Makeovers are such a staple of movies targeted toward teen girls that it’s almost beside the point for me to call out specific examples. (Oh, fine, since you asked for my favorite movie makeover: Fran in Strictly Ballroom. Remember, though, I was a theater geek in high school so I sort of don’t have a choice here.) They’ve gotten sort of a bad rap over time—yeah, they send the message that we’re not really lovable until we fit a certain standard, and they set up the idea that the record-scratch moment has to happen or we’re doing it wrong. And it’s obvious but let’s say it anyway: How many actresses who aren’t conventionally good-looking to begin with are cast in these roles?
But Hollywood keeps on making makeover movies, and girls keep on loving them—and frankly, I keep on loving them too. As Rachel Rabbit White puts it in her roundup of the best makeover moments, “While there’s plenty to tease apart there culturally, it’s hard not to love a good geek to chic makeover montage, especially the rebellious or ill-advised.” (Word up, Prozac Nation!) Part of the fascination is projecting ourselves onto the character: What would we look like with enough attention from a small battery of dedicated team players (with a sassy gay best friend to boot!)? The chance to make ourselves over unapologetically is part of the enduring lore of prom movies too; for adult women, weddings supplant prom as our chance to “play pretty,” judgment-free.
But our fascination goes deeper than just our own wishes to be made over—after all, we project ourselves onto movie characters all the time, so the makeover is hardly unique in that sense. At first look it seems like we’re collectively into the idea of transformation: changing into a form we’re not. The more I think about it, though, what we’re after is transcendence—going beyond, rising above, triumphing. That’s what is so satisfying about a good makeover movie: not seeing our heroine change into something new, but seeing something revealed through change.
It’s rare that I ever wanted to look like anyone other than myself. Even in times of my life when I was unhappy with my appearance, the changes I wanted to make were tweaks to what I already had, not an essential change in form. In my fantasy-dream-makeover world, I look like myself, except plus or minus a number of things that are too boring to list here (#6: remove the colorless mole half an inch from my left nostril that nobody else has commented on, ever). And while I’m not trying to overestimate the resiliency of the self-esteem of the American woman, in talking with a good number of women about beauty, only rarely have I heard a wish to actually look like someone else. Most of us, most of the time, don’t wish to transform; we wish to transcend.
We wish to transcend the features that we think have held us back. We wish to become better than our troublesome thighs or inconvenient nose; we wish to triumph over what those features have personally meant to us. We wish to outdo ourselves, with what we already have—and if we want to outdo others, chances are we want to outdo them with what we have instead of what we don’t (isn’t that more satisfying?). In some ways it’s the basis of body image and self-esteem work: The entire idea is to go beyond, not to change essential composition. And despite the attention paid to women who do actually transform, much of the time that attention is done with a clucking tone, the undercurrent being: Honey, why don’t you learn to work with what you’ve got? There’s much to be critiqued about that form of judgment, to be sure, but at its heart is a well-meaning but harshly misdirected desire for our Heidi Montags to be more like our Jennifer Anistons. Isn’t the moral of most makeover tales that the makeover only helped its owner articulate what was already there? (Isn’t that why we have the term makeunder?) Transformation is linked to transcendence, yes, but the compositional change required by a transformation seems to me to be a route to the greater goal of transcendence. The focus on the tangible aspects of makeovers—the eyeshadows and push-up bras and blending of lipsticks—is understandable, given that transformation is an easier concept to look in the eye than transcendence. But our fascination with makeovers can’t be about the tools alone. They wouldn’t have such a hold over us if it were just about the outer shift.
It’s fitting that the person who got me thinking about transcendence is the author of several books about what one might call transformation at first glance. When I interviewed my friend Carolyn Turgeon last year, amid a thoroughly appropriate amount of mermaid talk, I also asked her about makeovers. Her second book, Godmother, gave the fairy godmother’s account of the most famous makeover of all time, Cinderella; her third, Mermaid, delved into the oft-literal pain that transformation can bring, with our protagonist (whom you may know under another author as “The Little Mermaid”) bearing the sensation of knives slicing her legs with every step. You can revisit the interview here, but this part in particular stuck with me:
There are definitely makeovers in fairy tales. … I love powerful moments of transformation. I even have a tattoo of Daphne turning into the laurel tree. When people long to be something else, it speaks to this basic human condition of being earth-bound and longing for transcendence. There’s that Platonic sense: You were once whole, and now you are not whole anymore; you long for that wholeness you once had. You fell from the stars and you want to return there. Or just your plain old Catholic thing of wanting to return to God. Whatever name you put on it, there’s this longing to return to some sense of wholeness that you came from and that you’ll go back to someday. So my characters are longing for other worlds, places where they’ll be more complete.
This idea—wanting to be whole again—stayed with me as I read her new novel, The Next Full Moon. It’s a young adult book, carrying on the YA-lit tradition of outer transformation echoing the intense bodily transformation of the early teen years, but the hook here isn’t a makeover per se. Nearing her 13th birthday, our heroine, Ava, begins to sprout feathers, which of course are terrifically mortifying, and the book follows Ava from the feather-freakout stage to, well, transcendence, in every sense of the word. (I don’t want to give away the plot, but Carolyn’s turn of phrase from our interview “You fell from the stars and you want to return there” was a hint of foreshadowing.)
Just as teen makeover movies abound, YA makeover books aren’t exactly new. But what The Next Full Moon does is give us the essence of the makeover without the actual making over. The Grimm Brothers (and their many sources) gave us a handy template with Cinderella: Girl gets makeover, girl gets boy, sisters get eyes pecked out by birds. It was so handy that while plenty of feminist scholars have deconstructed Cinderella, we still keep going over the same old ground without asking for a new makeover tale. Turgeon takes the end goal of transcendence and creates a storyline around it in a way her fairy-tale precedessors never did. Just as Gregory Maguire’s Wicked took the underlying themes of imperialism and cultural autonomy already present in Wizard of Oz, The Next Full Moon takes what’s inherent in plenty of fairy tales—supernatural means of becoming our best selves—and distills it to its essence.
The story is original, but it stems from another set of fairy tales: Swan maiden myths have shown up in various forms throughout world folklore (they’ve earned their own spot on the Aarne-Thompson folk tale classification system), and in fact there’s another contemporary retelling that got some attention last year. The story that became Black Swan was originally set in the theater world but Darren Aronofsky specifically decided to place it in ballet, and I don’t think it’s just the good girl/bad girl theme that made Swan Lake a fitting choice of framework. In the film, Nina isn’t just encouraged to find her internal “black swan”; she’s encouraged to go above and beyond her mere technical talent to truly inhabit the role—to make it, and herself, whole. Both Black Swan and The Next Full Moon marry swan maiden myths to a chrysalis tale, each of our heroines emerging from transcendent experiences with a knowledge they didn’t possess before. They’re both changed by their experiences (as any good makeover should do, natch), but in each case they’re only discovering what is already there. I’d hardly recommend Black Swan as a metaphoric tale for teenagers on the cusp of young adulthood (I think the film works best as a horror flick, actually), but the ease with which The Next Full Moon presents the essence of the makeover without the breathless pandering of shoddier makeover moments makes me wonder why we haven’t seen more inventive YA retellings of transcendence. (The answer, of course, is that Miss Turgeon is a visionary, but that’s beside the point.)
Straight-up makeover tales aren’t going anywhere, nor do they need to. I just want us to keep our eye on the prize here: The goal is not to change, the goal is to reveal. And makeovers don’t actually make us transcend, of course. That’s part of why we both love makeovers and fear them—what if we look in the mirror and we look different but are still the same? A makeover doesn’t make us complete. But given that most of us aren’t secretly swan maidens, fairies, mermaids, or even werewolves, the makeover is the closest thing we’ve got. It’s an immediate, albeit brief, stand-in for the longer, harder work of transcendence, which often requires such unglamorous tasks like study, or meditation, or spiritual communion, or plain old age. And when you’re 13, everything feels so urgent—you’re in a hurry to grow up and transcend this damned acne-ridden, retainer-bound form. Makeovers are a fine shortcut. But we need to remember what they're a shortcut to.