Stacy London is back, and I’m not sure what to think. For those of you who don’t know who I’m talking about, Stacy London has made a very successful career out of telling people how to dress, first with her co-star Clinton Kelly on TLC’s What Not to Wear and now on her own show on TLC, Love, Lust or Run.
Glancing at the show’s web site will give you an idea of how the show works. Women who have some rather unusual wardrobes come to London for style help. They get new hairdos, new makeup, and of course, new clothes.
The gimmick is that strangers judge the women’s before and after looks, saying if they love the look, lust after the look (or the woman — it’s unclear), or would run from the look. Their answers come as no surprise — they run from the old look and love the new look.
There are two competing ideas on this show. On the one hand, London talks a lot about how style should reflect the inner person. In this clip, she says that fashion is “not shallow” because it’s all about building confidence by breaking negative thought cycles and changing the literal and figurative way you see yourself.
So far, so good. I’m all for helping women build self-confidence. But it’s difficult to take this message seriously when the show is based on winning the approval of others. When people comment on the new looks, they use words like “confident,” “professional,” and “intelligent.” Very empowering words.
But the final message is that you’re not OK until someone else (and in this case, total strangers) tells you you’re OK. That’s no way to build self-esteem. How can we be truly confident if we’re led to believe our worth as people depends on what someone thinks of our outfit?
London also talks a lot about “personal style.” And yet, while the women all come in looking very different from one another and with varying ideas about beauty, they come out the other side looking very much alike. They all end up falling into a very narrow, conventional definition of “beautiful” and “feminine.” Though there may be a small piece of their previous styles left, all of the final looks are remarkably similar.
While one might argue that these women need to make some changes if they are to be successful professionals, that doesn’t mean they all have to come out looking like mass-produced dolls. Why can’t their new looks reflect more of who they are and less of a generic definition of beauty?
I struggle with this show because I’m a believer in personal transformation. I love the idea that we can remake ourselves. But that remaking should be based on our own ideas of ourselves, not the opinions of others, and especially not of random people on the street. Our own ideas of who we are — and who we want to become — are far more important than what anyone thinks of what we’re wearing.
Tara is a writer and educator who has a long-standing interest in sociology and women’s issues. She is particularly interested in the way the wedding industry defines and reinforces a single, narrow definition of womanhood.