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What Not to Wear: Blossom faces the 360 Mirror

Posted on Sunday, May 31st, 2009 at 12:13 am

Author: Renee Martin

Mayim Bialik is the former child star of the 80’s show “Blossom.” Mayim was often the most sensible and mature character portrayed on that sitcom. At the time that “Blossom” was on the air, Bialik stood out in that she was not what society deems to be classically beautiful and was not overly fixated on her appearance or boys.

When “Blossom” ended, Bialik did not become another child star disaster. She pursued an undergraduate degree in neuroscience, Hebrew and Jewish Studies at UCLA. When we consider the fact that so many child stars like Corey Haim and Todd Bridges end up with either serious addiction problems or legal issues, the fact that Mayim was able to avoid the traditional traps paints a picture of a woman who is true to herself and does not base her self-esteem on the opinions of others.

Today she is the mother of two and has a PhD in neuroscience, and yet when Clinton Kelly from TLC’s What Not To Wear had to sum her up, she was reduced to “all quirk and no cute.” In the eyes of Stacey London and Clinton Kelley, she had totally “let herself go” because her priorities have been education and raising her family. In a world in which appearance is deemed most important for women, Mayim’s achievements are devalued.

Though What Not to Wear has had male participants, I have yet to see a male neuroscientist or professional told that his fashion choices would negatively impact his career. Fathers are never told to be conscious of their appearance when they wear an old pair of jeans or a t-shirt that has seen better days to play at the park with their kids, and yet a mother whose shoes do not match her purse has apparently stopped caring about herself. Nothing sexist about the disparity in the commentary at all, is there?

As Mayim roamed from fitting room to fitting room, her biggest concern was that she was not going to “feel like herself,” whereas Clinton felt that it was far more imperative for her “to find something figure friendly”. If clothing is supposed to be a reflection of who we are and functional for the lives that we lead, why were Mayim’s concerns so easily cast aside? Oops! Silly me, “real women” are meant to spend their lives attempting to be pretty as a peach and any diversion is an abdication of duty. If her appearance is not about pleasing herself, clearly it is to satisfy the male gaze

To complete the transformation, each new person on the show is given a haircut and makeup tips from Carmindy. According to Clinton, the tips that Mayim received from their resident makeup artist would “give this hippy mom a natural look.” How is applying makeup to your face more natural than the way that you look without it? It implies that there is something wrong with her, no matter what her comfort level with her appearance may be. This is exactly the tactic that the beauty industry uses against women, guilting us into spending our hard-earned money on products that make wild claims and yet produce little to no results.

After spending two days shopping to find more appropriate clothing, what would any makeover show be without the big reveal? Clinton declared we spent “one week transforming a baffled and confused Blossom into a fresh bouquet.”  Unfortunately, Bialik’s previous accomplishments appeared cast aside. It seemed as though her biggest claim to fame should be that she stood in front of their famous 360 degree mirror and allowed herself to be shamed into admitting that she did not conform to artificial appearance standards, that she was not a good, subservient capitalist.

“Now you have presence; before not so much. It says, I’m hot, look at me”, declared Clinton as he marvelled on his supposedly transformative work.  From the moment a little girl is born, this is the message that is continually reified. Femininity is only understood in terms of how our bodies can be appealing to males.

What Not to Wear is one of the hottest shows on TLC. Week after week, women submit to shaming because they are not appropriately performing femininity. The dreaded 360 mirror is used to ensure that every supposed fault is magnified and duly acknowledged as an abdication of the roles that we are born to play.

While it is completely understandable that some women focus more on appearance than others, publicly shaming the ones that refuse to keep up is nothing more than a genderized assault. From start to finish, the basis of this show is conformity. At a time when women are taking on more responsibilities it is decidedly anti-woman.

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  1. I’ve only watched part of a couple of episodes of this show, but that was enough to make me hate it forever. The hosts are so MEAN and so dismissive of anyone who dares to have their own opinion about their own clothes. I’ve had daydreams of going on that show and staying firm on my clothing choices, but I’m sure that will never happen because my friends all know better than to nominate me.

    I’m happy to see what Bialik has accomplished – I enjoyed her show, and after it ended I’m glad she accomplished something she wanted to do and appeared to be happy. I wish she had never agreed to be on this show.

  2. I hate What Not To Wear. It should be renamed “What Not To Watch”. Hideous show promoting hideous stereotypes, hosted by people that are fake and shallow. Gag.

  3. I’ve always hated how they take women’s unique looks and force them to wear what Stacy feels is appropriate. I mean, come on, look at the gross pointy shoes she wears…

  4. “While it is completely understandable that some women focus more on appearance than others, publicly shaming the ones that refuse to keep up is nothing more than a genderized assault.”

    What a great summary. Thanks for your commentary.

    I’ve watched the show a few times out of a kind of morbid curiosity and it’s just unbelievably bad. The women who get picked for the show seem to get bullied into doing things they don’t want to do but end up feeling grateful and happy afterwards.

    In one episode the male host actually said something like, “That’s meant for someone who has a penis!” about an item in a woman’s closet that was identified as men’s clothing. Talk about you rigid gender roles…

    I’d love to see a TV show that celebrated all the women who were nominated by friends and family as a candidate for “What Not To Wear” but who said “No!” when they were surprised by the hosts. There must be at least a few women who said No, right?

  5. “Now you have presence; before not so much. It says, I’m hot, look at me”, declared Clinton as he marvelled on his supposedly transformative work.

    Well, what could be more important in a neuroscientist? I know that whenever I want to see what’s up in brain research, I look for journal articles written by the cutest scientists.

  6. I used to feel similarly about What Not to Wear, that the hosts were so mean and shallow that it wasn’t worth watching. But over time, and a number of episodes, I’ve come to change my tune. After the initial “accosting”, the women do have a choice of whether to go on the show or not. I bet there’s a number of women who pass on the national publicity but choose to update their look on their own–and feel better about themselves for doing so!

    This last part, for me, is the kicker. For many women–and I would guess the vast majority–”letting ourselves go”, wearing unflattering or outdated clothing, is actually a sign of low-self-esteem, sometimes depression (not necessarily clinical), or excessive self-criticism (many of us–and the women on the show–think our bodies are worse than they actually are).

    When a person, and perhaps especially a woman, feels like she looks her best, then she feels more powerful, she has a little more bounce in her step, and that’s a wonderful thing. At the end of that show, many of the women talk about feeling better not just about their looks but about their whole selves, about this being a turning point.

    And as for Stacey & Clinton’s “mean” behavior as they go about it–it used to turn me off, and sometimes still does, but now I see how so many of these women are so entrenched in their self-defeating ways that they kindof need that, and they’re ultimately grateful for it.

    I saw the Mayim episode, and she was laughing, and grateful that someone stepped up and said, OK, time to put yourself a little higher on your own list of priorities, girl. And they’re right: why shouldn’t she be a hot mama neuroscientist? Why shouldn’t she have a wardrobe that empowers her instead of hiding her like a burqua? Why should she have to replace her own beauty and sexuality with brains and mommyhood–why not have it all?

    in closing, a funny video (also in “website” section above):
    http://www.hulu.com/watch/10333/saturday-night-live-mom-jeans

  7. I have to agree with deirdre a bit, in that a lot of the WNTW shows I’ve seen encourage moms not to push themselves to the bottom of their list of priorities because they’ve got a man and kids.

  8. I agreee with the previous poster. More often than not, when we women dress sloppily in ill-fitting, mismatched clothing its because of our insecurities. We are hiding due fear of our bodies (be they wieght issues or the thought that we are not pretty enough to dress nicely), or we are in a bad place in our lives emotionally, or we care about ourselves least on our list priorities. None of which are very empowering viewpoints.

    Making ourselves “pretty,” whatever our own personal definititions of that may be, is an expression of pride in ourselves as women, and as individuals. Showing pride in our accomplishments, intellect, and physical appearance, what’s more empowering than that?

    Being an avid watcher of the show, I have seen that when women put a wall up initially about the new “conformist” looks (which are actually uniquely fit to the person based on their lifestyle, interest and shown tastes), they have a point where they break down and admit the reason for their tattered clothing choices: A lack of pride. It’s not about everyone dressing the same, it’s about showing on the outside how you *should* feel on the inside. It’s not about “the male gaze” unless YOU want it to be.

    I just don’t see how addressing Miyam’s outward appearance discounted her accomplishments? Why can’t you be a “cute” neuroscientist?

    BTW, they are equally as harsh on men, I have seen it.

  9. I tend to agree with the two previous posters. It sort of reminds me of the play, The Doll’s house. You can’t take care of your children if you don’t take care of yourself first. I firmly believe that. You have to provide a model for your kids to look up to and being a doormat shouldn’t be that model.

    Too many times women put everyone first before themselves and it eventually tears you down.

    I also think Stacy and Clinton are hella funny so…

    However, if you have a more compelling argument, I’m willing to be convinced.

  10. “When a person, and perhaps especially a woman, feels like she looks her best, then she feels more powerful, she has a little more bounce in her step, and that’s a wonderful thing.”

    Ignoring the “especially a woman” part (don’t you see how that immediately reinforces that how a woman looks is much more important than how a man looks?) I will agree that the women who appear on this TV show appear to have very low self-esteem and poor boundaries. I’m certainly in favor of raising self-esteem but I don’t think this television show is a good way to do so. It looks more like bullying and shaming to me. (Conflict on television seems to get good ratings!)

    One issue for me is how they define fashion and makeup as so vital and important in life. Even if I had the good health, money and time to pass their standards (can you say upper middle class privilege?) I would never choose to follow the guidelines that this show promotes. I don’t think that I “need” makeup, hair dye, jewelry, a skirt, high heels, and accessories to “look my best.” I don’t begrudge others the choice to spend the time and energy on these things but why must I?

    Another issue is how everything on the show is presented as either right or wrong. I’m fine with them having an opinion on fashion that differs from my own. What I find offensive is that any alternative opinions are presented as WRONG instead of just different. There’s not even a question that it is okay for a woman to skip the makeup, or not wear dresses, and so on. Let’s not even mention the idea that a woman not shave her legs. (gasp!)

    To those of you who are trumpeting the “individual” looks created for each woman on the show – do you realize that they all still conform to a very narrow range of what is deemed “okay”? Any differences are quite small. Again, there’s nothing wrong with conforming to fashion standards but it’s not a matter of right vs. wrong or good vs. bad.

    In short, the whole show is based on the idea that “this is the way you should look and if you don’t then you are wrong.” Period. Add to that the shaming and bullying and crying and you’ve got one heck of a messed up show.

  11. Mayim Bialik may have a Phd, but she’s also an actress. She’s been getting back into acting recently and say whatever you will about the shallowness of hollywood but it’s a fact that in order to be successful in hollywood you have to look a certain way. That’s just the way it is, it may not be fair but it’s just a reality of that profession. If she’s really serious in continuing acting she’s gotta make some changes. If you wanna get cast in hollywood you have to conform to the type of look most parts will have. It’s a sad fact, but that’s what you have to put up with to be a successful actor or actress.

  12. The one thing I’ll say that always bothered me about the show is that they have to bring in a “specialist” to work with “black hair.” I always found it horribly offensive that they wouldn’t have someone who is able to do all hair types for the hair “expert.”

    To me, it would be the same if they brought in an expert to put eye makeup on Asian eyes because they look so much more different for everyone else’s.

    It’s always a curious show when they have a black client, part black client semi-black client, LOL.

    I will also say, I loved their 50K show where they took one woman who loved fashion so much she would spend exorbitant amount of her salary on her wardrobe. She was black, she was short and she was a size 12. Not the typical person that you would think they would chose for a shopping spree in Paris. The episode is one of my favorites. Yes, it promotes materialism and beauty standards, but so does the New York Times, the paper not the magazine.

  13. Class is a big element here.

    I just watched a show where the fashion victim was being “cured” of her thrift shop fixation, and they soon had her buying $120 pants and $160 dresses.

    What normal person can afford that?! After I pay my bills, I don’t have much left of my paycheck. How is is possible that this show can run with the economy the way it is?

    I’d like to put the hosts on the city bus I ride so they can try and tell the welfare moms that their kids can’t eat if they want to look “confident.”

  14. I think that while What Not To Wear is a bit over the top at times, you have entirely missed the point. Her achievments were not cast asided because they don’t matter, they were cast aside because IT IS A SHOW ABOUT FASHION. It’s not supposed to be an hour for Stacy and Clinton to praise badly dressed people about their degress. If you don’t like it, don’t watch it.

    Sexism is bad; women shouldn’t be expected to be runway models 24/7. However dressing so poorly that people immediately make negative assumptions about you is just stupid. As far as I’m concerned, being such a stubborn mule (and looking like a disgusting mule too) in such a way that it hinders your career progress and social life is far worse than having high expectations. YOU’RE PREVENTING YOURSELF FROM FUNCTIONING CORRECTLY IN SOCIETY.

    In all honesty, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Your hatred for the show is too overwhelming and you’re blatantly dismissing the facts because you’re worked up in a self-righteous rage. You’re not being accurate.

    Get over yourself and realize that the show is filled with good intentions. Or better yet, CHANGE THE CHANNEL.

  15. What the hell? The show takes people who dress like hobos and makes them look professional. I don’t care if you’re the best at your job. If you show up to your job in sweatpants or atletic wear and you’re not a personal trainer, then there is a problem, no matter if you are male or female. Stacy and Clinton are taking women AND MEN who dress nicely if a bit too tight or not the best shapes, etc. They are taking MEN and women who are dressing in an inappropriate manner for their lives. Women like you make me so angry because you are pulling women down. Whenever most rational people think of women’s equality, your loud-mouthed, anti-standards for women of any sort are the type of women that comes to mind. And who wants to cater to the whims of radical b*tches? NO ONE. Your type of crazy feminist gives all women a bad name and YOU present a bad face for womenkind. If women like you would just SHUT UP, then women’s equality would be much furthered. So just go have your little rant somewhere someone cares. Oh..wait.that’s right..no one cares about your clearly prejudiced views.

  16. “What Not to Wear” is a mixture of good and not-so-good. Yes, I do watch the show sometimes, and it’s neat to see a women who has lost her self esteem and is unsure of herself, and then comes away from the show with a new positive feeling about how she feels about herself inside and out. That is a good thing when it’s done in the right way. However, I feel that if society wasn’t always at us all the time to “fix” ourselves or convince us that something is “wrong” with us… then we wouldn’t need “What Not to Wear” in the first place. It’s just another avenue to make money for the clothing stores and the makeup lines and the hair stylists, in my opinion.

    Just because someone chooses to wear “hippy dippy” clothing or activewear or leave their hair really long or wear no makeup DOES NOT mean she has low self esteem! Some women are completely confident to wear no makeup and throw their hair up in a ponytail or bun and leave the house in very casual and comfy clothing… and I am one of those women! I have always had a very casual and natural look and I have received many compliments from men saying how they love my beachy natural look and especially that I wear no jewelry and don’t paint my nails. I think being well groomed through great hygiene, such as taking care of one’s hair and skin, is really sexy. Who needs all this other fluff?! Everyone is different! Why can’t each woman choose her OWN unique style and why would society care one way or another? It is so frustrating!!

    When I do watch “What Not to Wear”, it’s usually to watch the episodes where someone doesn’t want to be changed… such as the show with Lynn the Nanny. I LOVE that she would not let Nick cut her hair… woohoo!! You go Lynn!! Your hair is so gorgeous and I’m so happy that you aren’t going to “keep up” with the overly done makeup routine!

    The worst example was the beautiful Sunny on “What Not to Wear”. She had fairy wings and glitter on her eyes and cute thrift store VEGAN (awesome, I’m a vegan, too!!) clothing and she was gorgeous and CONFIDENT! They ruined her. The only thing that was a positive change were the bangs that Nick cute… they were cute, but I liked her hair long. Poor thing… I hope she knows how sweet and cute she really is and I hope she went back to her adorable previous look. Her fiance didn’t deserve her because he didn’t appreciate who she really was and he wanted to change her. I sure wish I had the guts to wear exactly what I wanted when I wanted. Sunny is so inspiring to me! If I ever saw someone in a coffee shop with fairy wings, I’d think “Wow! They have the highest self esteem of anyone”

    In conclusion… I wish society would just let everyone be themselves. I feel that women have low self esteem because society, fashion magazines, the media, etc. simply won’t let us alone to be ourselves the way we choose to be. Cheers to uniqueness in everyone!!

  17. I’m a little bit late to this conversation, but I disagree with your judgment of What Not to Wear. It’s a little bit reductive, in fact. I’m not going to use the whole “reality bites” argument, because women DO have to look good to succeed in this world — I know from personal experience. But that’s not the way it should be, so I won’t dwell on that reality.

    What distinguishes the stylists on What Not to Wear is that they do understand the psychology behind dressing badly. Most of the time when a person, man or woman, hides behind a frumpy or excessively done up or accessorized appearance, it’s because he or she is afraid of being really seen. Wanting to look in some way appealing is not just social, it’s biological, it’s natural. We feel better when we look better. Don’t lie and say it’s not true. And even though Stacy and Clinton frequently use terms such as “hot” and “sexy”, they don’t encourage people to dress in trendy, conformist clothing. They encourage them to dress in reasonable, appropriate, individually flattering clothing, and they want the person to add some personal touches. (And they do it in New York because they just do, not because they think it’s really that necessary. Btw, they think having a few expensive staple pieces that make you look and feel great is worth more than having a billion cheap things you aren’t attached to.) You can argue that they’re mean, or that fashion is all a big sham, but to say what they do is buying into blind consumerism without any value whatsoever is to deny not only the truth about our culture, but the truth about each of us as individuals, that how we look affects how we think about ourselves, whether we like it or not, whether we’re in denial or not. What Not to Wear doesn’t target people who are confident and completely comfortable in the way they present themselves — so if you dress like a hippie and love it, good for you. But if you, like most of the women on the show, realize that a change would be good for you, then that’s what it’s all about. I mean, when someone is wearing fairy wings or a raccoon tail on a daily basis… people shouldn’t point and laugh, but why in God’s name do you think you need wings or a tail to look good or to hold yourself apart from others? Are you trying to make a statement (in which case you are speaking to a society you claim to care nothing about), or do you… just like it, in which case you have the same taste as a 5-year-old so maybe there’s something a little weird going on there. Don’t get me wrong, I’d go mad for a person I saw out in public wearing a pair of really nice fairy wings just randomly, but if I saw that person doing it frequently, I’d think there was something wrong with him or her. My best friend in college and I at least once a semester went out in costumes — wigs, tophats, striped stockings — and amused the people in our busy neighborhood, but we didn’t dress that way everyday. It would have been weird.

    I should add that I infrequently wear makeup and I normally dress like a teenager, but when it counts, I attempt to look my best, because it makes me feel better and carry myself differently. That’s the point of What Not to Wear. Trust me, it’s not a capitalist conspiracy.

  18. I like the show. Most of the women on that show feel so much more confident after they have been showed a new way to dress- and that is what Stacey is aiming for.

    I mean, I know how many of you feel that it is wrong to make them dress the a more appropriate way, but honestly, their only trying to show these people that they can feel good in their own shoes.

    I know many of you feel that these women are have their own unique style, but really most of them are just trying to hide themselves or arn’t aware that there are more ways to feel confident about yourself then by showing off most of your body. I think most of these woman actually feel PROUD of who they are after the show, wheras before the show they really didn’t think there was anyway they could feel like that.

  19. I’ve read some follow-up reports on the episode with Blossom star Mayim Bialik, and discovered that, in her life, she dresses modestly, and usually in longer skirts, according to the tenets of her faith. Apparently, she made explanations regarding this on the show, but these interesting and relevant words were edited out. I believe this shows a great disrespect on the part of the show.
    Furthermore, I disagree that most women who dress “frumpily” are suffering from low self-esteem. I continue to wear long denim skirts and even jumpers (many obtained at thrift shops) because, as a middle-aged woman, I am now comfortable with myself, including my body, and have the self-esteem to decide what I want to wear, rather than wear what society dictates – and I dress for comfort, frugality, and modesty. It is a reflection of healthy, rather than low, self-esteem. It is also an expression of my anti-materialism beliefs (after all, sooner or later, all things end up in garbage dumps, either on land or in the ocean). I have watched the show a few times, but, as some others have said, more out of morbid curiosity rather than any shared belieft in what the show is trying to present. I think it is some of the worst of programming, in its emphasis on sexuallity, looks, and materialism.

  20. I’d like to add a response to the comments that claim that the women on this show are pleased about being on this show because they’re laughing or smiling or simply not making negative comments in defence of themselves. I think that we’re not considering the hawthorne effect here. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fallen back on keeping my mouth shut in the face of confrontation. Haven’t you, ever…say, laughed at a joke a guy has told even though it’s not funny? Haven’t you ever lied about yourself in some way to conform with some image of yourself that someone else assumes about you either because you just don’t want to deal with it or because of some other reason? That’s how women are raised to act (which is not to say that I don’t think any women have managed to escape that particular form of conditioning). When we talk about women who are being faced with patriarchal conformity, whether they realize it or not, I don’t think we can assume the simplest explanation. A laugh or a smile might not be a direct reflection of being at ease or being happy. I hate to make the intellectual leap here to rape, but I think it’s a good example. The fact is that most people don’t know that even “yes” can really mean “no” and would thus constitute rape. Pressure is key.

  21. I also want to add that, while I don’t think that women who enjoy fashion or working on their appearance are necessarily participating in patriarchal conformity (even I sometimes find it really funny to get all dressed up), I think the problem is that this is pretty much the only representation of women we see in the media. If it’s about women, there always seems to be an emphasis placed on their appearance. Female news reporters are always “attractive”, rarely have I ever seen an “unattractive” women play a love interest in a tv sitcom, and very few shows focus on women who are concerned with their intelligence or accomplishments (other than…off the top of my head, parks and recreation, though I’m sure there are a handful of others). This show wouldn’t be so horrid, I think, if there was a wider range of female representation on television. But because there isn’t, this is how young girls learn to be women, and for that matter, how the women who are actually in their lives probably learned how to be women. That, I think, is my biggest problem with it.

  22. Men are the ones that need fashion makeovers more because they dress terrible all the time and but then they often focus on their appearance more and what women will think of them. Women value men for their looks too as well as education. No woman likes it when a terribly dressed man talks to her. That’s where women reject men.

    Not to mention, I’ve had terribly dressed guys, especially those in my life tell me I should dress down, not like what I’ve learned from the show.

  23. You obviously don’t understand the point of the show. Its about making someones inner beauty shine through and raising their self-esteem. Its about showing women that even though they have kids a job and a husband that they can still take time for themselves and not set themselves and their needs at the bottom of their radar. But most importantly its about helping woman learn how to love themselves. It doesn’t mean that if you’re not “society’s definition of pretty” then you hate yourself. It means that when you do something for yourself that makes you look good and make you happy then you feel good about yourself. Everyone is beautiful no matter what but its what you do with that that makes you gorgeous.

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