The summer after year seven, I wouldn't have called The Princess Diaries feminist, or even tagged it with the early-2000s label that defined nearly everything I bought, from lip gloss to CDs: girl power. But as "Supergirl" played over the opening credits and I was introduced to Mia Thermopolis, I knew she was the kind of teenager I'd like to become. Yes, she was a little awkward. But she had a fun group of friends, she was a rock climber, and beyond an unrequited crush and a lack of athletic ability, she seemed comfortable in her own skin. But that skin (and hair and eyewear) is not quite right for a Disney princess. Cue the makeover scene. Mia learns plenty of lessons through the course of the movie — you're stronger than you think, the people who love you can be wrong, your first crush might not be a great guy. And she goes through all that growth with silky straight hair, no glasses, and perfect makeup (even after getting caught in a downpour). The message to my 12-year-old self was very clear: You can grow up to be whoever you want to be, as long as that person is wearing enough mascara.
The problem with the hot girl makeover is the insulting suggestion that the beautiful actress on-screen is somehow supposed to seem shockingly hideous with the addition of glasses and a lack of anti-frizz solution. It's one thing to compare yourself to the standard of beauty set forth in films. It's another to come up short when comparing yourself to what the movies define as ugly.
When you take a conventionally beautiful actress and turn her into someone in need of a makeover, you also make attractiveness into a math equation. Pretty minus makeup equals no longer pretty. Pretty minus long, frizz-free hair equals no longer pretty. And most damningly, pretty plus any kind of visible disability equals no longer pretty.
There are so many things that can stand in for the makeover montage and still mark a clear change for the character. Possibly the best example is Hairspray's "Welcome to the '60s." Tracy and her mother get new sparkly dresses as a milestone in their journey toward a more modern life, but it's clearly a "treat yourself" moment rather than a step toward "fixing" themselves.
Makeovers can be fun when they're light-hearted, or even if they represent a conscious decision from the character to change her life (see My Big Fat Greek Wedding). But the message of the hot girl makeover is clear: If you want a good life, you need to fix your physical appearance — and there's a lot to fix.