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ShePop: Do makeover shows like 'What Not to Wear' really listen to their fixer-uppers?

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Mayim-Bialik_lMayim Bialik — that’s TV’s Blossom to you — returned to the small screen a few months ago as, surprisingly enough, a fashion victim on TLC’s addictive makeover show What Not to Wear. It was a particularly inspired choice for the long-running series, not because she’s a “celebrity” so much as because she’s a self-dubbed “Conservadox Jew” — meaning, for her, that she observes some clothing restrictions in the name of religious modesty. Unfortunately, though, it seems a lot of her religion — the most interesting part about having her on — ended up on the cutting-room floor, according to a wonderfully reasoned, insightful essay she wrote for Tablet, a Jewish lifestyle magazine. Basically, she doesn’t wear pants and tries to stay relatively covered up: “I started appreciating what it means to keep your sexual appeal for yourself and for your partner,” the married mom writes. “I came to see that not everything that makes me beautiful, sexy, or desirable needs to be on display.”

But while the show’s producers did ask her about the specifics of her beliefs — and she stresses that she loved being part of the show — she explains: “When we filmed me revealing the final outfits they picked, I gently pointed out that skirts above the knee are not something I’d wear, and that I wouldn’t wear sleeveless shirts or dresses without something to cover my arms once I left the set. When the show aired, I saw that my qualifications and explanations did not survive the cutting room.” So, basically, she ended up coming off like a fussy frump, instead of a very modern (and, she points out, deeply feminist) woman navigating a world that makes following her beliefs very complicated.

Just a few weeks later, style mavens Clinton Kelly and Stacy London — whose taste I adore, by the way — committed yet another makeover faux pas. And this one the cameras truly couldn’t disguise. A Southern divorcee named Jessie got roped into a makeover by her daughter, and it was plain to see why: She was all Texas, with big, blond hair and rhinestones for days. She gamely went along with the style revamp, but it was clear from Clinton and Stacy’s initial ambush that she was hurt by the — let’s face it — insult to her taste and the implication that she’s been looking ridiculous all this time that she thought she looked darn cute. Most of the show’s targets tend to be either self-aware, admitting they’ve let themselves go, or stubborn defenders of their ludicrous style — great TV! — before succumbing to the idea that their entire lives will now transform because they’ve submitted to pencil skirts and pointy shoes and tasteful bobs. Poor Jessie let her raw emotions show the entire time, culminating with a genuine, uncomfortable-to-watch crying jag after the haircut portion of the proceedings. (Hey, Jessie, you’re actually right: Men do prefer long hair!) They showed a follow-up clip of her getting extensions once she was safely back home, an acknowledgment of how unnerving the hour had been even for viewers, not to mention the sweet Southern gal. I am, and remain, a huge fan of the show, but I don’t tune into WNTW for an emotionally harrowing experience; I watch it in my pajamas with a glass of red wine on Friday night to let go of my stressful week.

All of this makes me think: How much of this behind-the-makeover stress do we not see? How many makeover-ees just suck it up for the cameras and curse their new, super-nice-but-not-them wardrobe later? I know plenty of people who have great style but don’t necessarily subscribe to the empire waist-wrap dress-trouser prescription that dominates these makeovers. What do you think, PopWatchers? Are makeover shows good fun? Or do they turn the free spirited and diverse into fashion automatons?

Photo credit: TLC