
takes place in five minutes or five seconds, depending on the editing.
As viewers of television texts, we are accustomed to this difference
between narrative time (in this case seven to eight weeks) and textual
time (44 – 48 minutes), but in the context of "reality"
TV, the glosses of time smooth out pain, anxiety, social discomfortagain,
the very forms of emotional distress that both signify "realness"
and motivate change in the first place. So time functions in this
reality show as a way of distorting realism. Time's depiction obscures
time's arc, in the process erasing the visual evidence of physical
pain even as voiceovers and personal narratives remind the viewer
of emotional torment. On one show, for example, a participant,
Anthony, overtaxed his body and passed out. In clips leading up
to a commercial break, the viewer sees him fall several times.
A "staff" doctor tells us that Anthony has "cheated"
on his program by exercising too much and eating too little (a too
extreme Extreme Makeover, apparently). Anthony is recovered in
all of 20 seconds and soon shown headed for lasik eye surgery.
In all, there is more narrative time devoted to the doctor's reprimand
of Tony than to his actual physical distress (2-16). The narrative
moment, then, depicts Anthony's desperation and the doctor's expertisein
this case, time and pain function as tools to emphasize anxiety
 This is a recurrent motif. On Extreme Makeover, time
and pain are ever present, yet easily managed through the powers
of plastic surgery. Though participants undergo major surgery and
so serious physical pain, it's only psychological pain that counts
as relevant. And even here, the promise is not that psychological
pain will be eliminated, but that it will be alleviated. The show's
underlying assurance is not of timelessness or painlessness but
of a better--meaning a less-troubled--experience of aging and pain.
Time still passes but it signifies differently on the body. The
same holds true for pain. The teasing, the sneers, the jokes may
give way to psychological disorientation and potential alienation
from friends, but this new pain is better than the old. As one
newspaper reporter phrased it, "the risk and pain of surgery
and months of healing were nothing compared to 31 years of self-loathing"
Dislocations: Fixing the Body
 One of Extreme Makeover's more subtle promises is that
it will not only alter the body's experience of time and pain, but
that it will stabilize the body, fix it in time and space, and thus
make it more reliable and less potentially disruptive. Gayatri Spivak
argues about body altering surgeries more broadly that such an idea
underscores a "strategic essentialism" that stabilizes
the performative (and threatening) possibilities of the body by
fixing them surgically. Extreme Makeover largely takes up
an opposite view, celebrating the idea that the good makeover is
the everlasting makeover. Though there are still shelf lives on
things like face lifts and Botox, it's hard for a backslider to
"undo" a nose job or a chin implant. There is a sort of
stability built into this makeover that both ups the ante and seems
to satisfy the objective of doing makeovers at allthe body
is fixed, no longer able to be transgressive or resistant. What
we see on this television program, then, are the very real ways
in which the "grotesque body," untamed by shame or surgery,
represents a threat to the prevailing social order. In this configuration,
ugliness becomes a social danger that validates forcible intervention.
The body's newly constructed "perfection," in turn signifies
the subject's symbolic obedience to hegemonic order. It's not by
accident that the under girding warrants for performing cosmetic
surgery on Extreme Makeover appeal collectively to traditional
values: women who look and act feminine, men who look and act masculine,
attractive men and women who want nothing more than to be in heterosexual
and monogamous romantic union with one another.
 But, of course, surgically altering the body's appearance
in no way changes the body's maddening resistance to being controlleda
point Extreme Makeover does not acknowledge. The body still
erupts, resists, and operates according to a set of codes (or no
codes at all) that are baffling and largely mysterious. Perfect
smiles and a pleasing slope to the nose don't prevent cancer; liposuction
does not eliminate the vicissitudes of menopause. Indeed, the heartfelt
hope that plastic surgery might indeed "fix" the body
indicates just how powerful our collective cultural anxieties about
the fluidity of the body actually are. In some ways, then, the
tacit promise to perform the impossible, to solidify the liquidity
of the body, reminds us of our anxieties more than it soothes them.
This anxiety, in turn, serves a powerful role in legitimating and
making the viewer desire beauty systems that promise a cessation
Skin Deep: A Matter of Surfaces
 It's critical given this emphasis on fixing the body that
the subjects on Extreme Makeover be presented as surfacestheirs
is an outside/in transformation, not an inside/out. Their interiority
comes from the sadness and lack of self-esteem that result from
emotional trauma. In some ways, this opens Extreme Makeover
to its easiest criticism: in focusing exclusively on appearance,
the show oversimplifies the subjects' problems so that those problems
can be solved with what the show has to offerexpertise in
altering appearance. But this relentless emphasis on surfaces also
effaces a whole spectrum of complexity. For instance, what about
the actual health of these subjects? Is there a systemic imbalance
in the body leading to its external "mis-shapen-ness"?
Equally, is there a chemical imbalance causing the subject's depression
and/or emotional trauma? The persistent attention to surfaces prevents
the possibility of both physiological and psychological interiority.
Indeed, though Extreme Makeover occasionally lists a psychologist,
Dr. Catherine R. Selden, in its credits, she has, thus far, only
once been depicted on screen.
 One interesting exception to this dismissal of the psychological
occurred in February 2004. In order for Extreme Makeover's
three overweight participants to be eligible for cosmetic surgery,
they had to "earn" itin this case, losing weight
and inches over a three-month period. Because significant weight
loss (for these subjects, between 20 and 50 pounds) requires longer
than the eight weeks allocated by the program, the episodes were
billed as a two-part makeover (perfect for February's rating sweeps).
For part two, enter Dr. Phil McGraw, first Oprah's and now seemingly
America's favorite psychologist. In his down-home Texas way, Dr.
Phil underscored the need to make attitude and life-style adjustments
in order to assure the success of weight loss. "You have to
change your thinking," he said. "You gotta go home and
clean your environment." The subjects themselves were
concerned with the very sorts of things one might imagine of a person
going through significant change. Anthony, one weight-loss participant,
asked, "How do I introduce myself into my life with my wife?"
Dr. Phil's response: "Deal with psychological problems psychologically"
 But what exactly does that mean? Hasn't this show relentlessly
told us to deal with psychological problems cosmetically? Indeed,
that our psychological problems stem from our aesthetic anxieties?
If the outside depends upon the inside, but the inside exists separate
from the outside, we are left with incompatible polarities. Further,
in terms of actual advice, it's not at all clear what Dr. Phil is
advocating. It is clear, however, that this discourse of inside
and outside works to underscore a desire for clear ontological separation
between outside and inside at the same time as it collapses the
difference between the two. In fact, Dr. Phil's appearance offers
less in terms of psychological interiority and more in its promise
that the inside and outside function "naturally" as separate
entities. "I work on the inside, Extreme Makeover
works on the outside," Dr. Phil says, as if to prove this point.
Anthony reverses Dr. Phil's model but reinforces the separation
of inside/outside, when he says, "What it's [the makeover]
done from the inside is far bigger than what it's done from the
outside." A different subject, La Paula, disallows this consequence,
but again points out the ontological difference between insides
and outsides, "I'm the same old La Paula. I haven't changed
on the inside" (Feb 26, 2004).
 In the midst of these stabilizing statements, there is a sense
of slipperiness, an intimation that it's impossible to be fully
sure where either the domain of inside or outside lies. The discursive
reinforcement of ontological separation heightens the sense that
their confusion is frightening. Similarly, the horror that accompanies
this threatened breakdown of distinctions, what Julia Kristeva has
termed the abject, leads in Extreme Makeover to a full-fledged
reliance on and preoccupation with images. In this case, the power
of appearance functions as the "realest" state of being,
thus making the image the most potent defense against boundary blurring
and, in effect, heightening the authority of the show itself. Yet,
as Baudrillard has theorized, in an age of simulation where images
are entirely referential, "reality is dead." What we
think of as real is merely a form of "residual nostalgia,"
particularly if that reality is linked to the image.
 It's no wonder, given this rather bleak pronouncement on the
"real," that the popularity of makeover programs, reality
television and surgical procedures should surge (and fuse) in a
form of conceptual backlash. Indeed, it could well be that beauty
offers the most direct link to that long-lost and idealized past
where the subject was whole and the body stable. Whether nostalgic
dream or attainable goal, beauty promises to arrest the deteriorating
and decaying body and to eliminate the wrinkles, fat, and sagging
flesh that signal the "abject." In so doing, beauty earns
the power to fix the hyperreality of the image and to restore realism.
What could be more appealing?
Celestial Bodies: A Star is Born
 In the context of this reliance on images, it's appropriate
that celebrity functions as a critical element of the Extreme
Makeover narrative. Indeed, unlike the models of Pygmalion
or My Fair Lady, where Eliza Doolittle's transformation from
a flower-monger to a "regular lady" suggests an investment
in (and anxiety about) class mobility, Extreme Makeover is
not interested in manners or pronunciation. Though class (as cued
by grammar, teeth problems, jobs, etc.) plays tacitly at the edges
of the Extreme Makeover narrative, it's not class itself
that either must be changed or that stands as the source of all
problems. The underlying crisis is one of beauty and the dire consequences
that befall those who do not possess it. The motivation is not
to become a lady (or gentleman) but to alter the signs of the body
so that it will be read as what the culture deems most beautiful,
a movie star. It's about glamour, not grammar.
 Episode after episode is saturated with this fantasy of attaining
movie star looks. "We gave her a beautiful, luscious natural
mouth," one doctor pronounces. "She came out looking
like a movie star" (2-14). La Paula says about her teeth,
"I'm looking forward to having a beautiful movie star smile"
(2-16). Belen exclaims at the end of her makeover, "I felt
like a movie star. I got the movie star treatment from my family"
(2-16). At the close of Tammy's reveal ceremony, her friends
cry out, "She looks like Britney Spears!" (2-14). The
voiceover narrator exclaims about one subject, "From suburban
not to Hollywood hot" (2-13). These statements clearly suggest
that surgical and stylistic procedures can catapult "normal"
people into the pantheon of celebrity. Indeed, the fascination
with movie star looks in itself functions as a legitimating devicesee,
the show seems to be saying, celebrities are the people we are most
interested in and who must be happiest. Indeed, perhaps to heighten
the sense that the participants are the actual celebrities of the
show, Extreme Makeover did away with its celebrity host,
Sissy Biggers, early in season one.
As Leo Braudy has suggested, much of everyday American life reinforces
that we should aspire to fame because "it is the best, perhaps
the only, way to be" (6). Looking famous implicitly
means living better. Never mind that media celebrities are more
firmly under the spectatorial gaze than any other figures in our
culture, as photos decrying this star's cellulited back side or
that star's scary skinniness clearly attest. The desire to be
a star is the 21st-century equivalent of a fairy tale.
 Not surprisingly, Cinderella runs a close second in terms
of makeover appeal. Female subjects constantly speak of "feeling
like a princess." Extreme Makeover often underscores
this association by chauffeuring subjects to their reveal parties
in horse-drawn carriages. Only a few male subjects have grasped
the figurative reigns of that carriage to drive themselvesin
one case John showed up at his reveal party in a Lamborghini, a
move much more in keeping with James Bond than with Prince Charming
(2-13). It may be one gesture toward gender inclusivity to privilege
movie stars over royalty, since celebrity surely incorporates masculine
fantasy and American upward-mobility
more than do fairy tales. Celebrity also functions as an implied
absolution of fault and error, which, as Braudy notes, restores
"integrity and wholeness" (7). The desire for autonomous
subjectivity, then, is intimately tied to a desire for the celebrity's
 Given this, it's somewhat ironic that there
has been an actual fame accorded to the subjects of Extreme Makeover
(as compared to the more expected fame accorded to participants
in other reality TV shows such as American Idol or The
Bachelor). The controversy of the show's premise as well as
the ubiquity of American popular culture has fostered conversations
from small-town Idaho to large cities, such as London and Sydney.
The fact that Extreme Makeover features real people undergoing
dramatic (and envied) change means that local papers and television
affiliates circulate the makeover stories as a way of generating
home-town interest. All of thisin addition to a surfeit of
reality television showshas helped increase "reality
celebrity." Stacey Hoffman's transformation
on Extreme Makeover, for instance, turned her from a thirty
one year old with "mousy hair, chubby cheeks, and a hook nose,"
who was overlooked by men, into a post-op reality celebrity, who
is "constantly accosted and asked for autographs" (Rowling).
A resident of Wahoo, Nebraska, Stacey's story was picked up and
celebrated by the Sunday Mirror of London. Other participants
on Extreme Makeover have been invited to tell their stories
(and display their altered bodies) on shows ranging from Oprah
to Primetime Live, from Good Morning America to CNN
and MSNBC. Women's World recently invited readers to give
themselves their own at-home extreme makeovers, using participants
in the show as models for "insider secrets" on how to
look "Younger! Prettier! Sexier!". An interesting consequence
of this form of celebrity is that the new and improved body requires
not only the memory but also the visual reminder of the pre-madeover
body. All "after" images require "before" images,
meaning that the Extreme
Makeover reality celebrity is famous only by virtue of that
earlier, uglier self. Reality celebrity, in this context, allows
for no emancipation from the former self at all but, instead, forges
a more intricate and complex tie to it than ever before
 "Reality celebrity" is in itself a bit of a conundrum.
If it's possible for "real" people to become celebrities,
doesn't this call into question the exclusivity implied by celebrity
in the first place? Don't we also have to ask if everyone can be
physically beautiful? Since ideals are constructed around the logic
of desiring what is statistically least possible, the more plastic
surgery brings beauty to the masses, the less beauty signifies as
privilege. As Blum puts it, "Once beauty becomes available
to everyone, from all classes, races and ethnicities, then it is
exploded as a site of privilege" (52). It seems, then, that
the process of turning average people into celebrated beauties takes
away the cachet of that beauty. As such, the very desire for movie
star appearance built into the show and the consequent celebrity
that befalls Extreme Makeover's subjects work against the
outcome it seeks. In order for beauty to mean anything, a good
many other people in the world have to be un-beautiful. In order
for celebrity to signify, the majority of people have to be unknown.
 Clearly, the four dozen people who have now gone through the
Extreme Makeover machine are not enough to topple the vast
disparity between haves and have nots, between the beautiful and
the plain, between the celebrated and the anonymous. Even normalizing
plastic surgery would not do this. The ideal (and rarity) of living
in a beautiful body is still perfectly intact. Equally intact,
however, is something that this prime time programming very much
influencesthe sense that we must be aware of and concerned
about appearance. Whether scrutinized for our freakish ugliness
or admired for our glamorous appearance, we are all objects of the
gaze, intensely self conscious that there are seeing eyes (or cameras)
on us at all time, even when those eyes are our own.
False Health: The Gendered Gateway to Personal Power
 Extreme Makeover justifies this spectatorial scrutiny
not by disallowing the gaze but by claiming a "better looking"
face and body enhance self-esteem, which, in turn, allows for personal
empowerment. By rectifying the distance between social ideals and
lived experience, Extreme Makeover proposes to make lives
happier and participants more powerful. It's an end that seems
completely valid, even revolutionary in some respects. Who doesn't
deserve to be happier? Why should biology determine beauty? Why
shouldn't the vestiges of class and circumstance that write themselves
on the body be not only overwritten but erased altogether? Why
should the powerless always remain without power?
 But there is a tickling question here. How is power imagined?
For power, being the nebulous thing that it is, quite often evades
easy quantification. Given this, how can one truly know if s/he
has more or less of it? Looking at what subjects note as profound
"after" differences offers one way of understanding more
fully what counts for them as power. As with Amy, a form of alteration
that strikes the subjects as significant is a new feeling of wholeness.
For example, Kim Rodriguez told Charles Gibson on Good Morning
America, "I always believed that I was a beautiful person
on the inside, and what I needed to do was have the appearance match
that. So now, I just feel complete. I feel like everyone else"
("Making the Cut"). Again, we see the articulation of
inside and outside positions that fuse together, overwritten by
a pervading sense of normalcy. Power, in this case, comes from
an experience of identity commensurate with what one assumes everyone
else possesses, an idea also expressed by Extreme Makeover
participant, Dana, who says, "When I look in the mirror, I
see a completely different person. I'm normal" (2-4). Coupled
with this sense of perceived normalcy is a belief that power comes
from achieving a "truer" version of oneself, which allows
for Amy's "I'm me now" statement, or a friend to say about
Benjamin, "He now looks like what he is" (2-14).
 Other statements suggest heterosexual attention counts as
the most significant new form of power. So, for instance, a woman
police detective who undergoes an extreme makeover tells Oprah that
a younger man had made a pass at her. "[A] young man came
up to me and hehe said . . . I had a lovely smile and would
I like to go to lunch? And I'm looking at him. And it'syou
know, the first thing I'm feeling is just stunned, disbelief"
("Inside Extreme Makeovers"). Extreme Makeover
recipient Tammy's new sexual power is underscored by comments from
friends who note how many men are looking at her (2-14). As if
to testify to this, on a different episode a man reflects off-camera
about Nellie's makeover, "There's a couple of guys who are
wondering what's going to happen next. I wish I never broke up with
her" (2-14). A London paper writes about the after effects
experienced by one Extreme Makeover participant: "Men
stare, and those who once dismissed the old Stacey are suddenly
apologetic . . . she has her pick of prospective boyfriends. Her
current beau is Billy, a dark-haired, long-lashed firemanbut
his friend Jason is also circling" (Rowling). Though not always
with such potent shark imagery, these are repeated and insistent
refrainsthe pay-off to changing yourself is possessing a coherent
identity and attracting an appreciative gaze (particularly for women).
 Through a sort of trickle-down theory of empowerment, these
two dividends of the makeover also yield greater competence and
agency in the world, localized primarily at the site of gender.
Accordingly, being looked at in an appreciative or sexualized way
affirms a woman and, in turn, allows her to be a more confident
(and more traditionally feminine) wife or mother. In her increased
confidence, she is able to assert herself more, get more done, stop
hiding herself, and, rather tautologically, attract more positive
and sexualized attention. Extreme Makeover announces that
it might not only be easier but more politically advantageous to
"join" them rather than "beat" them, to be looked
at appreciatively rather than critically.
 Such a construct implies a rather paradoxical notion that
being the object of the gaze can allow one power over the gazing.
This idea subverts classic gaze theory because it suggests that
objectification yields agency and, thus, subject status. The sort
of gazing done on Extreme Makeover, as a result, is both
resolutely conservative and potentially disruptive. Extreme
Makeover uses the gaze to discipline the gazer, a rather classical
configuration that posits looking as male, meaning that the women
on the program (and the viewers at home) enact a masculinized gaze.
But the program also allows for multiple viewing positions and highly
complicated notions of looker and looked-at, thus opening up new
spaces for spectatorial surveillance and pleasure. (For more extensive
conversations on gaze theory and scopophilia, see Mulvey, Doane,
 But even given the complicated gazing on this show, notice
how a woman achieves subjectivityby increasing her claim to
a popularized magazine-issue form of beauty. In this case, beauty
functions as a form of necessary female currency. Through a system
of equivalencies, beauty enables the woman to "purchase"
other valued objectivesgood mothering, sexual attention, an
abstract kind of happiness, and even her womanhood. As one makeover
recipient told Oprah, "I feel like a woman. I feel feminine.
It's nice" ("Inside Extreme Makeovers"). Expanding
what makes the woman beautiful, then, ostensibly expands her base
of power. But again, we see that the terms for that power have
not altered. A woman's power is here constructed through a very
narrow sense of beauty that is unwrinkled, symmetrical and eternally
youthful. The post-menopausal "old crone" is pushed even
further into the abject, becoming not just powerless but horrifying.
 While it makes perfect sense from the point of view of patriarchal
values, then, that female power would be constructed in terms of
beauty, how does it work for men? Does the fact that men feel anxieties
about their appearance announce the possibility of difference?
Perhaps. It is true that both Extreme Makeover and media
culture at large put men under a spectatorial gaze, a logic that
presumes their objectification. But we must be careful about assuming
a true parity. Though there are ways in which men are feminized
by fat and anxieties about appearance, particularly on Extreme
Makeover, passive and feminized images of men can sometimes
underscore patriarchal values rather than recast them. Along this
line, Abigail Solomon-Godeau argues that narratives depicting the
idealized male body serve to instantiate a fascination in maleness
and masculinity. Rather than upsetting the structures of the patriarchy
by destabilizing the gaze, she suggests, looking at the male body
allows for a "cultural fantasy in which the feminine can be
conjured away altogether" (73). It may be, then, that by including
male bodies in the makeover machine, we see an underscoring of patriarchal
systems that can be damaging to both men and women.
 Yet, even taking into consideration how Extreme Makeover
manipulates gendered desires in order to promise improved personal
power, it's impossible to dismiss the real consequences of aesthetic
alteration, for both men and women, nor do I particularly want to.
It's evident that one holds more authority within hegemony when
one concurs with it. Good looks, and here I'm defining "good"
as those in alignment with pervading beauty ideals, undoubtedly
lessen social criticism. Indeed, if we are willing to grant a fat/ugliness
oppression, doesn't it make sense to imagine a thin/beauty empowerment?
Feminist critics, myself included, would be quick to point out the
logical fallacy here. This sort of binaried pairingfat, ugly
and resistant on one side and thin, beautiful and obedient on the
othernecessarily organizes our thoughts in terms of conceptual
opposites. If we move away from one position on the binarythe
ostracized outsider who feels victimized by social censurethe
only position allowed for is the perceived oppositethe beautiful
insider who feels empowered by social approval. Both of these binaried
positions are pre-established by a patriarchal logic; both positions
underscore sameness, neither possesses defining power. The privilege
conferred by aligning oneself with hegemonic values, then, is contingent
on and subordinate to the power granting authority. So Amy and
Tammy and Nellie and John may gain more agency and confidence, but
not enough to remove themselves from the social network entirely
as Amy speculates. Indeed, it's doubtful Amy would exempt herself
from the social system even if she could, since her new-found currency
is intimately tied to the overarching values of that system.
 We begin to see, then, that the empowerment one might achieve
through a radical makeover is complicated and problematic. Though
Sander Gilman argues, "the belief we can change our appearance
is liberating," I'm more inclined to think that changing our
appearance makes us believe we've been liberated (3). I wouldn't
go so far as to say this is a matter of false consciousness, however.
There is certainly more cultural cachet in being perceived as beautiful,
more privilege in upholding hegemony than in resisting it. The
participants in this show seem sincerely joyful, and it is true
that changing the body alleviates psychic anxieties. Further, if
my viewing practices are in any way indicative of the larger cultural
audience, there is something deeply recognizable about the pain
and relief each participant expresses, for I am touched each week
by the profoundly different sense of body and self brought about
during the extreme makeovers.
 I believe the problem rests in thinking in power terms at
all. Interrogating makeovers at the site of power is one way to
continually underscore hegemonic values because the analysis necessarily
ratifies the language of those values. It strikes me as less conclusive
to search out the ending of what the post-makeover body brings than
to examine the competing and contradictory logics at play in bringing
this body into being. My argument more broadly suggests that identifying
modalities of power may be a conceptual red herring that distracts
us from examining the ways in which our embodiment offers critical
information about the particularities of desire and anxiety.
A Method in the (Makeover) Madness
 By tapping into the zeitgeist of anxieties about the body
out of control and the contradictory desire to be both "famous"
and "normal," ABC has created a text rich in theoretical
complexity. In its narrative of psychic pain, physical transformation
and happily-ever-after endings, Extreme Makeover offers a
variation and repetition on a favorite story that's one-part fairy
tale and one-part American dream. Instead of Cinderella wishing
for her Prince Charming and having a fairy godmother come to the
rescue, we see an "average" person wishing for the beautiful/celebrity
body aided in the process by a well-meaning plastic surgeon. Instead
of the exiled immigrant coming to America to partake in the great
promise of democracy, we see ostracized ugliness brought into meritocracy
through glamour. Unchanged between fairy tale, myth, and prime
time is the degree to which narrative functions as a controlling
device to monitor our desires through fantasies of self-improvement
and cautionary tales that evoke anxiety. Also unchanged is the
way in which wish-granting narratives are critically about the business
of shaping what we should desire in the first place.
 Beauty, we are told, is the salve for all wounds, and beauty
promises the ultimate rewardattention. This world where "everyone
must look at [me] and nothing else" seems to signify the culmination
of fantasy, the ultimate monomaniacal form of power where the body
is fully validated by the fascination it commands (Miller). Indeed,
we can see this promise uttered through the system of equivalencies
Extreme Makeover poses: beauty is health, beauty is confidence,
beauty is happiness, beauty is romantic love, beauty is stability,
beauty is prosperity, beauty is democracy. In the way of the most
powerful and cunning of cultural texts, Extreme Makeover
offers what cultural narratives have long made us believe in and
desirecoherence, acceptance, self-improvement, and equality.
All of this, it suggests, can be purchased through the currency
 Though the end result seems to bring participants some measure
of these rewards, there is an insistent reminder that the very achievement
of the ideal diminishes its cachet. Consequently, while Extreme
Makeover seems to announce democratic free access, it
also privileges exclusivity since beauty stands as the gatekeeper
to the domain of our desires. Given its symbolic weight, it's no
wonder that our sense of appearance can so rattle our individual
and collective psyches. Indeed, I would argue that this psychological
un-ease might be the largest defining goal of not only Extreme
Makeover but of the television makeover genre more broadly.
For in the land of makeover shows, whether "before" or
"after," one refrain rises above all othersself-improvement
(understood almost ubiquitously as attaining a narrow form of physical
beauty) requires a speedball mixture of desire and anxiety.
 Some might argue that who authorizes and performs change is
less significant than the fact that change happens at all. Perhaps
by celebrating plasticity through its narrative of transformation,
Extreme Makeover signals the disappearance of a unitary
subject and the appearance of a radical new subjectivity that is
fragmented, fluid, and flexible. If so, couldn't this shift be
a cause for celebration in the way it breaks down boundaries, denying
phallogocentric dualisms and allowing for a sort of difference
and gender performativity? At some levels, I'd argue yes, though
theories of difference and performativity require plasticity,
a malleability that highlights multiple change. On Extreme Makeover
corporeal transformation is not one of several options that can
be taken up and experimented with at willas a form of drag
or performance. Instead, changing the body functions as a complete
and coherent identity in itself that radically (and permanently)
overwrites the fractured and ugly body.
 So, though Extreme Makeover offers a sort of difference,
it does not endorse difference. Instead, it endorses a form
of change that will allow the subject to embody social expectations.
Ostensibly, these expectations relate only to beauty, but beauty
here functions in indexical relationship to other social norms,
from gendered behavior to discourses of authority. In all, Extreme
Makeover reifies sameness. This economy of sameness, which
comes under the banner of new-found personal power, shuts down possibilities
for subversive forms of play and performativity.
 Cultural anthropologists have argued that anxieties about
policing bodily excesses are most prevalent in cultures where external
boundaries are under attack (see in particular Mary Douglas's Natural
Symbols and Purity and Danger). We can see this, quite
specifically, in recent U.S. anxieties over terrorism, punctuated
by the attacks on September 11, 2001. Extreme Makeover debuted
in December 2002, and in many ways our collective emotional investment
in the show could be read as a larger hope of enforcing boundaries,
in effect regulating the social body's pluralism by imposing uniformity
on the individual body. Ultimately, however, I would argue that
the contentious state of the world is less at issue for Extreme
Makeover than is a deeper investment in our collective desire
and anxiety. In many ways, this form of boundary policing is not
about a culture under siege but a culture believing itself
under siege. The belief that we are threatened legitimates fear.
Fear and panic, in turn, authorize anxiety. Anxiety, in turn, underscores
desires for wholeness/perfection/beauty. Beauty, in turn, is elusive.
When this elusive beauty becomes the only talisman to ward away
anxiety, it's evident that anxiety increases. The dialectic is
endlessone seeking out the other, the other always deferred.
By keeping us firmly transfixed in the cycling of anxiety and desire,
a cultural text like Extreme Makeover perpetuates the puzzling
logic that authorizes its very existence, making it impossible for
us to seek out, much less imagine other possibilities for life,
for love, for "wholeness." This economy of sameness is,
perhaps, the most extreme, and the most dangerous, consequence of
Many thanks to the colleagues, friends and students who helped
in the development of this essay, particularly by sharing their
own stories about body image and its attendant anxieties. Special
thanks to the anonymous reviewers, Ann Kibbey, Karen Tice, and,
as always, Greg Waller, for careful readings and helpful suggestions.
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BRENDA R. WEBER is an assistant professor of Gender Studies
and adjunct assistant professor of English at Indiana University.
Her areas of interest include cultural history of the nineteenth
century in Britain and the United States, the politics of representation
and celebrity, womens and gender studies, and studies of the
body and its representation. Her present book project is Figuring
Fame: The Woman Writer, the Body, and the Transatlantic Production
of Literary Celebrity.