In the UK, there's a new version of a popular makeover show: How to Look Good Naked...With a Difference. The "difference?" All the women on this series are disabled in some way:
You're probably familiar with the How to Look Good Naked franchise (in the U.S. it's hosted by former QueerEye fashion maven Carson Kressley) in which women, through a course of pampering, self-esteem exercises, talks with the host and makeovers, learn to feel good in their own skins. It's a gentler twist on a genre that spawned such horrors as The Swan and Extreme Makeover, and its British iteration, hosted by Gok Wan, is a hit on the other side of the pond.
In the latest series, he's making over three women - one in a wheelchair, one blind since her 20s, and "a mum-of-three with a prosthetic arm" - that's "the difference," you see. If this sort of thing raises your hackles, join the club: I think we're all thinking of the Britain's Missing Top Model, in which women with a wide range of disabilities were thrown together to compete for a beauty crown - a study in objectification that did little to "normalize" the experience of different levels of ability.
About this one, I'm more sanguine, for the simple reason that this is taking on a real issue rather than a manufactured situation. It's hard not to agree with Wan when he tells the Telegraph that "There's not enough information for women with disabilities...There's no one saying ‘these are the cuts for you', not enough merchandising and signage, nothing in the windows, and you never see a disabled model or mannequin." And even on the inclusive What Not to Wear, we've rarely seen practical advice or real-life tips for those people with disabilities trying to navigate the aesthetic in an aggressively oblivious world.
My only real beef with this is, why is it such a big deal? Why do these women need their own show? HTLGN is about making women feel good - all women, right? Not just the able-bodied. Those who for, whatever reason, need a boost. Not all disabled women feel unattractive; these few do. And while it's clearly a very positive experience for all involved, isolating the episode creates the usual danger of letting the few represent a large and varied population. Why not have disabled women mixed into regular seasons occasionally, like anyone else? Especially given the practical tips Wan disseminates.
Wan admits that he was apprehensive about the project ("I s*** myself," he declares cheerily). Not without reason. The fashion industry is hardly famous for its inclusive ethos. A small number of boutiques and websites, such as the Scottish company Able2Wear and Wheelie Chix, offer clothes and accessories for people with physical impairments, but customers complain that many are too expensive, unfashionable or both.
What was so terrifying about this, so potentially off-putting to the public? It's this sort of "very special episode" attitude that helps create the culture of isolation the show's purportedly addressing. These women shouldn't feel grateful for something that should have been happening a long time ago. Don't get me wrong: I'm awfully glad they're doing it. But why should this be a one-off?
[Image via Channel 4]