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Repaint, for the kingdom of God is at hand: we're all in need of conversion, but the current crop of reality makeover shows misses the boat by focusing on the outside rather than the inside.

ABC-TV GAVE ITSELF A MAJOR RATINGS FACELIFT A few years back by asking America Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Now the Disney-owned network is looking to brighten its fiscal smile with a Cinderella show that asks plain Janes and ordinary Joes "Who Wants to Be a Supermodel?" Nearly everybody, it would seem.

When the pilot for Extreme Makeover came out a year and a half ago, nobody expected a reality show about plastic surgery to be a big hit. But the before-and-after tale of three homely folks who go under the knife in search of beauty and happiness sucked in a fat audience of 13.2 million viewers and had network executives slicing up their spring schedule to make room for 10 new episodes. Quicker than you can get a Botox injection, ABC had a hit show, and more than 10,000 people were standing in line for a shot at free surgery.

Extreme Makeover, which tracks the six- to eight-week transformation of a couple of lucky contestants as they are run through a gamut of nose jobs, face lifts, tummy tucks, and liposuctions, appeals to both the grotesque and romantic in us. The millions of viewers who savor the graphic coverage of bodily injuries on CSI and Six Feet Under will find ample entertainment watching the insults and gore of this human chop shop. And fans of Oprah and Dr. Phil will find heartwarming encouragement and teary-eyed inspiration in these tales of insecure and unhappy folks remade in the image of beauty and success.

The show also represents the latest (and, one hopes, last) stage in the progression of makeover programs. Years ago Martha Stewart (now headed to the "big house" to do her remodeling) made millions and then billions by showing middle-class Americans that they could set their tables and decorate their gardens like the rich and famous. This, in turn, begat shows like Trading Spaces, which showed ordinary folks transforming their homes into palaces. Next came Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and What Not to Wear, hit series that had the fashion police remaking folks by cleaning out closets, coiffing hair, and giving facials. Clothes (and a good haircut and manicure), it would seem, make the man or woman.

Still, these makeovers were fixing only the exteriors. TV needed a makeover show that would get under the skin, straighten teeth, fill in wrinkles, tuck tummies, suck out fat. TV audiences wanted a makeover show that would do for our bodies what others had done for our homes and closets. We wanted plastic surgery. And so Extreme Makeover promised to deliver the ultimate reinvention, to transform us completely by nipping and tucking away all our imperfections. As ABC Entertainment president Susan Lyne reported, this wasn't just a show about changing a person's looks, "it was actually about transforming someone's life."

And lots of Americans seem pretty interested in the life-transforming promises of cosmetic surgery. As Baby Boomers age, millions have turned to plastic surgery and other cosmetic procedures to look younger and slimmer. Last year plastic surgeons in this country did over 8 million cosmetic procedures, nearly three times as many as six years ago, and doctors gave more than 2 million Botox injections, nearly 40 percent more than the previous year. Americans are less inclined to hide the fact that they've had cosmetic surgery and are having procedures earlier and more often than ever before. Nearly half the people having plastic surgery or cosmetic procedures last year were between the ages of 35 and 50.

THE RUNAWAY SUCCESS OF SHOWS like Extreme Makeover and the increasing popularity of cosmetic surgery raise some interesting and perhaps uncomfortable questions. Culture critics have long been concerned with America's obsession with youth and beauty, and the narcissism of Baby Boomers is by now a familiar, perhaps even tired, complaint. Still, it seems at least a bit ironic that the very generation that so recently bemoaned their children's tendency to decorate their torsos and appendages with body-piercing rings and colorful tattoos should be rushing in such numbers to tummy tuckers and lipo suckers. Chastising youngsters who get nose rings seems a bit hypocritical if you're injecting bacteria under your eyelids every three months.

Then, of course, there are the dangers, mostly to women. After almost a century of failed and failing diet fads that have resulted in eating disorders for millions, do we really want to up the ante by encouraging these women and their daughters to embrace increasingly radical and invasive surgeries and procedures so they can become--or stay--beautiful enough for their men? Among the 8.2 million cosmetic procedures conducted last year, 87 percent of them were done to women. It sounds like the Stepford wives are everywhere. Meanwhile, cosmetic surgeons assure us that these procedures are increasingly safe. But didn't we hear those same promises about the Beverly Hills diet and silicone breast implants?

Some of the popularity of Extreme Makeover and cosmetic surgery must surely come from our growing despair over the war against fat. For decades Americans have consumed every diet and adopted every exercise craze that came down the pike, but we and our children continue to grow fatter. When diets and pills and flab busters have failed us, it makes sense that a lot of people would turn to the knife.

Still, maybe we need a different kind of makeover show, like Fresh Veggies and Fruits for the Junk Food Guy. Or maybe we could have a show where a construction crew comes into a working class neighborhood and tears down all the fast food franchises and builds food co-ops in their place. Or maybe we could have a makeover show where five bikers go into someone's garage and exchange their SUV for a 10-speed, or where bus passes become a fashion statement.

A show about a handful of contestants winning flee cosmetic surgery also raises questions about social justice in the only post-industrial country without national health care. There is something slightly obscene about a program that whets millions of people's appetites for expensive elective procedures while 40 million Americans can't afford basic health care and when the vast majority of those who are insured are not covered for these treatments. Extreme Makeover feels a bit like the old Queen for a Day, where housewives with really sad tales won new washers and dryers, except that people don't have a basic right to washers and dryers.

JESUS WAS INTO MAKEOVERS. MORAL theologian Charles Curran says the central message of the New Testament is Christ's call to conversion. When Jesus encountered people he called them to radically change their lives, to transform their basic ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. He told Peter and his friends to leave their nets and come follow him. He told the rich young man to give his wealth to the poor and become a disciple. He told a lame man to get up and follow him. He invited Pharisees, tax collectors, prostitutes, strangers, and fishermen to turn around and come after him. He told Nicodemus he must be born again, and he knocked Saul flat on his back and sent him off in the opposite direction.

Our consumer culture sees makeovers as a commodity, something we need to purchase on a regular basis. Every few years we need to redo our living rooms, update our wardrobe, change our hairstyle, and (now) lift our faces and smooth out our wrinkles. But the makeover Jesus wants is different. This makeover is a change of heart, a metanoia, or conversion, that reverses the very direction of our lives.

In Mark 1:14 Jesus begins his public ministry by calling people to "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand" and that repentance involves turning from sin to God. That's the kind of makeover no fashion police or cosmetic surgeon can do for us. But it may be the only sort of facelift that lasts.

By PATRICK MCCORMICK, professor of (Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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Title Annotation:culture in context
Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2004
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