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A few months ago, I found myself watching the TV show, “Extreme Makeover.” This show is ostensibly about granting individuals their dreams. In most cases, the makeover involves providing individuals with plastic surgery and other procedures to change their appearance.

Micha is legally blind and suffers from a severe over bite. In addition to the physical pain she experienced, she also endured emotional pain from teasing from other children growing up. As an adult, she continued to live with her parents because of a lack of confidence and because, due to the way she spoke, she was often seen as mentally retarded by potential employers. Micha was flown to live in a swanky mansion in Los Angeles to live during her “makeover” process.

Along with the plastic surgery that would reform her jaw, she was also provided with other vehicles to help “transform” her. She received lessons in etiquette, poise, walking, dancing, and speech from a “charm” instructor and a stylist.The process of transforming Micha was likened to the story of Eliza Doolittle in the musical My Fair Lady.

In My Fair Lady, a film produced in 1964, Eliza Doolittle is a flower peddler. She encounters Henry Higgins, a phonetics professor, who looks down on the way she talks and jokes that he could train her to be a “proper speaking lady.” Higgins makes a bet with a friend that with six months of instruction he could pass her off as a “blue-blooded lady.”

Micha, like Eliza Doolittle, was deemed unacceptable and in need of fixing because she did not conform to certain class-related standards. She was taught how to speak “properly,” her Tennessee speech patterns were deemed undesirable and ridiculed, as was Elisa’s cockney accent. She was told to “think before you speak” as if something about her jaw deformity had affected her brain and her sense of good judgment.

For some reason, it was also deemed imperative that she learned how to walk in high heels. Apparently Micha’s future success was going to be guaranteed by plastic surgery, makeup, white teeth, and lessons in etiquette.Like the My Fair Lady story, this show is nothing but a fairy tale. Fairy tales have bits and pieces of truth in them but their primary role is that of socialization and indoctrination. The tales are meant to give lessons about morals and culture.

What are the lessons of My Fair Lady and Micha’s makeover? They seem to be:

  • physical deformities result in mental deficiencies;
  • there is only one standard of beauty and women who don’t meet that standard are ugly and inferior;
  • there is only one correct speech pattern and those who do not use that pattern are stupid and uncultured;
  • having beauty and charm will guarantee a women’s happiness and success; and
  • the vehicle to escape poverty is behavioral change rather than systemic change.

The messages in Extreme Makeover are insidious in how they impact the way women see themselves. They are being presented with only one standard for beauty (which is impossible to meet without plastic surgery for the vast majority of women) and are left feeling like failures if they are unable to meet it.

We can see the devastating impact of these messages when we learn that, after being exposed to American television, young girls in Bhutan have absorbed these messages about beauty and now want to have whiter skin and blond hair.

Television was first introduced to Bhutan in 1999. And, with only a few years exposure to American culture through television, Bhutanese culture has already been significantly negatively impacted. In 2002, this formerly sedate and peaceful nation began to experience on outbreak of crime, vandalism and violence. An editorial that year warned: “We are seeing for the first time broken families, school dropouts and other negative youth crimes. We are beginning to see crime associated with drug users all over the world – shoplifting, burglary and violence.” (The Guardian, June 14, 2003).

So, it appears that in addition to sending economic hit men to other countries, through television, we are now sending cultural hit men to destroy other cultures and replace them with America’s violence and consumerism.

Extreme Makeover is considered a reality show but it is actually a vehicle for perpetuating Americas myths about success. If Extreme Makeover were about reality, it would be presenting us with the beauty of real people without plastic surgery and air brushing.

The Quilt of Humanity ModelTM Approach with Micha:

If I was asked to coach Micha, I would use the Quilt of Humanity ModelTM to help Micha see how beautiful she is without a makeover. While she needed the surgery to repair the damage to her jaw that caused her ongoing pain, she did not need anything else “repaired.” I would have her create a depiction of herself using pieces of cloth or yarn concentrating on all the characteristics that make up the unique individual that she is.

From what I could learn about Micha just from seeing the show, I could tell that she has deep inner personal strength and a sense of humor. These would be only some of the characteristics that she could put together in her piece of art. I would also use the Appreciative Inquiry Paradigm by asking her to recall stories of times when she was proud of herself, felt good as a person, enjoyed connections with family and friends, etc. These stories would provide her with a greater sense of her true self which cosmetic surgery can’t do.