Fox's shameless attempt to capitalize on another network's (ABC's) successful cosmetic-surgery show, "Extreme Makeover," goes like this: Sixteen "ugly" (read: average-looking) women are turned over to a team of cosmetic surgeons, cosmetic dentists, dermatologists, and one fitness trainer, whose job it is whip the ladies into shape. Each week, one of the women is judged worthy to compete in a beauty pageant to determine who will be crowned the ultimate swan in the show's finale. "The Swan" also ratchets up the stakes for the contestants by taking away their mirrors. For three months, through several shape-altering operations, the women won't be allowed to see themselves.
Those who knock the show condemn the swans' transformations as "not real change," in the words of a poster on the website television withoutpity.com. Salon's reviewer, Heather Havrilesky, squawked, "Only someone with no soul could endure more than (generously) five minutes."
The problem with Havrilesky's claim is that "The Swan" blew away the reigning reality show champion, ABC'S "The Bachelor," in its debut in March. More than six million Americans were glued to the tube five days later, eagerly awaiting the transformation of two more ugly ducklings. Is America really that soulless? Or is there something else going on here?
The title, "The Swan," is meant to evoke Hans Christian Andersen's parable about a "duckling" who is teased about his gawky looks and brown feathers, until one day he looks in a pond and sees he's transformed into a more beautiful bird than his tormentors. "The Swan," in other words, is supposed to be about self-esteem, though admittedly it comes off less Hans Christian Andersen than Billy Crystal, whose SNL tagline as the smarmy Fernando was, "When you look good, you feel good."
Though rarely the main focus, the psychological component was often the most compelling part of "Extreme Makeover." The mirror was a constant guide for the beauties-to-be, and part of the fun was watching these people, who had felt inadequate inside because of how they looked outside, drag their inner selves into the frame. On "The Swan," the inner work will be done blind, so to speak, but the contestants will have the aid of a psychiatrist and life coach who help the fledglings deal with their new selves, discussing everything from past trauma to diet goals.
Sure, the show is cheesy. Cosmetic surgeon Dr. Terry Dubrow cheers, hands in air, after finishing an excellent breast augmentation. And it's a little hard to hear a woman described as needing to be "feminized." But deriding the show as superficial betrays an inability to think beyond the old adage "beauty is only skin-deep," to consider the psychological importance of beauty. It is the critics, in other words, who are failing to see past the surface of the contestants' newfound good looks.
Americans are nearly alone-particularly in our hemisphere-in considering vanity an evil. What we call vanity, others in the world call self-confidence. In Brazil, for instance, being called "vain" can be a compliment suggesting self-respect, and the fashionable types known as "las siliconadas" make no secret of their surgical upgrades. "Plastic surgery symbolizes modernity, shows you have money to spend," U.S. anthropologist Alex Edmonds told Reuters. "In Brazil, beauty is not something natural, it's something you have to work at."
Per capita, Brazilians undergo more cosmetic surgeries each year than any other nation: 300,000 operations were performed in 1999, in a population of 160 million. That year in the United States, with nearly a hundred million more citizens, only 500,000 such surgeries were performed.
Across South America, beauty-pageant contestants are put through rigorous training and numerous plastic surgeries before they are considered representative of the nation's natural beauty. At the Miss Venezuela academy, girls 17-24 are vetted for education and height. Those who make the cut-a 100 or so from each class-parade in swimsuits for the organizations' official plastic surgeons, who assess the would-be beauties. Cosmetic dentists scan the teeth and gums. The finalists then make it on to local pageants. This year's Miss Brazil, Juliana Borges, was not shy about the fact that she's had 19 surgical procedures, including collagen injections in her lips and silicone implants in her breasts, cheeks, and chin.
Americans like to think that hard work and perserverance will get us to where we want to be; our looks should have nothing to do with it. But beauty may be too important, especially to women, to leave to random chance. "It is homely women who are truly disadvantaged economically," writes Harvard Medical School psychologist Nancy Etcoff in her book "Survival of the Prettiest." "They are less likely to get hired or to earn competitive salaries at work. They are less likely to marry, and less likely if they do marry to marry a man with resources." The same goes for men. According to Etcoff, "Good-looking men are more likely to get hired, at a higher salary, and are promoted faster than unattractive men."