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Cable TV, Scourge of the Onelys (installment 374x): What Not to Wear July 23, 2008

Posted by Onely in "Against Love"...?, As If!, Food for Thought, Pop Culture: Scourge of the Onelys, Singled Out.
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Since I often work at home, one of my guilty pleasures is to watch reruns of TLC’s show, What Not to Wear (the American version) when I take a break for lunch. Today, inspired by Bella DePaulo’s chapter on the myth that Every Single Person Is “Interested in Just One Thing – Getting Coupled,” I decided to take notes as I watched today’s episode, which focused on a 26-year-old single young woman named Sohni. I was curious about whether the show’s rhetoric would carry a pro-coupling spin or if maybe it would just encourage Sohni to look fabulous, no matter her motivation. After all, Sohni has a career, hopes to go to law school, and likes to party with her friends in Chicago… Isn’t that enough?

Of course not! Within the first fifteen minutes (and actually, especially during the first fifteen minutes) of the show, all major characters – including Sohni’s twin sister (who nominated Sohni for the show), Clinton and Stacy (the stylin’ pair [though not a “couple,” which is in itself something of a relief] who tell people how bad they look in their current wardrobe), Sohni herself, and even the omniscient narrator of the show, whose voice provides transitions between cuts and commercials – implied that one of Sohni’s major motivations for exchanging her old wardrobe was and should be not just to feel good about herself, but also to feel good about the men she will attract.

Here are some examples:

  • “Sohni may be dressing too young to meet a sophisticated man” — twin sister
  • “I do want to have a relationship and a commitment …” — Sohni
  • “[With clothes like that], you’re a magnet for damaged goods” — Clinton. Sohni’s reply? “Oh hello, dating life!”
  • “She says she wants to meet a conservative guy and go to law school, but her clothes say something different” — narrator
  • “[This outfit says], Why buy the loaf of bread when you can have the slices for free?” — Stacy

Clearly, Sohni’s “asking” for it …  that is, she’s “asking” for a relationship, because that’s ultimately what every single 26-year-old attractive woman – especially those who have ambition, a career and enjoy spending time with her friends – wants.

Why can’t she just look hot because … well, just because? One of the joys of being Onely is that when I spend time on myself to look good – whether it be getting a decent haircut, putting on makeup, wearing a top that flatters my figure and brings out my big blue eyes – I’m doing it for myself, not for others. And if I’m interested in looking “sexy,” maybe I do it not because I want to attract a long-term committed partner, but because [dare I write this?!] … well, I like to have sex?

The rhetoric associated with single women almost always implies that 1) looking stylish and sophisticated is all about others, not about oneself; 2) it’s impossible to want to have sex without also wanting commitment; and 3) that a woman’s life is not worthwhile or complete without both a career and a relationship.

I’m all in favor of wearing clothes that look great, but I’m not in favor of this major premise upon which the show is based: Look great so that you can acquire or keep a mate.

What say you, fellow Onelers?

— L


1. Laura W. - July 23, 2008

I too have a special fondess for watching WNTW and I love to see people go from looking frumpy to hot…and it’s usually because I can tell how much better the people feel about themselves after their transformations. They smile more…they look more confident, more relaxed, and they almost always say some variation of the same thing: “I feel like this is the me that was always in there but was hidden before.” (Can you tell I’ve seen a million episodes of this show?)

After their make-overs, they feel more like themselves than they did in the first place, and I think it’s often because looking good simply for the sake of looking good is enough to make a person FEEL good.

I think you’re right, Lisa, that people can and should dress for themselves, to make themselves feel good. Or to attract a potential mate….or to get laid. God knows I’ve done all of the above…The emphasis definitely shouldn’t be on dressing well JUST to get a partner.

In the end, though, I think the overwhelming message of the show really is about inspiring self-confidence through the power of appearance (not necessarily attractiveness or dating potential.) And although some episodes probably do focus far too much on improving a woman’s wardrobe so that she will be more attractive to prospective partners, I’ve also seen a lot of episodes that feature women who are so much happier simply because they feel more like themselves. And in my opinion, that’s the best kind of confidence to have…after you have that, you don’t really need anything/one else.

2. onely - July 24, 2008

Laura —

Good points you make, and I tend to agree with you. (That’s probably why I can’t stop watching the show!) However, my question is, why must a young single woman be so “obviously” motivated to change her wardrobe because it might attract a future mate? Wouldn’t the self-confidence message be stronger if the focus were always explicitly only on the woman itself, not necessarily the external motivations beyond a personal desire to look and feel better for herself?

It would also be interesting to compare how the show treats women and men differently. I watched another episode today that featured a young man who is married and has a son, but there were no comments made about external motivation – not his career, not physical attractiveness, not even any references to his sexuality (or perhaps his promiscuousness!) – just “wow you look like a hobo wearing pajama pants in public!” There was only one clip of the guy’s wife noting that she felt “hobophobic” being around his “hobo” style, but even that wasn’t mentioned again by the narrator, Clinton & Stacy, or even the subject himself.

Glad you’re reading — and thanks for the thoughts!

— Lisa

3. Laura W. - July 27, 2008

I think that’s a good point! I’ve also noticed that in the last few years of the show, they hardly ever show men anymore. Seems (to me) like in the beginning they at least made an effort to mix it up, whereas now it’s almost entirely women who need some sort of desperate intervention.


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