[9 November 2010]
Gok Wan knows good body shapers and isn’t afraid to share. As the host of the UK version of How to Look Good Naked, Wan uses both fashion consultations and mini therapy sessions to teach women how to love what nature gave them. The series, which recently finished its sixth season on Channel 4, is a makeover show but wants to be a life-changing therapy session. This identity crisis reflects reality television’s love affair with therapeutic discourse, but does a disservice to why this show really works. It’s not Wan’s body image counseling that makes his guest feel great at the end of the hour. Rather, it’s his role as best friend.
The premise of the series is that the featured woman has low self-esteem because she hates her thighs or her hips or her flabby stomach. In fact, she feels so low about herself that she refuses to be seen undressed so her intimate relationships suffer or she prevents herself from having intimate relationships at all.
Wan begins the show with a street poll, asking strangers to comment on the best body part they see in a billboard-sized picture of his client in nothing but her underwear. The photo is cropped at her neck so that her face is missing. It’s real and untouched—the equivalent of a body mug shot. Later, Wan’s client watches the tape as the people on the street note her slim waist or great calves. She is usually quietly surprised and almost pleased but not entirely convinced.
Another of Wan’s strategies is to ask his client to place herself among a line-up of women who are arranged according to size. The idea is that the woman will always place herself above someone who is bigger than her thereby revealing her distorted self-perception. During these sessions, Wan listens, empathizes and encourages.
Wan’s therapeutic confrontations are juxtaposed with retail therapy where he teaches his client how to choose clothes to emphasize her best features and camouflage her worst ones. In these scenes, he is both expert and cheerleader. Flabby becomes fabulous. The previously despised thighs and hips are now celebrated as sexy. After a mandatory consultation on the benefits of spandex and its relationship to underwear that sucks and tucks, Wan whisks his happy client off to the climactic part of the show—her naked photo shoot.
The photo shoot is the final step of the cure. With a spray tan and professional make-up and hair, Wan’s protégé is ready for her close-up. The shot is artfully modest but alluring. The reveal is a projection of the photo on the side of a central London building. It’s a birthday suit version of shock and awe. The woman is sheepishly proud and leaves Wan seemingly cured of her self-hatred.
Yet, the value of How to Look Good Naked is not in its attempt at a populist therapeutic cure to negative self-perception or a quick ‘before and after’ transformation. Wan’s makeover, like all makeovers in reality shows, is about surface change. Showing a woman how to hide her lumps and bumps doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Control top underwear is not a revolutionary idea. While the show claims a deeper, psychological transformation in its participants, I question the long-term success of Wan’s confrontational body line-ups and nude photo shoots. A few days of positive affirmation is not likely to erase years of body issues while having to undress for the camera will not instantly conquer long-held fears. A woman may leave Wan armed with good fashion advice and a more positive outlook, but that doesn’t mean she won’t be stressing about how she looks on her next night out or still hating her hips the next time she looks in the mirror.
What’s more enduring is Wan’s ability to be a BFF—only better. Unlike that well-meaning friend who is afraid to hurt your feelings when she chirps: “That skirt looks great on you!” even though you both know it doesn’t, Wan would make sure you didn’t try it on in the first place. He’s each woman’s biggest fan and as a professional stylist, he has a trustworthy authority that’s believable. In this way, he makes fashion inclusive and conveys a sense of worth to every woman who momentarily sheds her vulnerability and her clothes. In the end, the triumph of How To Look Good Naked is not in fighting a battle against unhealthy body image. It’s in the idea of a great friend who pays attention to you after you’ve stopped paying attention to yourself.