by Kathy M. Newman

I might as well tell you: I am on a diet. I did not really mean to go on one. I have never been on one before. As the personal ad might say, I am 5'4", HWP, and athletic, but when the scales tipped to 172, I had to face facts. Against every hip instinct to avoid all manifestations of cheerful suburban culture, I joined a weight loss clinic. Much to my surprise, keeping a food diary, getting emotional support and eating less works: In five weeks I am down to 155 pounds and counting.

I do not mean to bore you with the innermost secrets of my bathroom scale, but this week I am writing about fashion and television. And the obvious problem with fashion and television is that the stated goal of advertising on television (to make us consume) and the images offered us on television (impossibly thin women who never eat) are fundamentally at odds. In addition, diet products and programs are advertised on television in a perfect cycle of capitalism: consume, get fat, desire to be thin, consume diet products, get thin. Shampoo, rinse, repeat.

Even more disturbing is the fact that 60 percent of American women are over 140-180 pounds, and wear a size 14 or larger. That means that the majority of American women are in the so-called "plus" size category, while most clothes are made and marketed to the other 40 percent of American women. Perhaps we should designate 14 and larger as the "normal" sizes, and 2-12 as the "minus" sizes. Forgive me if I sound bitter: One of the main reasons I resorted to dieting is that I could not face trying on even one more pair of pants that did not fit. It is not just a gag in a "Cathy" cartoon. It is one of the agonies of my life.

For every agony, however, there is an antidote, and for my fashion anxieties I consult the experts on E! Entertainment Television. E! is where I retreat when I want to bemuse myself with hate-couture (spelling intentional), make fun of celebrities or indulge in a campy, custom makeover. E! is the one network on television that I do not worry about my weight while watching.

Lots of channels have runway recaps, and E! has more than one, including Fashion File and Videofashion. These features take fashion seriously, but if I happen to be watching, I simply arm myself with a little critical theory.

French theorist Roland Barthes is always good armor against any fashion insecurity attack. If we consult his important semiological work, The Fashion System (1967), we will find that, in fact, fashion has very little to do with women, or even clothes. Fashion is its own sign system, according to Barthes -- a sign system we can better use to decode late capitalism rather than clothe our naked selves.

Take E! Entertainment Television's recent $1 million live telecast of the new fall fashions from Sean "Puffy" Combs. In front of a crowd that included Tommy Hilfiger, Johnny Cochran and Bobby Brown, Combs debuted a bevy of bare-chested male models wearing lynx- and mink-lined coats, lamb suede cutoffs and denim patchwork pants. These clothes do not say "wear me" so much as they say: put a shirt on! Maybe then you won't be so cold, and you won't need to kill so many animals!

Other recent runway trends are even easier to decode. As I learned from watching Fashion File, major clothing designers are realizing that the current trends in leather, cashmere and fur are too pricey for a recession pocketbook. Therefore they are turning to the equestrian world for ways to look country club without pawning the family jewels -- including such items as riding jodhpurs, flat-heeled riding boots and colors like Kelly Green. All this to say: Bush's tax cut will only benefit the rich.

As much as E! seems to take fashion seriously, the feeling of the cable channel is still one of high camp. And no one is campier, or Halloweenier, than Joan Rivers. Rivers and her daughter Melissa have been hosting the pre-Oscar Awards show for E! Entertainment Television since 1995.

Rivers is not the best candidate to be throwing the first stone. While she does not live in a glass house, her face often looks as if it is about to crack. Moreover, her recent interviews at the Grammys showed that she should probably stick to Hollywood. Rivers gushed to 'N Sync (the garishly dressed FIVE-boy band), "It was great meeting the three of you."

But I don't care. I admire Rivers for being one of the first successful women comedians on television, for living past 60, and for helping the rest of us to make fun of people with a lot of money. Even if I cannot always approve of what Rivers is wearing, I always enjoy her acid tongue. Watching her interview celebrities on the red carpet is like being the loser at the spring prom all over again -- only this time with a microphone. Delicious.

But E!'s Fashion Emergency is simply the best fashion show on television. Hosted by the so-called "plus-sized" model Emme, real people send in video pleas for fashion assistance. Their cries are answered by the makeover team of Leon Hall and Brenda Cooper.

Emme is the star of the show. At 5', 11" and 190 pounds, Emme has not only invented a new category of model, she recently launched her own clothing line -- for sizes 14-24. Admittedly, Emme has struggled to accept her body. Though she is a hiker, swimmer and a biker who received a rowing scholarship to attend Syracuse University in the early-1990s, she says, "my body image was a disaster." But not anymore. Now she is the poster-child for normal women everywhere, and her hit show is watched by 400 million viewers in 120 countries.

The secret of the show's appeal lies also in the over-the-top antics of Leon Hall and Brenda Cooper. Hall -- who is short, odd-looking, queeny and sweet -- admits that he is nicer to real people than he is to celebrities. He also believes in real prices, explaining that he does not want to showcase a pair of $750 shoes when that is as much as some of his viewers make in a month.

Brenda Cooper is also a woman of the people, leading the way in fashion for pregnant women. She has worked on Fashion Emergency through two pregnancies, sporting creative combinations of lycra-enhanced cotton, wool and rayon.

Most importantly, Hall and Cooper make the ordinary men and women who come on their show feel like royalty. They took a Boston zoo keeper and helped her to find a ball gown for a benefit that made her feel like Cinderella. They helped a group of three Latina sisters look like "grown-ups" for their family reunion. When their grandmother saw them, she cried. They took an overworked, out-of-the loop couple from Montana and gave them a second honeymoon in New York. As Hall explains, the show is not about fashion, it's about people. And that's why I like it.

So, if you are unsure what you should be wearing this season, and you think television will help, remember this: Hate-Couture has little or no relation to REAL CLOTHES. We are not supposed to wear it. We are supposed to decode it, and use it to understand the major shifts in our culture, and our economy.

Also, if you want to make fun of people, lay off your neighbors. Join Joan Rivers and make fun of famous people. Besides, they can't park in front of your house.

And finally, if you want to look good, make a video and send it to Fashion Emergency -- the show that celebrates real people, real clothes and real prices. It's the best place to hate fashion on TV without hating yourself.

Mount St. Helens: Critical Memory @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

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