Gok Wan is on a mission.
“I don’t want any teen to go through what I did”. The How To Look Good Naked star reveals how as a 21 stone teenager he endured years of misery and bullying.”
It’s all very Jamie Oliver: a passionate, personal crusade, comprising a bit of raw confessional, some contemporary social critique and taking action for real change.
However, while Jamie’s various series have seen him slogging his guts out dawn to dusk, chasing up recalcitrant truanting teens, arguing with local authorities, managing school canteens, and ultimately winning an audience with then-PM Tony Blair, Gok’s mainly involves looking at pictures of models while going “urrr, she’s too thin!” and getting girls to write on mirrors in lipstick and cry.
The teens in this programme are amazingly docile.
“Why do you think you don’t look good enough?” Gok asks.
“Because I see images… on the internet… celebrities,” says Paige, hesitant but obedient.
They flash up lots of thinspo photographs and slogans. Perhaps they could have chosen instead to show Isabelle Caro, dead at 28, or Katie Chilver, rather than these glamorised, 'triggering' fantasies. But this isn't a programme specialising in conceptual coherence.
Gok takes Paige on a life-changing journey to see a model do a photoshoot. The photo gets retouched. Paige cries.
“I didn’t know it was fake,” sobs Paige, who puts this new knowledge into action when she goes home by, erm, uninstalling the Photoshop software she uses to retouch her own pictures online.
14-year-old Brianna, meanwhile, whose anorexic phase has already long passed, sits quietly while an American dietician shows her some computer-generated images of how she’ll look at 30 if she’s anorexic (weird, haggard, wrinkled and grey) and not anorexic (just weird).
“Gosh, I think I prefer the non-anorexic one,” says Brianna politely. “Thank you.”
“I think I really got through to her,” says the dietician to camera as Brianna leaves.
At some other point, Gok gets a bunch of adolescent girls to look in a mirror in front of their mums and teachers and to say they have fat thighs or flat chests.
“I just look… ordinary,” says an ordinary-looking girl. Mums dab at their eyes with tissues.
Assorted celebrities crop up from time to time. The idea is that they confide their own teenage horrors and reassure today's younger generation that this too will pass. The problem is that (a) they're mostly incredibly irritating and (b) their problems include 'fitting in with everyone so not being really true to myself' (Duncan from Blue).
Despite the odd bit of lip service about ‘confidence’ and ‘self esteem’ , the programme is thoroughly Christina: “You are beautiful, no matter what they say.”
What is never suggested is that maybe you’re not beautiful, and maybe that doesn’t matter; maybe that’s not the worst thing. It’s not because the images are retouched that it’s a bad idea to aspire to have thighs with a big gap between them: so what if they’re real? Perhaps there could be other things to dream of, wilder skies than these.
In the photoshoot, while Paige and her comrades are squealing over the revelation that even the primped and preened model can’t match up to her own photograph, there is another woman in the scene: the photographer. Hair scragged back, in jeans, without make-up, here is a woman doing a technologically savvy, well-paid job, one that doesn't entail being half-eaten away by your own excess gastric acid by the age of 27.
But we don’t hear anything from or about her, and here’s the untold story, the one where looks aren’t everything. The one where Paige's very creditable photomanip skills could be put to better use than making her collarbone stick out.
The stated aim of this programme is laudable but no serious thought has gone into it, as evidenced by the repeated inclusion of pro-ana material as wallpaper. Judging from the teaser trailer for next week’s programme, the flashy stunts (landing in helicopters) and relentless shallowness which characterised ‘How to Look Good Naked’ aren’t on the way out any time soon.
Gok’s Teens: The Naked Truth is on Channel 4, Tuesday evenings, 8pm. And on 4OD here