Are Shows Like “Fixer Upper” Damaging Or Restorative For Your Mental Health?

It’s not so black and white, but rather…greige: Home renovation shows set unrealistic expectations, doggedly gloss over the laminated dangers, and feed our inner #genzgreen monster. Or…do they?

By Carolyn Ferguson5 min read
IMDb/Fixer Upper

I know, it feels like Joanna Gaines can do no wrong! And without shows like Fixer Upper, how else would we know that gray is out, greige is on its way out, and to the shock of everyone, renter’s beige is actually in? Or where else would we find out that coastal grandma isn’t just for your wardrobe but is now a hot decor trend? (Oh wait, it’s already out. Grandpa Eclectic is now trending.) What’s so wrong with getting lost in someone else’s dream home anyway?

Rest assured, I’m not about to declare that we must cancel every home renovation show (which, for the record, I’ve seen nearly all of them), but as we dive into the brief history of our culture’s obsession with the McGees and the Gaineses in networks like HGTV and Magnolia, we are going to learn just how exploitative their preying marketing schemes can be.

A Three Decade History

Launched in 1994, Kenneth Lowe – “a frustrated architect” – founded HGTV with the desire to educate the American public about, well, homes. At the time, the only home-focused TV program was PBS’s popular renovation show This Old House

HGTV took off in large part because of its timing. The Boomer generation was coming of age and entering the housing market. Home Depot and Lowes saw a boom in sales in the early 1990s too. What naturally follows is an increased interest in interior design. Lowes acknowledges that this wasn’t the result of HGTV, but shares that the network was “smart enough to ride the wave of what was going on in society and be reflective of it.”

In their proudly owned homes, the American public confidently took on DIY projects, bolstered by how-to shows that taught skills previously believed to have been only obtainable through trade school and professionals.

With the booming success of HGTV, it’s no wonder other networks produced home renovation shows of their own. Within two years of TLC’s launch of Trading Spaces in 2000, the show became the top cable program on Saturday nights, after being moved to an 8 p.m. slot, with the New York Times calling it “TLC’s prime-time jewel.”

The Millennials Enter the Housing Market

In the early 2000s, real estate companies were building new entry-level homes like crazy. But then came the housing crisis, and suddenly, homes were abundant and super cheap. However, given what had just happened, the banks were wary of lending to millennials with their college debt, bad credit, and precarious employment. So the affluent took advantage of these investment opportunities – with cash – and set them up as investment properties, becoming landlords to many millennials. As the market rebounded, they jacked up the rent, making it harder for their tenants to save for homes of their own.

Within a few years, the millennials (who, in case you didn’t know, are considered the poorest generation) who sought to break free of the rental money pit were left with pretty much one option, what many call a Dave Ramsey catchphrase: “Buy the cheapest house in the best neighborhood.” That often meant a house with outdated fixtures, beige wall paint (back when it wasn’t trending, that is), granny’s wallpaper (also when it wasn’t trending), and needed both minor and major renovations.

But it wasn’t just new home owners who were itching to try out the latest wainscotting trend. Moms, renters, and low-income workers now had access to cheap DIY projects that would make a huge difference in their space. 

A Captivated Audience

It’s fair to say that while the launch of HGTV rode the wave of cultural movement, Chip and Joanna Gaines (of Fixer Upper fame) shaped it. Trading Spaces birthed the surprise reveal at the finale of many renovation shows, but it wasn’t until 2014 that Fixer Upper perfected it, ushering in a new era of shiplap and a farmhouse chic craze. And it was precisely around this time that many millennials had finally saved up enough for a down payment.

In 2018, Zillow reported that homes with architectural features mentioned on the show, such as wainscotting, shiplap, clawfoot bathtubs, and barn doors, sold at an average of 30% above expected value.

But what the Gaineses had done was essentially rebrand the American dream of homeownership. First time home owners were looking at houses differently, overlooking the wood paneling to see “potential.” (But, I have to ask, what’s the repercussions of only ever judging potential, or in other words, “every little thing that is wrong or could be improved?”)

Chip and Joanna Gaines, the show’s personalities, not only captivated audiences with their quirky and sweet relationship, but their teamwork played off one another’s strengths, leaving the home owners and viewers alike perpetually in awe of the final product. The Gaineses surpassed appealing to the Boomer generation and went straight for the millennials (who are also the largest generation), who were now coming of age for the housing market.

Within three years and five seasons, the Gaineses left their insanely popular HGTV show and announced the launch of their own network, Magnolia, which boasts 90 shows of its own, over 60% of which are about home renovation and interior design.

And So the Obsession Begins

So how did we end up here, obsessing over having spaces “speak to each other”? Why care so much about “making the backsplash pop”? Why are we picking apart our homes and moving past “potential,” to the point where we are critically scrutinizing every little thing that is wrong or could be improved, even when we have zero intention of selling our home any time soon?

The Gaineses largely popularized home trends the same time Instagram took off. As schoolchildren, millennials grew up with shows like Room by Room on the television whilst their families’ kitchens featured orange-toned woods, rooster motifs, and 50 shades of green.

Today, the average kitchen remodel costs $25,800 to $42,000, according to Houzz data, and though home improvement shows are typically marketed as “budget friendly,” pennies turn to Benjamins real fast. And that’s just it: These shows have been perfecting their marketing to millennials from the very beginning.

It’s easy for novices to get carried away, even if you’re using peel-and-stick wallpaper, faux tile flooring, a trending light fixture from Target, and so on. This past year alone, Americans spent a whopping $485 billion dollars on home renovations.

In some ways, it can be seen as a modern “keeping up with the Joneses,” which in itself has a plethora of detriments to our health (in a word: depression). And debt is a big slippery slide when it comes to mental health. People with debt are three times as likely to have depression, anxiety, and stress from the worry, according to AIMS Public Health.

Hi Therapist, I Think I’m Addicted to Beadboard

Want to add some salt to the wound? Home improvement shows often glamorize the process and make it look easy (which in itself has spawned semi-spoof shows like First Time Flippers), and the results can be pretty demoralizing. While it can be fun to poke fun at shared #pinterestfails, not meeting unrealistic expectations can have serious consequences on our health. HGTV faced scrutiny in 2012 when rumors circulated about certain shows being staged, which was later confirmed by a blog post from one person’s experience on House Hunters.

Unrealistic expectations met with a generation that struggles severely with addiction and comparison, which sounds like a match made in Tinder hell. No wonder online therapy services are riding this new cultural movement and making bank. The global online therapy services market was valued at $7.67 billion in 2022 and grew to $9.62 billion in 2023. By 2027, that number is expected to almost triple to $24 billion.

Ambition mixed with deception or even just lofty and unattainable goals can easily result in low self-esteem. Keeping up with trends is exhausting. On top of that, the obsession to match and meet the latest home trends can lead to a plethora of potential mental health pitfalls, namely, envy.

It’s Okay To Break Out the Nail Gun

Okay, big breath. So what to do? First, practice gratitude. So you might not be able to do anything about your 1970s kitchen, for now anyways. Your sofa from college is an eyesore and now stained with baby poo, but the “It” sofa simply doesn’t make sense in this season of life. Maybe it’s not so much about money but time that you’ve run up against, with little to none of it to spend on stenciling your floors.

Gratitude brings us back to the roots of what home renovation shows excelled at: helping us to see a different way and conceptualizing what may be hidden by a poor paint decision.

Second, check yourself by remembering your intention when you started your renovation or project. We need to check our desires with reality by asking ourselves some basic questions: Am I updating my living room because I’m embarrassed by it, because it’s not like those I see on Instagram? Will the financial benefit be worth the investment? Is now the right time? Am I updating my kitchen cabinets because it’s life-giving, empowering, fun, and will add value to my home?

The key is to be mindful of why we consume the media that we do. It can be empowering to take control of our environments: to open up a space simply by choosing the right furniture height, to heighten ceilings by selecting the right curtains, to brighten a room with our color choice.

And it’s important to remember that home renovation shows end right before the kids demolish the literal picture-perfect living room. It ends before you see the dents and scratches that come with daily life. It ends before the dog comes running through. It ends before life in that home even begins.

None of this means we need to ditch our dream of having a beautifully aesthetic place to call our own. It doesn’t mean we should pack up our upholstery tools and delete our Pinterest boards. DIY expert Jenni Yolo, host of Makeover By Monday, shares, “Creativity breeds confidence.” And it does.

Creating and crafting can bolster mood, improve self-confidence, and reduce stress overall. Reupholstering that thrifted chair or using the black electric tape trick on your windows can improve mental agility, improve both gross and fine motor movements, and also decrease cognitive decline. (Hello, natural anti-depressant. Research studies have shown that those suffering from PTSD, anxiety disorders, depression, insomnia, and any level of chronic pain have achieved a reduction in symptoms by incorporating crafts into their lives).

So, are shows like Fixer Upper bad for our mental health? They can be, but only if we give them the power to. Binging them might end up being more dangerous than installing that thrifted light fixture, but that’s only if we don’t keep our intentions and impulses in check.

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