Every sleepover I had from elementary to middle school ended the exact same way: snuggled up under a million blankets, popcorn in hand, “America’s Next Top Model” on the TV screen. As young girls, my friends and I were obsessed with the glamour of it all. Tyra Banks took ordinary girls and turned them into gorgeous, high-fashion women. When we were done watching — and fighting over our favorites — we would pull out our Justice-brand lipstick and hot pink brushes. Each of us tried to make ourselves into models, posing against white walls and taking pictures with disposable cameras. We wanted to be pretty, too.
Shows like “America’s Next Top Model” and “What Not To Wear” claim to be transformative. They say “come to us, change your look and your life will change, too.” It’s more than a wardrobe full of new clothes. These stylists stick these people in a chair, then chop off, dye and completely alter their hair. Hair can mean a lot to a person; it can be the place they express themselves, the only area of their body where they have full and utter control. Hair can show us where we came from, unifying families through a set of ginger heads or tight ringlets. But on these shows, watched by millions and continued season after season, your hair is what’s holding you back.
On “America’s Next Top Model,” the hairstyle was often what made a potential model’s makeover infamous. In the often toxic modeling industry, natural is never enough. Take Michelle on Season 4 of “Top Model.” She was a long-haired brunette, but her makeover consisted of bleaching her thick mane. Michelle was visibly in pain from how intense her dye job was, and struggled to keep it up throughout the season. The next season, contestant Cassandra Jean sobbed as her long locks were cut into a pixie cut à la Mia Farrow. While host Tyra Banks empathetically assured her it would grow back, comments from the judges and other contestants alike forced Cassandra into an upsetting position. As Cassandra is prepped for the cut, fellow model Ebony is quoted in a confessional saying, “It’s good to see Cassandra showing some emotion.” Shortly after, judge Jay Manuel complains, “It’s been 12 hours of crying.”
That’s not to say every transformation was negative. The show and its remodeling would not have lasted as long as it has if it was drenched in pure gloom. Bianca from Season 9 was meant to get a blonde wig, but her hair was too damaged to support it. So the team went with Plan B, and shaved it all off. While Bianca was initially upset, she embraced her natural look and the hairstyle transformed her into a regal, high-fashion face. The same goes with Kayla from Season 15, who had two rules from her girlfriend going in: No baldness and no red hair. The latter rule was, of course, broken, yet the hair color turned an otherwise ordinary girl into a unique modeling asset.
Compare the uncertain emotions of that series to today’s most popular transformation show, Netflix’s “Queer Eye,” and the difference is telling. Yes, “Queer Eye” is not preparing people for the cutthroat world of modeling, but a lot of the same elements of “Top Model” are there. Except instead of crying in the mirror as the hair you love is taken away from you, you’re laughing with perhaps the most optimistic and loveable force on television today: Jonathan Van Ness. Episode after episode, Jonathan doesn’t force a look on the people he styles; he talks to them, gets to know them and gives them whatever hair, beard or mustache revamp he knows will make them happy. Instead of crying tears of pain and sadness, people on “Queer Eye” cry tears of happiness, as they find their true potential and self while a chorus echoes “yes honey!” behind them.
As “Queer Eye” brings home three Emmys, the ratings of “America’s Next Top Model” have been on a steady decline. This may be a function of time and the fading novelty of “Top Model,” and the fact that “Queer Eye” has become something of a phenomenon. Yet the changing balance between the shows reveals something more about what viewers are looking for. “Queer Eye” radiates positivity, educating and exposing viewers and the cast alike to important issues like the relationship between the gay community and the church or the lives and struggles of transgender individuals. It is more than just a makeover show; “Queer Eye” is a snapshot of contemporary society in a vital stage of change. That change just happens to start with a few great haircuts.
People already feel bad enough about themselves. It’s only natural that one might want to turn to a more uplifting show than one whose appeal is based primarily in how dramatically it can change its contestants. Our hair is our own, and whether we change it should be left up to us. No one should be made to feel bad about something that came from their own body, that was formed by their own genes. As our TV shows change, I can only hope that our culture can too, and that somewhere there is a group of girls reaching for their hair brushes right now, smiling into the mirror and lifting up their friends with the ever-reassuring words: “YAS queen!”