Lipstick on a Pig

My three-year-old daughter is fascinated by princesses and lipstick. I had an unfortunate outburst once when she got into some cherry lip balm and she now has the word 'hooker' in her vocabulary. I'm not entirely remorseful about this because she knows it's not a term of praise, and it's associated with lots of makeup (actually, with any amount of lipstick - that is occasionally a problem). Negotiating the line between pretty and sexy and crass with her is a part of parenting I'm dreading but already rolling up my sleeves for. Then I saw something on TV last night that reminded me of how complicated the whole issue gets.

I watched Extrem Schรถn, the German version of Extreme Makeover. It's unsurprisingly nowhere near as extreme as the American version, but something about this episode crystallised for me what it is that makes me so uncomfortable about the format.

Two women were profiled, both with excess belly skin after 5 pregnancies each, and both with flagging marriages and self-esteem. Contestant A was distraught, in her 40s, had recently lost nearly 30kg, and was so disgusted by her own body that she withdrew from her husband. He couldn't understand her problem - her body works, what's the issue? - so they drifted further apart. The point being that she had made positive changes that had negative consequences and seated her unhappiness firmly in her own perception of her body. Contestant B was 26 and had had 5 children in 10 years. During her most recent pregnancy, two of her teeth spontaneously fell out within the span of two weeks; she blamed this on calcium depletion, and was terribly self-conscious about not only the look of it but the audible lisp it gave her. She was pale and withdrawn. She'd been married for two years to a man who no longer looked at her. She didn't wish for self-confidence, let alone pursue it, but only to have his gaze back. Tellingly, Contestant B requested breast implants whereas Contestant A "only" requested a bust lift.

So I'm already not happy about the show taking Contestant B on based on her psychological state: "if only my fairy godmother would make me beautiful, my Prince Charming will find me attractive which will make him love me and I'll live happily ever after". THIS is what makes me twitch about little girls' princess obsessions. This is not the life ambition I want for any girl.

And the narrator keeps talking about the toll pregnancy has taken on their bodies, the traces it has left, as if the body of a mature woman doing what it was built to do was somehow inherently disfigured for not being the body of a teenager.

But the real crux for me seemed to have shifted from my feminist roots to a health-based perspective, until I realised they were synonymous.

Actual still from the show
Contestant B showed her missing teeth to the camera. Beyond her pale and puffy face (already a tip-off that she's not in the peak of health) lay a dentist's horror. Advanced gingivitis (why wasn't this picked up during one of her many recent pregnancies? It's a known risk factor for miscarriage) and tooth decay, set in the grey pastiness of a smoker's mouth.

Now I'm asking the television why the producers took on Contestant B with that kind of underlying health state. How can it be ethical to operate on someone who clearly has a systemic infection, probably nutritional deficiencies - I'm tipping for anemia at a minimum - and (based on the dark circles under her sunken eyes and the swollen moon face) liver insufficiency? In the short term, what are her risks in recovery? In the longer term, what's the point of patching up the outside when the inside is rotten?

Allow me to be crystal clear here: I do not know this woman and I am in no way judging her as a person. She is clearly in a health hole, and I am asking how a new coat of paint is going to fix a leaking foundation.

Right, welcome to TV for the masses. Get over it. Except that it reveals a cultural truth: beauty really is skin deep these days.

I'm not a cranky grandma making wild claims about better values in the old days, I'm talking about biological imperative. The things we find attractive in a mate are signs of health and fertility. Sticking to women for now, observe: long, shiny hair and nails; full red lips; white around the iris of the eye; smooth skin; full breasts and the waist to hip ratio most favoured by males - these are all signs that the body is in full reproductive working order. Even the preferred leg to torso length ratio is known, and it is only possible in females just past puberty. The theory is that this is because that was the only opportunity for a male to be sure his sperm had no (or minimal) competition in her genes race.

This is why it creeps me out to see children with painted nails or lips, or in high heels: because they are unknowingly mimicking the signals of sexual availability. Makeup is about highlighting not only our female features (no one is applying paint to emphasise the diminuitive size of their hands) but those that show we're young, ripe and healthy. That's why deeply pigmented makeup often looks wrong on older women. It's why it's so hard to successfully make up a cancer patient.

Contestant A's experience of seeing her dream through despite her husband's wishes taught her something about her own strength and self worth. She pursued procedures that put her physical reality back in line with her own age-appropriate self-perception. That may be the best justification for plastic surgery that there is. Contestant B went through a lot of pain, risk and invasion of privacy for an elaborate trial of faking it 'til she makes it, leaving no room for the real - health, self, intimacy - in her drive for a fairy tale.

And that's what bothered me so much about Contestant B and the producers' willingness to have her on their show: they are perpetuating the myth that putting lipstick on a pig* makes it a princess, and that's a myth I have to fight against in raising my daughter. They were absolutely right to get that woman to a highly-trained dentist, but did they talk to her about how her lifestyle choices had contributed to her degraded appearance? Did they point out that changing her diet and quitting smoking and most likely drinking would be only the first steps in getting her physical house in order before any thought of new curtains and carpet was warranted? Did they suggest that a bikini body can't replace marriage counselling? I don't know. That doesn't make good TV, but it does make good sense.

*Again, I am not calling this woman a pig! As Wikipedia says, it is "a rhetorical expression, used to convey the message that making superficial or cosmetic changes is a futile attempt to disguise the true nature of a product". 

Update 6.2.13: Peggy Emch has posted about the evolutionary underpinnings of beauty as well.


  1. I just love this post. Especially the part about the leaky foundation. Spot on.

    Remember the show here that used to be called The Swan...ugly duck to beautiful swan. It's was awful. Not awful is how the show was produced, but the cure for sadness and loneliness with surgery instead of whole health considerations.

    Pretty funny about the new addition to her English vocabulary with your reaction. Classic!

    1. There is the possibility that fixing the leaking foundation would have health, happiness and thus eventually companionship effects, but it's of course not possible within a half-hour show format so we keep selling women this bill of goods to sell commercial time. I want to know what the 12-month follow-up interviews with the madeover women would look like.

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  3. It amuses me hearing how you have no regrets teaching your daughter the word "hooker". I agree with the biological need and desire to appear more sexually attractive, but it's sad that people judge others, and worse, themselves, based on how they look on the outside. To me, confidence is about so much more than that. I personally don't wear makeup at all even when I go out. It just isn't as much a social culture where I grew up, so I never saw the urgent need to. That said, it's pretty impossible to not be concerned about your appearance, it's just where we draw the line!

    1. Well, I'm not *thrilled* that she knows that word (or a few other choice selections she manages to remember even when she still regularly forgets - oh - her last name) but she'll learn it someday and at least this way we can start to talk about the power of words and how we choose and use them.
      Outward appearance and inner value is an important distinction, and certainly health and value are unrelated to each other, yet all these things get mixed up until we're putting the cart before the horse and driving ourselves further into a hole that no amount of lipstick can cure.

  4. First... I love your writing.
    Second... This post is completely related to what I posted today. The relationship between beauty and reproduction... except, not because the show I saw on tv about this was really about getting treated poorly when you are shopping if you are fat. Yet, somehow, it is ALL related. (Although you would never know it from this comment."
    Third... Today while I filled my van up with gas my kids held hands in the back seat (awwww) and made up a song together that included the lyrics, "It's stupid, it sucks, get out of town."

    1. I read this first thing in the morning with tea in my hand, and laughed so hard about that song that I had to hold in my baby bump. Thanks! I'll hop over and read your post as soon as I get my crackers out of the oven (no, that's not a metaphor).

  5. Brilliant, Lauren. You should send this off to the producer. Wouldn't it be amazing to see real makeovers on TV. They could do it too if they wanted to. Each contestant does a health make-over and comes back to show off six months later. Tell 'em I'll be the coach! haha.