I was walking down Regent Street a few weeks ago, and as you often do in that part of London, I saw a minor celebrity. In real life, Gok Wan, host of the UK makeover show How to Look Good Naked looks as you might expect. He is a tall bloke, with unusual features. He was well dressed, but not in a showy way. If it was not for the small film crew around him, most people would not notice him. Even with the film crew, few of the Regent Street shoppers gave him a second look. But there was one thing I noticed about this fashion guru. Standing around, not doing anything in particular whilst waiting for his crew to do whatever they were going to do, Gok Wan looked content.
It would be hard not to like Gok Wan. Normally I find television about fashion, and especially fashion makeovers of ‘ordinary’ people, to be dreadful. Fashion does not bear rational analysis, so most explanations of what looks good or does not look good are absurd and pointless. All that television can do is just show us the clothes and tell us what styles are more prominent this year. The only way to really know if an item looks good on you, is to put it on and stand in front of a mirror. The golden rule is not to worry about what other people think, because everyone has different taste. Trying to dress to please others is always going to end miserably. Gok doles out his advice on his show, and most of the time just says sensible things, though every so often he makes a dud suggestion. I mean, Gok may think the woman looks good when dressed like a rock chick looks good, but if she is a hippy, it will not be good for her. The way you look has to somehow reflect who you are. The occasional bad idea is okay, because Gok is paid to come up with ideas and not every idea is going to be good. He can be proud of his day’s work if four out of five of his ideas really do suit the person being made over, especially if they keep following his advice in future.
The secret of Gok’s success does not lie in his fashion sense. Most of his advice is so obvious that anybody, if forced to take some time out and think about how they look, would come up with independently. Wear nice clothes. Try to work with the shape of your body, not against it, nor hide it. Accentuate your best bits. Get a decent hair cut. Wear make-up that is right for you. The biggest ‘trick’ in the Gok Wan book of beauty involves the selection of underwear. In other words, wear the modern day equivalents to the corset – which is hardly a new invention. Select undergarments with the right combination of lycra and wiring to squeeze or support where a woman’s figure might benefit from squeezing and where it might benefit from support. But in the end, the title of his show is a complete misnomer. If the women Gok Wan dresses look good naked, it is not because of the way Gok Wan dresses them. Even the haircuts and make-up are a form of dressing-up, so when stripped down to their naked glory, the women look no different after a Gok Wan makeover – except in one place.
What makes Gok Wan’s show enjoyable, when most makeover shows seem designed to manipulate and mould the shapes of the poor women who appear on them, is that he does not really try to change the way these women look. There is no talk of cosmetic surgery, or dieting, or any of that. Sure, he makes them get into underwear that boosts where boosting is needed, and flattens where flat is best, but for the most part he selects items that also would be comfortable. Where the moral of most fashion makeover shows is that if you look good, you will feel happy, Gok Wan has realized it works the other way around. Feel happy, and you will look good. Most of the show is dedicated to boosting the self-esteem of the woman being made over. He does not change the way they look naked, he just encourages them to have a positive self-image. Everything is designed with that in mind. He devises situations where random strangers will speak, without prompting, in flattering terms about the woman’s appearance. He challenges any negative thoughts they have. He gets the women to pose naked for an artful photography. He parades the women, dressed in sexy lingerie, on a catwalk alongside real models, so that friends, family and passersby can all clap and cheer. To top that all off, Gok Wan’s straightforward and irresistible encouragement leaves the women with little choice but to be positive. The title of the show is a misnomer. It should be called, “How to Believe You Look Good Naked”, or better still, “How to Know You Look Good Naked”. Having confidence in your looks is self-fulfilling – you will look better as a result. The women who goes on Gok’s show get a huge confidence boost, and so will tend to make better decisions about how they look in future. Simple, really. The one place where Gok really changes the way a woman looks naked is her face. As they take their clothes off, he gets them to put a smile back on.
The feeling good, looking good philosophy of Gok Wan has its limits. For the most part he realizes people will not look good if they do not feel good, so comfort cannot be ignored. However, Gok does sometime forget himself – on one episode he suggested high heels for a pregnant woman! Not every idea is a winner, but that is forgivable if there are plenty of them and most of them pay off. Gok does play the part of the myth-buster to some extent, by running experiments where groups of women try unmarked beauty products. These often conclude that the cheap supermarket labels are better than the expensive brands. But in the end, Gok does not battle convention. Gok has no sympathy for body hair, even though the human race has had body hair for millions of years. Our ancestors were perfectly able to find each other attractive without the needing razors and depilatory creams. The fascistic idea of stripping the body of all unwanted hair should be deeply troubling to an intelligent mind. We are animals, and hair grows on our skin. Hair is a sign of sexual maturity, so the obsession with its removal suggests some confusion in the associations between youth and beauty. Gok may give advice on how to sooth the skin after the purging of every last follicle, but that hardly compensates for his ruthless imposition of a societal norm that causes pain for the women on the receiving end. Those women may well question whether they really are less beautiful with a little bit of hair sticking out here and there, no matter how many other people pull childish faces of disgust as if their bodies did not have the exact same design feature. Conventions like this are impervious to a rational mind, so I can understand why Gok Wan can only parade women on a catwalk after their bikini-line has been waxed. Nevertheless, it is worth pondering how Gok Wan would react if confronted with some other notable beauty conventions that have come and gone. Would he have discouraged Coco Chanel from getting a tan, and dispelling the dominant fashion that women should be pale? How does he feel about real tans, still craved by many, despite the cancerous risk and the terrible long-term damage it does to the skin? If real tans are not safe, and pale used to beautiful, why do some people think fake tans are beautiful? Tanning is a safe but useful example of how our conventions can be re-examined, but history tells of societies that encouraged systematic deformity in the name of beauty. Some ancient peoples forcibly moulded the shapes of baby’s heads, in order to artificially change them. The binding of women’s feet was accepted in China for a thousand years, and lasted up to the start of the 20th Century. The use of brass rings to elongate a woman’s neck is still practiced by the ‘long neck’ people in Burma and Thailand. Nobody is entitled to say whether a majority is right, or a minority is wrong, to make the aesthetic choices they do. Perhaps one day people will look back at Gok Wan’s disgust at body hair and find his behaviour as perplexing and discomforting as we would when shown images of bound feet and deformed heads that are meant to be ‘beautiful’. But if you cannot change the world, change yourself, and at least the women are smiling at the end of Gok’s changes.
Gok Wan satisfies the 80-20 rule. Most of the time he gets it very right, so we can forgive him if he sometimes gets it wrong. He has realized that no end of fabric or tailoring will make someone look good, unless they feel good. I have no pretension to being a fashionista, but in that same vein, here is my own three-step approach to looking good naked:
Eat when you are hungry, stop when you are full. Being hungry is your body’s way of telling you to eat more, and being full is your body’s way of telling you not to eat any more. Your body knows best, so trust it. Keep your body happy, and it will look better.
Do some physical exercise now and again. We are animals, and our ancestors lived by chasing and gathering our food. Your choice of exercise does not really matter – our ancestors used their bodies for purposeful activities, not body-sculpting sessions down the gym. Our bodies are meant to be used, and look better if they get some use. Your body will thank you by giving you more energy, which will brighten your mood and make you more positive.
Take a deep breath. Relax. Smile. Everybody looks good when they are happy. So be happy and stop worrying about looking good naked.
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