With the title "How to Look Good Naked," you'd think Lifetime's new reality series would be a salacious and provocative 30 minutes where everyone ends up on a beach in Ibiza with Tara Reid.
In fact, ask anyone associated with the series -- which leads off Lifetime's new Friday night reality block on Jan. 4, along with "Matched in Manhattan" and Orange County and Las Vegas versions of "Top This Party" -- and you're struck by their sincerity and heartfelt interest in making a difference in people's lives. What's even more shocking is that they actually are making a difference -- one woman at a time.
Host Carson Kressley ("Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," "Crowned: The Mother of All Pageants") -- who knows a thing or two about making people look great -- was stunned by the abject loathing women had for their bodies.
"I was blindsided by it," Kressley says. "I had seen a few episodes of the BBC version (the show originated on the BBC), and girls were sad, but they didn't have the degree of body loathing that women in the U.S. have."
The series is a makeover show focusing on both internal and external forces in order to change a woman's perception of her body -- without resorting to things such as extreme dieting or cosmetic surgery. Over the course of five days, Kressley and producer/director Riaz Patel teach a participant to embrace exactly who she is -- regardless if she thinks she is too heavy, too short, too tall or just too unhappy with what she is seeing in the mirror. And that's no small feat.
"This is definitely more work and emotionally draining than just taking people shopping," Kressley says. "Women just have more issues going on. It really is about getting to the bottom of deep-seated painful issues that they face. So many women let body issues keep them from doing what they want. Life is too short to worry about big thighs."
In the premiere episode, Kressley helps Layla, a 32-year-old who has been dieting since she was 12. The first thing they do is have her strip down to her underwear in front of mirrors and the cameras and access her body. As you might imagine, it is an uncomfortable moment.
"There are hours and hours of tears and discussion and debriefing," says Patel, who trained as a psychologist. "It is a real process to see themselves differently. And I was really amazed at the potential psychological impact you could have on someone's life in only five days. It is incredibly challenging to teach someone to unlearn decades of self-loathing in just five days."
It's just as challenging taking five days of transformation and editing it down to a 30-minute show, especially when you realize what goes into those five days.
"The first third of our time together is pure psychology -- exercises in perception," Patel says. "We don't even touch clothes ... we break down decades of the woman's perception of herself. That first day is by far the hardest ... to get them to step outside of themselves."
Participants are then asked to place themselves in a lineup of other underwear-clad women ranging in order from thinnest to heaviest, tallest to shortest, etc. Consistently, participants place themselves wrongly, erring on the sided of negativity.
"We show them that their perception is flawed," Patel says, "not only of themselves, but of others."
At the beginning of each episode, Kressley goes out onto the streets and shows passersby a picture of the participant in her underwear -- not with an 8-by-10-inch glossy but by projecting the image on the side of a huge city building. The reactions tend to be overwhelmingly positive, but when Layla hears the comments she automatically assumes all of the bad comments have been edited out.
"We found people were more accepting of this alternative body being displayed," compared to the stick-thin body of a fashion model, Patel says. "[People)]are more supportive and accepting. The average man does like curves. And what if I had one person say something negative? They would focus on that one critique and have forgotten all about the positive comments. You always drown out the 15 positives by the one negative.
"We are most concerned with the negativity -- we are obsessed," Patel says. "You are making a choice by not hearing the positive. It really is a choice."The program also shows women how to pamper themselves, which is a major part of feeling good about yourself.
"Taking them to a spa, taking care of themselves -- it focuses on their body, which is the last thing they want to do ..." Kressley says. "When you feel so badly about yourself there is a thought like 'Why bother?' But our show says, 'Yes, you need to bother because all those things will make you feel better as a whole.'
"Our climax is not that you're looking good in a new outfit," Patel adds. "The clothes are a means to an end. We go deeper than that -- you can still love yourself without the perfect jeans.
"I hope this show allows women to look in the mirror rather than in magazines to see what is real."