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


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.

7 thoughts on “Hair today, gone tomorrow: the politics of reality TV makeovers

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  1. Interesting thought. I have always been a huge Top Model fan, and the all stars season seems to try to utilize and maximize on the appearance of these girls. Good hair is an essential if you are going to be a star. Especially this season, where it’s less about being a model and more about “How are we going to make the winner a true star and celebrity and make the public pay attention to them?” And with characters out there today like Lady Gaga, it’s hard for anyone, even the most charismatic people in the world to just be themselves and upstage someone like that naturally, at least without a little effort to set them apart. Take the photos of Allison you posted. On the left she looks like your average girl next door. On the right, she’s an image of what more people would interested in.

    I think as long as these girls stay true to themselves as who they are inside, I say it’s fine to play and experiment with your appearance. If we are voting for personality traits, I’m going to have to root Laura as the winner. She’s the most down to earth, personable, genuine, and naturally charismatic. The other girls all seem like they are forcing themselves to become noticeable, whereas Laura it seems a lot more effortless.

  2. Right-side Allison is giving a creepy Lolita-vibe. She also looks fake, and since we’re talking about hair here, the peroxide blonde and obvious extensions make her hair look unhealthy. I would much rather hang out with girl-next-door Allison. Of course right-side Allison will probably get noticed, but in an objectified way – like a side-show attraction and not a person.

    On another note, does it bother anyone else when a woman cuts her hair short and is praised for going “against the crowd” and being a “trendsetter,” only to grow out her “trendy, edgy” cut months later, or get extensions for the next red-carpet event? So many female celebrities have done this, and they go right back to the super long hair. Part of that is preference – I’m sure we’ve all had the bad short cut that looked awesome in our heads, but terrible in reality. But it annoys me that magazines do whole articles on their decision to cut their hair, and the celebrity goes on about being herself and loving her new look, etc., only to eschew it so quickly. /end rant

  3. What I don’t understand is how can someone else tell u what to buy or wear. Only you know what you can wear with your schedule n activities. I loooove super high hill shoes but with 3 kids is unrealistic i Will wear them regardless Of how great they look on me n that I have an office job is just not smart to but them. Im not aware on how make over shows work but to advice someone for a better look with practicality and lifestyle in mind might b a good thing.

  4. Ashley, I totally agree that Allison’s makeover picture would be considered more interesting to people. In show business, it’s all about being memorable and marketable, right?

    Related to popular appeal, I think for a lot of the girls like Angelea being accepted by others and accepting herself is a daily struggle. Amidst all of that, girls dealing with the same issue, while learning to model, always have to remember that being unique is what makes them special.

    Laura seems to know how to balance the unique factor and has definitely got my vote to be in the finals. However, I’m going for Angelea. I would love to see her bring her A-game to each challenge, realizing that she doesn’t to change her attitude, quick wit, and persistence to be Americas Next Top Model.

  5. Chani,

    I really liked your observations and insight.

    I got some insight from Jennifer Pozner, founder and director of Women In Media & News and some of the issues that you talk about with celebrities and hair styles.

    Pozner provided an interesting way to think about images like right-side Allison and most transformations alike that they “are not about personal choice or identity, but about an unhealthy combination of producer-directed humiliation and cultural whitewashing” or mainstream beauty standards being reinforced.

    So, girls on shows like Americas Next Top Model or celebrities give up their rights to personal identity/style because it’s all about selling products and it’s their change to change their hair, whether they like it or not.

  6. Araceli,
    You make very good points, how can someone tell you what to wear?

    I guess if someone wants to be Americas Next Top Model there is a price to pay.

    But I wonder how much are these girls willing to pay to play role model?

  7. I’m no celebrity, but I do enjoy making donations to Locks of Love, which requires haircuts of around a foot and therefore a quite drastic hair change. Your comment on how these praised women grow out their hair months later interested me, though; it reminded me of how a guy friend of mine was insisting that I “really ought to grow out [my] hair again” and I just responded, “I don’t really have any control over it ‘growing out.’ It does that all by itself!”

    So I guess what I’m trying to say is that maybe they aren’t eschewing that “trendsetter” title but rather just passively enjoying how their hair returns to its original look? Then again, I’m no celebrity, and I guess for celebrities a trip to the hair salon for a trim wouldn’t be quite as out of the way for them… Anyway, my two cents, as someone whose hair grows insanely fast.

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