Winfrey holds mirror as teens talk about hating way they look

March 18, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Maybe Barbara Walters is the best celebrity interviewer on TV. But no one does better with non-celebrities than Oprah Winfrey. And Winfrey is at her best in today's ABC Afterschool Special, "I Hate the Way I Look," at 4 p.m. on WJZ (Channel 13).

The format is that of a teen forum -- Winfrey, a microphone and an audience full of teen-agers talking about their lives. The show's concept is supposed to be the connection between physical appearance and self-esteem.

But, because Winfrey gets many of the kids to open up, the

show becomes something more during its best moments. It becomes a kind of group therapy session for the teens in the audience. For viewers, it offers a chance to understand the emotional lives of teens and, perhaps, even connect with the place where they really seem to live.

The worst part of the show is the producers' attempt to structure it. Winfrey sounds a little preachy, for example, reading the scripted opening, which says, "Teen-agers give their looks far too much power over their lives. . . . How we feel about ourselves should not be determined by whether we're having a good hair day or our complexion is clear."

And some of the videotaped testimonials from celebrities about what "geeks" and "nerds" they were as teens sound a little artificial. One of the worst in this regard is supermodel Paulina's story about other teens pouring paint on her "because they thought I would look better covered up."

But, when it's just Winfrey shooting from the hip with the %J audience of teens, the special gets real.

"Have any of you ever been called hurtful names?" Winfrey asks. One heavy-set girl stands and tells about the time she was walking down the street and some boys yelled, "Hey, harpoon that whale." She talks about how she felt as she ran home and how she still hears the insult ringing in her ears.

"What is the most extreme thing you have done to improve your looks?" Winfrey asks another girl.

"I starved myself for three weeks to lose weight and, then, I took speed," a very thin girl says. "I wound up in the hospital."

Another girl tells about wrapping duct tape around her chest when she goes to rock concerts to make it look like she has bigger breasts.

Another girl begins by saying, "I'm a recovering bulimic," and ends in tears.

Winfrey asks follow-up questions of one of the teens with an eating disorder, and the girl says, "My mom is thin, and she'd be mad if I gained a lot of weight. She'd put me down."

At such moments, it seems more like churchgoers testifying than audience members talking on a TV show.

OC Adult viewers will probably be surprised at the answer when Win

frey asks her audience what's more important to them, good looks or intelligence. Even Winfrey seems surprised by the near-unanimous vote for looks.

As one girl puts it, "If I have looks, I can get dates."

'OK, OK," Winfrey says, "but what are you going to talk about on the date if you don't have intelligence?"

"You can fake it," the girl says, "or you can let the boy carry things. Looks are what count."

In one of those tiny jokes that the scheduling gods play, "I Hate the Way I Look" on Channel 13 will be going head-to-head with the regular "Oprah Winfrey" show on WMAR (Channel 2) at 4 p.m. today. "I Hate The Way I Look" is the one to watch, tape and share with a teen.

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