Finding Beauty in Reality Television Through Cosmetic Surgery (Reflection)

Alice Marwick’s article titled “There’s a Beautiful Girl Under All of This: Performing Hegemonic Femininity in Reality Television” leaves a reader feeling that they have a better understanding of both reality television and why some people, typically women, feel they need cosmetic surgery. Marwick provides personal testimonies from women who have appeared on the television show “The Swan.” These testimonies show how the women perceived themselves and their problems, and what solutions they feel will miraculously change their lives. Marwick provides a clear analysis of the effects of plastic surgery on women’s perceptions of themselves, which will be shown here through summarizing the show, talking about “improved” women, and how justifying the need for plastic surgery occurred. However, does cosmetic surgery actually liberate or empower women, or make one feel “better” for changing her appearance?

The reality makeover show that Marwick focusses her analysis on is called “The Swan.” The basic idea of “The Swan” is a beauty pageant with a winner at the end of the season. Each episode two women would tell the panel of experts why they wanted to be on the show, otherwise known as their testimonies. This panel of experts included a life coach, personal trainer, therapist, a cosmetic dentist, and most importantly, two male plastic surgeons. In their statements, the contestants, whom Marwick notes are always female, express what makes them unhappy about their bodies, and the limitations they feel have been caused due to their appearances. Marwick also notices that the interviews are over-dramatized by becoming “heavily edited” and adding, “melancholic music, childhood photos, and . . . standing in the rain” in order to “further the dramatic and ideological aims of the program” (p. 255-256). At the end of their transformations, one of the two competitors is selected for a position in the finale, where a winner would be chosen. The winner of the pageant gained “the ‘most expensive prize package ever rewarded on a beauty pageant,’ including a spokesmodeling contract with NutriSystem, a trip to Thailand, and a 10,000 dollar scholarship” (p. 254). Marwick also thought that the show’s creator, Nely Galán, produced a “program in which participants received plastic surgery as part of an extensive physical self-improvement regime including fitness training, hair styling, and fashion advice . . . the female participants, ostensible ‘ugly ducklings,’ received extensive cosmetic surgery and dental work, rendering them ‘glamorous’ but unrecognizable” (p. 254). Each contestant’s account tells of underlying problems that are seemingly solved by plastic surgery, and therefore allowing the woman to become proud of herself and show confidence.

Following this further should show that cosmetic surgery will “improve” a woman by making her feel powerful. This sense of power comes through an improvement on self-confidence, self-esteem, and a false sense of security. It is false because it takes away from her true physical appearance to transform it into someone else’s idea of “normal” and “beautiful.” These women become projects that need to be improved by using such phrases as, “it looks like we’ve got a lot of work to do” (p. 254). This idea of being a project is enough to make any person feel like they do not deserve to be called human, and it depersonalizes females by turning them into “objects to be worked upon” (p. 264). She also has found that some writers illustrate “cosmetic surgery patients as ‘successful, empowered women . . . who take the best possible care of themselves,’ rather than ‘insecure, weak predecessors’” (p. 253). This would mean that women who choose not to seek cosmetic procedures do not take care of themselves and are insecure, which is clearly not the case. A woman should not feel that she needs cosmetic surgery in order to have self-confidence, and that she will become any “better” for it.

However, it is true that many people think that if their appearance is enhanced they will be “better.” This idea is shown from the contestants and panel of experts to the media that displays these types of reality shows. The panel of experts twist words by saying they are using the operations because “surgical alteration [is] a means to access the true self, which has been compromised and physically suppressed” (p. 261). These people truly think that plastic surgery will solve other problems in their lives, and as Rachel Love Fraser rationalizes, “‘how you feel about yourself physically does play a part in how you react to the world and your environment’” (p. 261). Marwick (2010) states that there are many ways to justify the surgeries, such as saying that simply giving women a choice to have the operations will liberate and empower them (p. 253). She also notes that surgery is “as a conduit to personal mental growth that will create a superior personality in addition to altering the outer surface of the body” (p. 261). In the end, if cosmetic surgery needs to be defended in so many ways, can it actually provide a person with power?

Reality shows, plastic surgery, and the justification of surgery do not make a woman “better” for changing her appearance, nor does it establish any real self-esteem or self-confidence, as Marwick shows throughout her article. Still, the article leaves unresolved questions and forms new enquiries. These include how these women feel after the show is over and they return home to become “normal”. I wonder why the experts cannot stress diet and exercise as a healthy lifestyle change instead of makeover procedures? How does the choice to have plastic surgery affect the patients’ families, and especially those with influential children? Another important question is why the experts, including the therapist, cannot help with mental issues like depression to give a better body image?


Marwick, A. (2010). There’s a beautiful girl under all of this: Performing Hegemonic femininity in reality television. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 27:3, 251-266.

This entry was posted in Social Justice, WGST 100: Introduction to Women's and Genders Studies and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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