The US feminist poet Katha Pollitt once warned “When left, right and centre agree, watch out. They probably don’t know what they’re talking about.” Pollitt was unlikely to have had Gok Wan in mind when she wrote that, but I would argue the popular TV fashion guru is a textbook example of her cautionary advice.
For those not in the know, 35-year old Wan burst on to Britain’s television screens in 2006 as the flamboyant presenter of Channel Four’s How To Look Good Naked. Pulling in over three million viewers at its peak, the show professes to boost women’s body confidence by using fashion and style tips, rather than encouraging weight loss or cosmetic surgery. As Wan explains in the very first episode: “46-year old Susan Sharpe, like nine out of ten British women, hates her body. My mission is to show her how good she can look with her clothes on and off – without having to nip, tuck, crunch or starve.” By the end of the show the transformation is complete, with the once tearfully insecure Sharpe confident enough to do a naked photo shoot.
Wan has gone on to present five more successful series of How To Look Good Naked, as well as new shows such as Gok's Fashion Fix and Miss Naked Beauty. Writing in The Times, Caitlin Moran breathlessly argues Wan is “a revolutionary” and “a public service”. Not wanting “to overstate his importance” she proclaims: “Now we have the vote, and equal rights legislation, it might well be that Gok Wan… is the most significant person in the lives of 21st-century women.”
Wan certainly pushes a lot of the right progressive buttons in a country where women make up 90 percent of the 1.5 million people with eating disorders and 91 percent of those who undergo cosmetic surgery.
But before you get too excited and throw away your copy of The Beauty Myth, shouldn’t we take a closer look at Wan’s message?
Noting there is “enormous pressure on women to conform to the body shape ideal”, the official Simply Gok Wan website argues “Some women are naturally thin, some are naturally curvy, and as long as both are healthy then who is to say one is more ‘ideal’ than the other? Beauty should be about diversity”.
So far, so right on. However, at the start of the first episode Wan explains: “I’ve got only four weeks to show my curvy girl how to lift those boobs, tone that tum and shape that bum.” What happened to beauty being about diversity?! Instead Wan boosts Sharpe’s self-esteem saying she has “curves to die for”, while simultaneously shaping her to fit the unattainable image of a beautiful woman. Am I the only person who sees the deep hypocrisy in this? So despite the faux-feminist rhetoric, like Nick Clegg’s ‘new politics’, Wan’s ideas on beauty are in fact highly conventional and conservative.
Throughout the half-hour show Wan continues to flip between playing the supportive gay best friend to reinforcing the destructive beauty ideal that his own official website argues leads to “depression, shame and guilt”.
“It takes pounds and inches off you… it slims you write down”, gasps Wan about a dress in the changing room. Elsewhere he explains that “If you are short and thin, this season’s super skinny trousers will lengthen your legs and make your bottom look pert.”
More importantly, while Wan is undoubtedly a step up from such hateful fare as Trinny and Susannah’s What Not To Wear and Ten Years Younger, the fundamental message remains the same: Appearance is, and should be, central to a woman's identity. The assumption being that women are not naturally beautiful but are always in need of improvement which requires endless effort and the endless consumption of beauty products and fashionable clothes.
So when Wan asks Sharpe what her future plans are, she says she intends to buy “nice clothes, nice dresses, nice underwear, nice bags, nice shoes”. And if she gets stuck for ideas it just so happens Wan has his own “Sexy Shapewear” lingerie line, selling Super Slicker Knicker’s for £30 or Banger Booster’s for £33.
In The Equality Illusion feminist Kat Banyard argues that “viewing one’s own body as an inanimate object to be made pleasing to onlookers is inherently harmful.” As evidence she cites a 2008 Flinders University study that found even complimenting a woman who views her body as an object on her physical appearance can have negative consequences. “This apparently counterintuitive conclusion followed upon the discovery that the compliment focused these women’s attention on their body and led them to fell more ashamed of it”, Banyard comments.
Despite the very real progress made by first, second and third wave feminism, the fixation on women's physical appearance today is greater than it has ever been. Wan may be a noticeable improvement on other makeover show hosts, but this shouldn’t lead to everybody suddenly losing their critical faculties. To do so would mean we miss the fact that although How To Look Good Naked is targeted primarily at women and professes to support women, in reality its deeply contradictory messages ultimately elevate a beauty ideal that continues to damage women's mental and physical health.