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TV Series Review

Extreme Makeover plays more like a 20/20 newsmagazine special than a reality show. But it doesn’t examine hot news stories; it chronicles the age-old struggle of self-acceptance. Cynthia murmurs to the camera, “I look in the mirror and I think, ‘Who is this person?’ That is not me.” Her body seems determined to grow old while her heart refuses to age. Cynthia’s motivations for seeking an extreme makeover are typical of the series’ “patients,” all of whom struggle with the sagging effects of age, gravity and added weight.

Most of us don’t end up disliking ourselves by ourselves. Others point us down that path. A common thread that connects the majority of participants is the ridicule of childhood classmates and adult peers. As a result, they consider themselves fat, ugly, misshapen and somehow defective. It’s Extreme Makeover’s job to not only give them a new look, but a fresh outlook as well.

No horror stories get told here, just Cinderella-style tales of transformation. Tears of joy, shrieks of approval and whistles of adulation are the rewards. “The new Angela will be a renaissance creation, resculpted by medicine, art and architecture,” the announcer intones triumphantly as one lady prepares for her miracle. Liposuction, tummy tucks, facelifts, nose jobs, tooth veneers and “Brazilian butt lifts” seem easy and painless as hours of surgery and weeks of recovery are compressed for TV.

There are downsides to these extreme physical alterations, though. And not just for participants. While viewers occasionally receive encouragement to exercise, watch their diet and lose the extra weight they’ve let accumulate, I’m concerned about the series’ barrage of images promoting self-obsession and a desire for unattainable—sometimes risky—surgeries. As I watched episode after episode, I noticed that I was becoming increasingly self-conscious. I caught myself touching my lips to see if they were sagging. I started checking the mirror in the bathroom more often, examining the “smile lines” around my eyes. I couldn’t even resist pinching my belly to check for “double-rolls” of flab. The more people I saw magically morph from ducklings to swans, the more dissatisfied I became with my own not-quite GQ looks.

A few of the people who appear on Extreme Makeover need more than cosmetic alterations (a severely deaf woman gets fitted with the latest digital hearing aids). For them, I’m glad the glare of TV lights and someone else’s willingness to foot the bill can make a permanent difference in their lives. For the rest of us—especially self-conscious teens—this new brand of “reality” may only serve to stir up profound feelings of inadequacy.

Episodes Reviewed: Jan. 8, 22, Feb. 12, 19, 26, 2004

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Steven Isaac

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