The Hidden Theology of ‘What Not to Wear’

Recently, while feeling sick and unable to sleep, I got out of bed around 2:00 a.m. and decided to pass the time with some Netflix, settling on a couple of episodes of TLC’s What Not to Wear from season nine. I initially picked it because I wanted something somewhat mindless to watch. After a while, though, I noticed how the show, in it’s own way, addresses some very important and deep human issues: issues regarding self-esteem, our inherent value as individuals, and how we think about and treat ourselves.

If you’re not familiar with the show, it follows two style experts, Stacy London and Clinton Kelly, who are summoned by concerned family members and friends to give a woman a style makeover. Her closet is purged, she is whisked off to New York City and given $5000 to buy a new wardrobe, and then she gets a new haircut and makeup consultation to top it all off.

It’s not the kind of show you’d expect to address deep, personal issues—after all, in many ways it’s just another makeover show, and on the surface it can seem quite shallow—but I think the host’s raise some valuable points about the psychology, and even spirituality, of personal appearance.

Take Jackie, for example, the subject of episode three’s makeover. A formerly single mother of four, Jackie is now engaged to marry a great guy. However, her wardrobe choices oscillate between the wild extremes of frumpy sweats and oversized tee-shirts to skin-tight, super low-cut tops and dresses. Stacy and Clinton, as they do to everyone who comes on the show, put Jackie in the intimidating 360-degree mirror to assess Jackie’s outfit choices from every angle (an admittedly excessive tactic, but it’s reality television, after all).

Stacy and Clinton quickly dig up the underlying motivations behind the way Jackie presents herself. Jackie confesses that she has been cheated on multiple times in the past and has taken a blow to her self-esteem as a result, feeling like she’s “not enough” to keep a man interested. Motivated by this insecurity, she puts it all out on the table with extremely revealing date outfits in an attempt to ensure her fiancee’s continued devotion. On the flip side, she puts no effort into her day-to-day wear, throwing on ill-fitting tee-shirts and baggy pants to run her kids around and manage her own full-time class load, believing her daily personal appearance—and, by extension, herself entirely—to be less important than her other responsibilities. When asked if she believes she deserves to feel beautiful, Jackie is only silent. Stacy points out that both of her wardrobe extremes are inappropriate: “One says you don’t value yourself at all, and the other one says you’re giving yourself away for free.”

Heather is another example of someone with a dual personality caught between conflicting wardrobe identities.  At 6’1” Heather’s easily noticed, but she likes to dress in flashy clothing when going out on the weekends to get extra attention from men. When dressing for her office job (which she hates), however, Heather puts no effort into her appearance. Again, nothing can escape the all-seeing eye of the 360-degree mirror, and the truth comes out. Since she had her first child at the age of seventeen (and has since become a mother of two), Heather feels she was forced to grow up too fast, so she compensates by dressing provocatively and overly young for her age in an effort to recapture her youth.

This is par for the course in every episode. I’m fascinated both by the intensely personal, and sometimes heartbreaking, stories the women tell to explain the way they dress, as well as how adeptly Stacy and Clinton nail down the real issues at hand and then proceed to demonstrate how a revamped wardrobe can help lift self-esteem, establish a more appropriate identity, and even open up future opportunities for growth (both personally and professionally).

Dress for the life you want, not for the life you have.

But the message even transcends that; it’s more along the lines of “Dress for the life you do have: a life that is valuable and beautiful and worth respecting.” It’s beautiful, in a way, what these stylists do for people. When you get past the posh New York clothing boutiques, the $200 jeans, and the professional hair styling that’s impossible to recreate at home, you see that they’re giving people more than just an external, physical makeover. It’s also an internal makeover. Stacy and Clinton show these women that they don’t have to dress like a slob or a slut (their words) because they deserve to treat themselves better, because they are better. As Clinton says to Jackie at one point during her episode, “The first step of putting effort into yourself is…realizing that you deserve it…[that you deserve] to feel beautiful, just for being you.”

One could argue that the overall message of the show is that a woman must wear stylish clothes and lots of makeup in order to look and feel beautiful, and perhaps that is one message of the show, even if it’s a more subliminal one. I still think the show makes valid points about enhancing your self-esteem and establishing an appropriate perception of yourself through your appearance and presentation. How we present and dress ourselves matters because it’s an extension of how we feel about and treat ourselves; just as it is important for human beings to respect each other, it is equally important for us to respect ourselves. And the bottom line is that our external (physical) selves and our internal (psychological, emotional, spiritual) selves are all united as a single, complete human identity. In addition to everything else that makes us human, we are also physical creatures. God created us spiritual and physical, and we will continue to be such, even after death, once our bodies are restored in the resurrection.

Of course, the deeper truth is that all people are inherently valuable because they are valued by a loving Creator. Because God loves and values us, he became man, died, and rose again to redeem humanity, body and soul.

Considering What Not to Wear has made me realize that how we present ourselves (not only through our clothing, but also through our behavior) matters, not just because we want to make a good impression, or nail the job interview, or impress someone on a date, but because we as human beings are inherently valuable. We are image bearers of God—a God who became man and took on a physical body—and we ought to treat ourselves and each other as such. Physical presentation is one component of that.

This all is not to say that our physical appearance is the most valuable part of our identity (after all, those who have suffered physical injuries or malformations are not less valuable for it), but I think effort and thought put into our physical selves ought not to be discounted as entirely shallow or meaningless, as long as it stems from the right place. After all, our physical presentation not only cues others how they ought to treat us, but it’s also an indication of how we value ourselves and how we believe we ought to be treated.

It’s not about being stylish, or having the most expensive clothes possible, or conforming to a particular understanding of a “correct” appearance. It’s about recognizing our inherent value and acting on that recognition through the choices we make about how we present ourselves.

I’ve had my share of self-esteem struggles just like anyone else, and when I’m feeling down, my husband encourages me to look at myself in the mirror and remind myself that I am smart, valuable, beautiful, capable. The mere act of saying the words helps build up a better self-image, just like how the act of putting on a suit or a nice dress helps build up confidence or a sense of professionalism. We must hold the belief internally and act on it externally. Above all, we must hold firm to the conviction that we are children of God, worthy of the most powerful love in the universe.