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> > > How to Look Good Naked

5 February 2010

By Caroline Cardus

Gok Wan stands with his arms crossed, with two female participants

How to Look Good Naked … with a Difference. Tracy, Gok Wan and Di Photograph © Adam Lawrence/Tony Buckingham/ UNP.

For the last three weeks I’ve been watching Gok Wan’s somewhat awkwardly titled ‘How To Look Good Naked… With a Difference’.

I was dearly hoping the ‘difference’ would be that the programme didn’t include the more common gaffes some disability programmes make. Late last year, an email from the production company asking for disabled women to take part appeared in my inbox, but I chose not to go for it to avoid being caught up in said gaffes. Pleasingly, on the whole they didn’t materialise.

This overall lack of gaffes was a disappointment to friends on Facebook who’d challenged me to a drinking game - one shot downed for every time Gok said ‘brave’. (There were a couple of occasions when he did - although it was in a shopping centre full of screaming women when somebody was about to go starkers. So I was prepared to be ambiguous about the use of the word).

Despite my cynicism about HTLGN… With a Difference, Gok won my respect. He’s one of those people who is prepared to say ‘I haven’t done this before and I don’t know how we’re going to do it - but let’s try, because it needs to be addressed’. He’s a force of nature who disarms and charms you with his ebullient manner and genuine people skills.

He clearly respects his ‘girlfriends’, although refreshingly, he isn’t afraid to challenge and criticise deftly within his own specialism. Herein lies the way forward to comfortable inclusion: respect, confidence in your own expertise, willingness to listen and good ol’ openness and honesty. If more presenters working with disabled people had these skills then this emerging area would have an easier ride.

These three episodes packed a lot in. I understand there is much to do in fashion when it comes to accepting and representing difference regarding impairment, representation and body shape. But I also felt they would have benefited from dealing with less content in more depth.

Whilst I looked forward to comprehensive fashion advice, as the content whirled through the makeover, the campaign, the Q and A sessions, the photo session and finally, the naked unveiling, I found few tips that I hadn’t already sussed out and was left wanting more.

Issues are unfortunately part of everyday life for disabled people. Perhaps the disabled Cinderellas who like fluffy fashion telly might well be crying, "thank you for the acknowledgement, but can we have more frocks and shoes please?" The issue is that we want to know how to look good with our clothes on!

But these programmes are also a journey. Gok’s approach is that the dichotomy between confidence and fashion must be explored before his girl emerges as a princess and gets her bangers out. Add the disability ‘issue’ into the mix and it’s not surprising things got a little complicated. Luckily because the programme did make relatively few gaffes I was sober enough to take it all in.

It’s worth noting that some inspired moments came out of it too. In episode three, Gok presents Di Cram with a tactile and audio ‘style book’ to help her picture what shape of clothes suit her best. I’m willing to bet there were visually impaired people up and down the country wishing they could get their mitts on something like that too.

There were interesting statistics included throughout the programmes to underline the disability focus. They gave statistics on how many disabled consumers there are - and how many felt disability was not represented on the High Street.

I also felt the images that came out of Nikki Fox and Natasha Wood’s ad campaign would work well in the mainstream and promoted fashion and inclusion in a way the general public could digest. There’s still the whole ‘acceptably pretty slim girl sitting in a wheelchair’ fashion issue, but lets not pretend shows like this are meant for the serious emancipated feminist.

In conclusion, I hope the initiative shown doesn’t stop here with the production company ticking the equality box and never hereafter having a disabled person on the show.

Ideally, the next step would be to regularly see disabled people integrated into ‘Look Good Naked’, and for it to focus on disability fashion themes again in the future. Looking around the internet during the last three weeks has shown me the programmes were well received and even went beyond expectations, so it would be a step backwards if nothing more happens.

I’m willing to bet now there are plenty of disabled Cinderellas out there willing to get their bangers out for Gok Wan - and if I wasn’t posing for Tanya Raabe later on this month I might even be tempted myself.

To watch 'How to Look Good Naked... with a Difference' - go to the Channel 4 website


Rosaleen Mc Donagh

24 February 2010

When it was advertised I did a very shameful thing. I put a television date in my diary. How sad am I? Normally when I want to watch a programme that would be deemed a guilty pleasure, I’d keep it a secret. With Gok Wan’s ‘special’ programme on ‘How to Look Good Naked, With a Difference’, not only did I mark it in my diary but I told all my best girlfriends about it. So I watched it. Three different women, all of a certain age (40, 45, 52). Would younger disabled women have the same reaction as I did? This was a question I asked myself. I’m hoping younger disabled women are aspiring to be more than just fashionistas. My own reaction was mostly positive but with a vague question mark. He’s a stylist. Women and sometimes men go to him for fashion advice. He doles out in abundance practical strategies on how women should bolster their self-esteem regardless of what their body shape is. Would I go to him? Hell yes! Would I have a problem with a man be him gay or otherwise telling me what to wear? Damn right I would. Yet in these programmes, disabled women volunteered to work with Gok around fashion and style.

Fashion and politics don’t always work well together. We have issues of sweat shops, of one-size fits all, mostly size 2, environmental issues and of course the fur is not for fashion campaign. Then along come chicks in chairs, ladies with canes and women who are amputees. They’re talking about heels, bellies and aesthetics. There were moments during the three programmes where I got so engrossed in Gok’s tips on how to wear knee boots in a chair and how side zips are so much more functional for us women who sit down a lot that my feminist values were put away in my compact.

In ‘How to Look Good Naked, With a Difference’, who approached who? Were Gok and his producers trying to be radical and controversial or was he plagued by disabled women writing to him asking him to devote three programmes to bodies like ours. It doesn’t really matter who approached who, the programme was made. Eyebrows were plucked, nails were painted, tears were wiped and the euphoria of having a gay man tell us we’re all the same when we’re naked, injected a large amount of self esteem into my veins. All the empowerment courses, all the assertive courses, all my training from various therapists around self improvement, my knitting and sewing accomplishments, none of them matched Gok’s persuasive endorsement of positivity around my place and my body in the fashion industry.

Do I want to be saved by Gok? Do I want to be saved by a non-disabled man? Unfortunately, I think not but maybe I need to be saved from the stylist within me. Call me old fashioned but I think there’s something crazy and beautiful about not being part of what we call ‘the mainstream’.

Hang on a minute! Don’t throw your handbags or your heels at me. Gok needs to be congratulated. His attempt to understand or expose disability culture was bold, brilliant and beautiful. My favourite bits were the group photographs. Large numbers of disabled men and women being photographed naked looked gorgeous. For me, those glimpses of the collective really worked. Nobody was a victim, no brave narrative, no heroines just beautiful bodies. It’s when he pulled me into individual storylines, that’s where I felt emotionally manipulated and politically drained. The two disabled dolly birds working with the advertising agency made me laugh. Gok chastising them was wonderful. No patronising behaviour there, no tokenism and the wheelchair was brought to the front of the advertisement. I’m an activist through and through. I’m a feminist and yes I’ve spent many years in shiny tracksuits that were put on me by care staff because it was easier for them. The mainstream, whether it’s fashion or education or independent living brings us many great things. It enriches us with the idea of full participation. However, in real life, along with that comes the huge compromise of who we are and the parts of our identity that we sacrifice in order to be considered worthy of the mainstream. If I had to choose my priorities give me a functional, applicable Disability Act. One that worked, that would make me smile more than any designer outfit.

As we know from the gals from the fifties, haute couture, chic and chi-chi, these phrases can be bought and sold quite cheaply to all of us women when we’re having a bad hair day but beauty, poise, elegance and style, they’re not just from within they’re attributes to an aesthetic that gives a sense of value and self worth and the notion that we are significant in the same way as our non-disabled brothers and sisters.

Maybe it’s my ethnicity or my Traveller identity that makes me go all shy and repressed when it comes to women and in this context women with disability, modelling lingerie. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. It’s mainstream television so of course they want titillation and flesh, plenty of flesh. The challenge of rolling your wheelchair down the runway in lingerie would seem a task that I couldn’t do. My vulnerability and my fear of exploitation and voyeurism would prevent me. Maybe I’m a coward. When I’m given my rights I don’t want to take them. That’s just it, Channel 4 and Gok like everywhere else decides what would make me feel good as a disabled woman. What’s the easiest way of shutting me up? Make a programme with disabled women being presented by the able bodied gaze. Make it emotive and give it to me in easy, bite sized pieces. Don’t make it too difficult. Don’t give me any angry, disabled women. Give me easy impairments, ones that I can cope with. Not somebody with a speech impediment or a learning difficulty. Still, as stated earlier, I did love the programme and Gok reminds me of the phrase that a girlfriend once told me. ‘A good bra is hard to find, one that’s firm and one that won’t let you down. When you do find one, make sure it fits, that you don’t spill out of it and that it makes you feel liberated but contained.’

Rosaleen McDonagh February 2010

Kaite O\'Reilly

23 February 2010

Oh dear... Maybe I've just got old and cynical, but I'm surprised at the lack of analysis of Gok Wan's show. Maybe we're so used to utterly terrible representations and cringe-worthy exchanges that something basically okay passes without a murmur...? Without a doubt Gok Wan is a superstar - he is warm, engaged, engaging - and often unnerringly honest - the living epitome of many womens ideal male best friend - supportive, stylish, and gay, so there's lots of body contact, but no 'issues'...

I only caught one of these programmes - his work with a Visually impaired woman, and as a Viz imp myself, that obviously held lots of interest for me. I applaud the creation of the 'audio style book'- fantastic! (but let's not buy into the Gok is God myth too quickly - that was probably the idea of one of the many advisors the researcher's approach in preparation, and was as likely the work of Gok himself as the 'here's one I made earlier' was the work of the presenter's on Blue Peter, and not some harried minion...) What goaded me throughout the one show I caught was the dripping SENTIMENTALITY!!!! Woman weeps over her sightless eyes and loss of youth, woman gets cuddled and made-over, woman lies naked on a white board covered in flowers, woman is squeezed into over-sentimental telly fooder by Gok's confident: 'I think for a moment, after all these years, you saw again then, didn't you?' Frankly, if a weak but saccharine version of audio deacription can be described as momentarily regaining sight, well bring it on! Owing to the lack of reaction to this type of content, perhaps you need to be visually impaired to understand how incredibly patronising and offensive that phrase and attitude was... Please understand I'm all for the campaigns for real womens' bodies on the High Street - and this is an element I completely support and respect in the HTLGN franchise - and the presenter is a charismatic and highly likeable talent - but can we just check how we're being sold to the great general public; and how much of a medical model subtext may be lurking? I feel uncomfortable commenting on just one episode - I wish I'd seen more - but myself and several other friends who discussed this and other episodes afterwards were all slightly uncomfortable at how much medical model attitude lurked beneath the highly addictive and polished surface of the programme. It seemed disloyal and ungrateful to be critical to aunty Gok and all the lovely things the programme is trying to do... Okay, so it wasn't as strong and offensive as the examples we've experienced in the past, but I think certain notions of 'normality' and the requirement for 'normalisation' lurks there and needs to be challenged. I'm also extremely interested in how all the sassy, politically-aware and politically-active women I know who were approached to appear in this series (myself included, alongside the reviewer) all chose not to... Did either of the other 2 programmes feature disability-confident women, who may have shaken the programme up more? Now THAT'S what I'd call groundbreaking tv - sexy, confident social model meets fashion.........

Damon Rose

23 February 2010

Good show by all accounts. I didn't see every last bit and congrats to Channel 4 for pushing forward with daily lifestyle content in this way.

Speaking as editor of the BBC's disability website - lots of the feedback we're getting recently seems to really be giving the same message over and over again: integration is the way forward. The appetite for separate programmes really seems to be drying up. I'd like to think that programmes like this, which have a standard issue format every week, would be able to find a way of slipping disabled people in.

And I think Caroline's clear desire for 'more' shows that this is a gap that can be plugged by experts on the internet or via other television streams in future. As television fragments further, we're all going to have to become experts in finding the kind of content we want: high quality productions from Channel 4 or BBC aimed at a mainstream audience with everything that entails ... or lower production values from trusted disability sources on the internet or emerging television video on demand / web TV / YouTube. Hyper niche and quality slightly more catchall mainstream have to be the way forward to get everything we want. Or that's what I think today.

Shannon Murray

23 February 2010

Hello Melissa

I am the model that was used in the programme and I can see your point; but I've been modelling for over 15 years and have done a number avant garde shoots which whilst they are great fun and produce creative & beautiful images, they don't reach the masses.

I'm sure most of us have seen the fashion that is designed for disabled people, personally I've yet to see anything I would actually wear!

By targeting the high street we hope to see more representation of disability in the mainstream rather than being isolated in niche markets.

Melissa Mostyn-Thomas

18 February 2010

While I thought 'How To Look Good Naked...With A Difference' was absolutely great - and I'd say Gok was himself brave for doing the challenge, and admitting that he'd never done it before - as an ex-fashion journalist I was disappointed that, once again, the only people being featured in the show - i.e. the model and the three participants - were the ones with the visible disabilities.

While I agree that it's important to campaign for disability to be visible in fashion, in a perverse way I feel that the perpetuators (both disabled and non-disabled) are still rather traditional in how it should be portrayed. The only exception was, of course, the late Alexander McQueen - a true avant-garde thinker - but sadly visionaries of his ilk are very, very rare.

I'm referring specifically to the ad campaign in Programme 3, which had a John Swannell photograph of a disabled model in two different settings on the sides of a double-decker bus.

The model was certainly attractive, and I was fine with the wheelchair's appearance in both settings, but why did the fashion have to be so middle-of-the-road? Why not devise an ad where the fashion is tailored to the disability, in much the same way that Jean-Paul Gaultier's designs are adapted to suit women of all shapes and sizes?

If the campaign evolved like this an opportunity might then have arose for non-visible disabilities to be represented in fashion - and we would have a very good example of the industry adapting to meet OUR requirements, rather than us struggling to fit in.

tony heaton

11 February 2010

great article Caroline - i dont have a telly but heard Gok on good old radio 4, Desert island discs (my kinda telly!)

i was fascinated by his story so had a quick look on a PC and enjoyed the programmes honesty, due to his character and approach, he clearly understands 'difference'due to his own personal journey.

his music though was truly awful and i would like to take him on a musical trip on a programme perhaps called how to listen to good music naked..

Angie Chadwick

11 February 2010

I would just like to say that I agree with the written review, Gok proved to be compassionate but not in a patronising way. The tips they gave were very helpful, being in a wheelchair myself the fitted sleeves and short length jackets I knew with experience anyway but that little push to stick some heels on If I am out I will make the effort to do and investing in a bodice to define the waist is not just good on the fashion and looks level but my impression is that it's supportive for the spine too and good for posture. I have always been a fan of Gok but after watching this programme he went up in my estimations and appreciate the effort that was put in, on the HTLGN website and after the show it advertises a link enabling you to sign the petition to get more disabled people out there in high street fashion as a whole.

The only fault 'How To Look Good Naked...With A Diference' had for me was that it had Three Episodes and not the usual Six or Eight, I could have watched more but it captured alot in those three.

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