When I was a little girl shows like Sally Jessy, Jerry Springer, and Ricki Lake were incredibly popular. I always loved beauty pageants so Sally Jessy was my favorite. Daytime television’s version of a pageant in this case was when Sally Jessy would have a slew of transwomen come out wearing all their most flamboyant gear - or alternately “passing” so well that you’d never guess, and then she’d have you guess. Problematic? Yes. (Not that the trans people on the show weren’t consenting at the time.) But I was a latch key kid and if my parents had caught me watching those shows we’d probably have other problems entirely. So, not knowing the implications of what I was doing from a sociocultural or political perspective - I innocently watched a ton of trash tv in my trailer, all alone while my parents worked the kind of extended hours characterized by poverty.
I also remember watching a lot of those makeover shows. I love makeovers. The transformative, artistic and personally powerful choice to totally alter your appearance has always appealed to me just as much or more than the superficial beauty aspect of makeovers. (Not to undermine the value and magic and substance of beauty itself by calling it superficial.)
Daytime television’s idea of a “makeover” of course was similarly skewed.They’d take women they deemed to be overweight and underdressed, or women who “insisted” on dressing like “hoochies” and their parents or kids would come on and just, regale the person of interest with stories of how they have been personally victimized, judged, harassed and embarrassed because of how the person dresses. Not because of arbitrary social norms and societal oppression against women or the overweight or anti sex sentiments embedded in American culture in particular… but because you know, you were asking for it by dressing that way and the cure is to stop being yourself and CONFORM.
Even as a kid I took note of how confident and comfortable with themselves the person coming on dressed “inappropriately” seemed. How they seemed to have built up an arsenal of defenses against the judgemental masses. After all, if their friends and family were facing that much blowback from them being themselves - imagine what THEY faced for being themselves. Their postures, clothes and brassy attitudes seemed to literally and figuratively scream across the stage at a booing audience “I’m Sexy, DAMNIT. It is not up to you to decide that - because I already did and I AM DAMN SEXY.” Even if say, that need for attention or to prove their sexiness stemmed from some deep seated psychoanalytic issue, such as overcompensating for other deficits, that got revealed at the end of the show in a tender moment of mother-daughter hand holding and gentle weeping - it seemed to me they were happy before.
"If it ain’t broke, why fix it?" I thought in my preadolescent mind…despite my persistent interest in seeing change take place just for the sake of change.
After a while I began to relish that beginning part. That sassy, me being me part, the part where the women came out dressed “embarassingly”. My cheers for those women were my own little version of “suck it, society!” - even if I was locked at home all alone and no one ever heard them.
I’d give it to them if the women seemed happier at the end, if they really did look really good in what they put them in…if maybe, I gave in a little, they’d wear that to work. But there were always the few women you knew were going right back to their clothes before. And I really rooted for those brazen ones, yelling at the TV from only a few inches away..
"You look good girl. Do what makes you feel right! Don’t listen to them! They’re just haters!"
Later, as a preteen, I would discover feminism when a friend quoted Gloria Steinem in accelerated Lit class. And though a woman may need a man like a fish needs a bicycle, nobody needs haters ever. So if you don’t have anything nice to say, shut the fuck up. No one needs you to decide for them if they’re sexy or not. Not even if that’s the tagline on the banner of whatever trashy episode you’re in.