Most people remember Fox’s 2004 show The Swan as the show that took the fable of the ugly duckling and corrupted it irreparably. With plastic surgery and cosmetic work, the producers of the show argued, any woman could become a swan. (Guess there were no potential male swans out there.) Contestants agreed to subject their bodies and neuroses to the surgeon’s knife; a few of the former “ugly ducklings” were then selected to go on to a swan pageant where only one could become theswan.
But that show wasn’t the first of its kind. It’s easy to forget NBC’s Extreme Makeover, which premiered in 2002. That’s partly because when most people think of that title, they automatically think of its much more successful and marginally more ennobling spin-off, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, a tearjerker home-remodeling show hosted by Ty Pennington in which needy families get their homes revamped Pimp My Ride–style. The roots of Home Edition, however, lie in a much uglier past full of not only tears and emotion, but also scalpels, liposuction and Botox. Extreme Makeover may not have gone so far as to pit women with already-low self-esteem against one another, but it did open the floodgates for plastic-surgery shows on television. As one USA Today reporter put it, referring to Fox’s venture: “With each new reality atrocity, it begins to look like 24 and its rare ilk exist to supply the critical cover that lets the network do what it really wants: The Swan. And that’s just ugly.”
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