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Hair today, gone tomorrow: the politics of reality TV makeovers

By October 14, 2011 7 Comments


ANTM's Allison Harvard before and after her makeover

A woman’s hair is said to be her crowning glory, her beauty. For young women, hair is not only about beauty but individuality, style, and personality. But what happens when a woman is forced to drastically change her hair style with extreme color, hair extensions, or the ultimate “big chop”? Despite the real video girl anthem by India.Arie, many reality TV shows that offer to give a girl her dreams most often give makeovers as a way to “improve” and help define their contestants.

I love pop culture and must confess that every week my DVR is set up to record literally ten reality TV shows–they make good research material! And though each show is full of drama and has the same formula to advertise and sell products through the commercials or product placement, I’m always most interested in the makeover and transformation episode on shows like America’s Next Top Model and, most recently, BET’s Born to Dance. Rivaled only by the eliminations, the hair makeover transformations evoke real, powerful emotions from the contestants.

The Born to Dance makeover episode, “Born to Glam,” set the stage for the grand finale before the winner was selected. Dance favorite and potential winner Jessica Shull stated that she was sensitive about her hair and had a breakdown after her blond curly locks were cut short. She commented that her hair was a part of her and that she had always danced with it and felt that it was her identity. Meanwhile, winner LaTonya Swann (who was selected a week after the makeover), commented that she didn’t care what happened to her hair, whether it were shaved bald, styled with a purple streak down the middle, or whatever.

On the newest season of America’s Next Top Model All-Stars Edition, Tyra Banks adds a new way to look at why hair matters. This season’s models get not only the infamous Ty-over, but also a branding lesson explaining that image, including hair or lack thereof, is a brand in itself.

I’m a woman who has experienced a hair journey involving beauty, shame, pain, pride, and indifference, and hair is such a political topic, so it seems to make some sense that at the end of the reality TV show season, in order to succeed in popular culture or to become a celebrity star, a girl must be a cut above the rest. But after the winners are chosen, I’m left wondering: underneath those hair makeover transformations, who are these girls really and why are they considered trendsetters, when in fact they are just following orders?

Yaisa Mann is a wife, mother, student, teacher, and body confidence activist. She is currently pursuing her PhD in American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, specializing in girls’ studies and body image.