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American Beauty: Is The Swan Only In Skin Deep?
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Date Posted: 04/21/04 4:26:02pm

By Kristina Tabor

Unfortunately it's not possible to oversimplify American beauty when reality television is an endlessly sensational business. The latest version of the reality trick is Fox's The Swan, and it contorts every idea of what makes a woman beautiful. The promos reveal the premise: 18 "ugly ducklings" who are molded with plastic surgery until they are model-beautiful.

In college, my girlfriends and I considered it sport to watch pageants on TV. I was never the type of girl to think about beauty queens, except in jest. They weren't exactly wandering around campus, and my all-girls high school indoctrinated me with the idea that beauty is more than skin deep.

But in one of life's unexpected little twists, a former Miss USA works in my office. Undeniably, she's physically beautiful, but it's that kind of "perfect" look that belongs on TV -- on shows like Baywatch, ones I'd rather mindlessly view or choose to ignore altogether.

But with the influx of reality shows, there's good television now that obscures the pageantry and helps us inspect the idea of how a real-life American beauty looks and acts. This girl is aware of her appearance -- and often flaunts it -- but also has a job, a family, a mortgage, something connects us to her story.

The New York Times recently published an analysis of the conclusion to UPN's show "America's Top Model." The competition did not feature simply a conventional who's-hot-who's-not contest, but Tyra Banks and her bevy of judges required their contestants prove themselves useful. America's top model must be beautiful, inside and out, so the American public must somehow feel the same, concluded the Times writer.

Donald Trump might agree. On NBC's The Apprentice, a group of attractive business women have competed with men to win a chance to be "The Donald's" next top-salaried employee. The beginning of this season featured a battle of the sexes, and for awhile the women's team won, and won again, often because they didn't hesitate to flaunt their beauty and their sexuality to sell. But in its last weeks, The Apprentice group was whittled to two male finalists; good looks and sex appeal notwithstanding, the women's wits (or lack thereof) got them fired.

As a contrast, MTV has exhibited what an ugly American really looks like. Four very different women inhabit The Real World: San Diego house. One is Robin, a busty twenty-something, who in real-real life works as a Coyote at Coyote Ugly bar in Florida. She has sex appeal and good looks on her side, but the early episodes of the season expose her very bad temper. She's provoked when drunk, uncontrollably belligerent and eventually arrested for assaulting a guy outside a bar. Never has The Real World been so ugly; the roommates' self-indulgence this season shadows their physical good looks with bad taste. Even on MTV, where the potty physical stunts on the new Wildboyz (Steve-O's reincarnation of Jackass) and dysfunctional families like The Osbournes are the norm, beautiful women acting stupid in the real world look ugly.

Unfortunately it's not possible to oversimplify American beauty when reality television is an endlessly sensational business. The latest version of the reality trick is Fox's The Swan, and it contorts every idea of what makes a woman beautiful. The promos reveal the premise: 18 "ugly ducklings" are molded with plastic surgery until they are model-gorgeous. The catch: the women are not allowed to gaze in a mirror until three months after their altering surgery. And then Fox takes it to the next level -- these women must compete in the newest of reality-show gauntlets: a beauty pageant. Which woman, once so ugly she could barely bare her face in public, will now win the ultimate of all beauty contests, The Swan?

Fox says it's giving these women "a second chance at life," but I call this rough stuff. The show requires that "Those not up to the challenge will go home." I have been interested to see how a physical transformation could truly help these women face life's real challenges. There's much more to a fulfilling life than overcoming cosmetic disparities. I wondered, will "an intensive 'boot camp' of exercise, diet, therapy and inspiration" really help these women with real-life occupational, domestic and emotional problems "achieve their goals?"

In the third episode, Cindy and Tawnya are pitted against one another -- only one will graduate from her appearance-altering surgery to the actual season-ending beauty pageant. Cindy is a 32-year old mom with a big nose, and she's dubbed herself "the witch." Besides her distinctive features, she's plagued by facial hair that requires a daily shaving. She decries that "people don't know what it feels like on the inside to feel ugly." Tawnya is the oldest Swan contestant. The 40-year-old mom lost her brother in a tragic accident, her husband to a divorce, and was laid off from her job. These events amplified a very low self-esteem, and the "experts" agree she's "a big project."

After three months of plastic surgery, dental work, a controlled diet, and hours at the gym, these women appear cured of their woes. During the big "reveal" at the end of the show, Cindy and Tawnya are allowed to see themselves in the mirror for the first time. Gasp! Sigh! And a round of applause! The women are physically refined from their former selves.

Nose job. Fat transfer. Brow lift. Liposuction. Tummy tuck. Although these women are more attractive physically, neither has transformed into a great beauty. Their true beauty lies in the stories that preface their surgery. The show opens with these little vignettes: Cindy raises her son alone when her Marine husband is called to active duty, and single parenting is one of life's most difficult challenges. With or without the surgery, her husband sees her as beautiful, and she is admirable because her love for her family.

In an unprecedented move, Tawnya actually rejects most of the facial surgery recommended by The Swan's doctors, but even without a facelift, she glows at the end of the show. At the beginning of the episode Tawnya literally hides under her covers in a dark room, but after just three months of therapy sessions, she appears to have made progress towards an emotional recovery. Tawnya's strength provides true testimony that a beautiful woman is more than the sum of her physical features.

So Fox designed a show that overtly subscribes to the beauty pageant ideal but covertly exposes what real beauty is. These women lead very regular lives before their surgery, and they will return to all of life's joys and tragedies when The Swan concludes. Because Fox tells their whole story -- and doesn't just focus on their plastic surgery -- viewers can see these women are true beauties; they deal with their blemishes while simultaneously managing life's real challenges.

Makeover shows are most visibly impacting audiences in a superficial way. Callers have swamped radio shows in Denver for the opportunity to win life-changing plastic surgery. A weekend casting call at the local ABC station attracted a long line of potential Extreme Makeovers. I drove by as the hopefuls waited on the sidewalk for their chance to change their physical appearance on national TV, and I wished for the makeover message to translate in every aspect to these reality show fans. With or without a Swan-like bodily transformation, real-life beauty shines through the daily tests of life.

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