“The Swan” Is Truly Ugly

I watched the television as they showed young Kristy, proud in her soldier’s uniform, the wind in her hair and the sky in the background. She looked strong, proud, and beautiful. Another shot showed her in her uniform doing pushups – a striking image of a strong woman.

But these was her “before” photos; her “ugly” photos.

Kristy was a contestant on “The Swan”, one of the latest “extreme makeover” reality programs. I heard a radio ad for the Fox program while driving my car. The idea is this: they take several “ugly ducklings,” and perform radical plastic surgery on them. As they recover from the surgery, they are not allowed to look in a mirror. Months later, they are “presented” to the panel and see themselves for the first time. At the end of the series, they all participate in a beauty contest where one is crowned “The Swan.”

I almost drove off the road.

My wife Lucinda and I watched the show later that week. Each week, producers find two women who feel bad about the way they look, then present them before a panel of plastic surgeons, oral surgeons, dieticians, etc. Kristy was told (not asked) by one of the plastic surgeons that she “needed to be feminized…we’re going to feminize her.” He told her she needed bigger breasts, a “six-pack” stomach, and so on. Her nose needed to be “refined.” Like a Renaissance sculptor, he drew on her body with markers, jiggled the parts that had “too much” fat, all the while looking pleased with himself. “She has a really nice basic body shape,” he tells the camera, “it just needs to have the fat scraped away.”

In a scene that reminded me of the film, “The Matrix”, a photo of her naked except for her underwear is rotated on the screen – an “idealized” female body next to it. A computerized target moves to different parts of her body, zeroing in on “problem” areas as the body is on display. The body is rotated by the computer like a slab of meat on a spit, and the target zooms in on body part after body part, examining in detail what is “wrong” and how the surgery will change it. Even Kristy’s brain is not exempt – the target zooms in on this body part last. What’s wrong with her head is that she has low self-esteem – the cure will be some therapy while she recovers from surgery.

Now in Lucinda’s and my opinion, Kristy was actually very pretty and a good person – she just felt bad about herself. She cried about not wanting to go to a party because she felt embarrassed about how she looked. Of course she has low self-esteem – not by some inherent defect, but by society’s unreasonable definition of female beauty. Lucinda pointed out that if this attractive woman on television feels bad about the way she looks, how will female viewers feel who think Kristy is better looking than they are? How will boyfriends and husbands feel who think their partner isn’t as attractive as Kristy?

The allure of shows like “The Swan” is that these women are so grateful afterwards. These women have a genuine loathing for how they look – their experience when they view themselves for the first time after the scars have healed brought me to tears, as it did them. They thanked the plastic surgeons, as two of the male surgeons high-fived each other, proud of their accomplishment. The host, friends and family heaped praise on these new “Swans,” telling them over and over that they were beautiful.

Public speaker Jean Kilbourne examines the media’s depiction of women in advertising. Kilbourne states that while these objectified images do not in themselves cause violence against women, they create a climate in which such violence is tolerated. “Violence is inevitable,” says Kilbourne in her video “Killing Us Softly 3”, “when you turn a human being into a thing.”

Not surprisingly, the advertisements for this program included weight loss products and dishwashing detergent. But the whole show serves as one big advertisement for the idealized female body. The product they are selling is self-esteem in a can – the price, a world where young girls feel bad about their body if it doesn’t match the flawless ideal.

As a person who works with victims of domestic violence, I concur with Kilbourne’s assessment. Most victims I’ve talked with experienced dehumanization as a part of their abuse – they were belittled, called names, and denied their freedom. Sometimes these women had wonderful self-esteem – by the time they had been with their abuser for a year or so, it was eroded. They didn’t leave partly out of fear, but partly because they believed what they were told: that no one else would want them because they were “stupid,” a “bad mother” – and “ugly.”

Who you are should be determined by what’s inside, not outside. I want the next “reality show” to be about having an “emotional makeover.” Each week, producers would take a woman who feels badly about herself, looks or otherwise. They’d pay for her friends and family to fly in and lavish her with praise – like the surgeons did to the Swans, but without the painful and expensive surgery. They’d tell her she’s beautiful and smart, point out her accomplishments in her life and remind her how she’s made a difference.

Instead of the tens of thousands spent on surgery, the show’s producers would pay her car payment and her bills for several months, clean and paint her house the color she wants. And at the end, all the women would meet each other and instead of competing, would praise each other’s inherent beauty, intelligence and power.

“The Swan” contestants are prevented from looking in the mirror for months as they recover from surgery. We as a culture should be forced to. What kind of messages are we sending to girls when we support this show and it’s advertisers? What messages are we sending as men when we praise the girls and women in our lives only for how they look, and only when they look thin? What message does it send to Kristy if we clap along with the audience at the end, when we know she has been beautiful all along?

It’s our culture that needs an “extreme makeover,” not women like Kristy.


Ben Atherton-Zeman is a spokesperson for the National Organization for Men Against Sexism, www.nomas.org. He can be reached at benazeman[at]hotmail.com. This article was first published in the Metrowest Daily News, Framingham, MA, USA, in May 2004.