Following lockdowns, the love and obsession with TV shows are at an all-time high. Simultaneously, given the success and fame granted by such shows, individuals are clamouring more than ever to participate. However, the glorification of these programmes is far from what it seems.
It is common knowledge that reality TV shows, such as Love Island and Love is Blind, are notorious for their poor body diversity. They, consistently, only showcase those exhibiting conventionally attractive body images- slender, slim and toned. The probability that this reputation has become a requirement is even more evident by the fact that multiple ex-contestants have admitted feeling pressured to lose various amounts of weight before entering the shows, alongside the blatant lack of plus-sized contestants. However, is this simply a coincidence and a relatable human desire to look good on national TV, or the impact of a dangerously judgmental society?
After this year’s season of Love Island, which followed last year’s inclusion of disability, it is increasingly disappointing that the show failed to display any real form of body variation. Thus, it is no surprise that plus-sized model, Felicity Hayward, refused to watch the show and labelled it as “toxic” as a result1. Felicity, who has modelled for various clothes brands associated with Love Island such as Pretty Little Thing, believes the reason producers aren’t aiming to diversify their show is due to the guaranteed money they make from sponsors by following archetypal body images, suggesting that the risk of losing this by incorporating diverse body shapes weighs too heavily.
These thoughts have even been echoed by past islanders, such as Shaughna Phillips. Shaughna, who appeared on Love Island’s first winter season in 2020, is renowned for speaking out about her body and weight challenges before, and since being on the show. Despite only being a UK size 8 when she entered the villa, Shaughna was easily branded as ‘plus size’ by and to the viewers. This, in itself, is evidence of Love Island’s body uniformity, as a size that is typically referred to as petite was enough to convince a nation that plus-sized bodies were being represented.
In an interview, the ex-islander revealed that she has struggled with body dysmorphia since she was 14 years old, and “it actually makes [her] heart sink thinking about how [she] treated [her] body before Love Island”, as she felt that the gym was “do or die”2. Shaughna thought of herself as the “token fat girl” of her season, and recalled in the ‘Should I Delete That?’ podcast, that during the show she consistently cried to the on-hand therapist over her body image3. What’s more disturbing is that she was callously denied the chance to wear more comfortable clothing during a challenge after begging and crying to producers, who simply told her to “stop being dramatic”.
Given the infamous progression of Love Island’s mental health support, this seems utterly heartless and an incredulously large step backwards. Thus, any applause given to the show for ‘body inclusivity’ is shattered by its lack of respect and understanding towards the insecurities it can harbour. This brings forth a burning question: Was Shaughna’s denied request a means of the show exploiting her and presenting itself as ‘body positive and representative’?
Nevertheless, Love Island is not the sole culprit of exacerbating such unrealistic body images. The US-based show, Love is Blind, is, too, responsible. The show, which involves couples only being allowed to see and meet each other after a marriage proposal is accepted, has been infamously bashed for undermining its purpose by only including contestants displaying conventionally attractive body types. Moreover, the show’s host, Vanessa Lachey, has addressed this, by labelling those with plus-sized bodies as lacking in “confidence” and being too “insecure” to progress further in the show4. This admission seems somewhat of an inconsiderate scapegoat and a blame-pushing statement, leaving viewers disappointed as it was a perfect opportunity to engage in the true issues and absence of body diversity on TV.
What’s more, according to recent statistics provided by the UK Mental Health Foundation, almost 24% of people aged 18 to 24 say reality TV makes them worry about their body image, leading them to experience suicidal thoughts, with more than 15% revealing they had self-harmed as a result5. Therefore, it is no question that the deficiency of body diversity within reality TV programmes is in urgent need of being addressed.
However, it is not only reality TV shows that are proving obstinate in this area. For instance, despite its contestants showcasing a variety of different body types, the Great British Sewing Bee continuously employs models who do not. Regardless of the possibility that an influx of plus-sized models could lead to greater amounts of materials and time being required of the clothes-makers, it still stands unjust that their presence is lacking, especially within a show that celebrates creativity and individuality.
However, some competitive TV shows have seen improvements in bodily diversity over the years, such as the Great British Bake Off. In fact, the show has been known to honour various avenues of diversity recently, ranging from LGBTQ+ contestants to those from a variety of different racial backgrounds. One of the show’s most infamous body positive contestants is ex-finalist Laura Adlington, who consistently battles with the concept of ‘fatphobia’ online, working to dispel such prejudices by opening up about her own weight struggles6. It is phenomenal to see such a popular programme be so progressive and natural in its cast representation. Although a lot of these changes have led the show to be under a lot of ‘woke’-labelling scrutiny, these claims are defeated by the fact that this is simply a realistic representation of our society, rather than a false and fabricated picture7.
As outlined above, it is clear to see that some progression in body diversity within television has occurred. Where the attention of a programme lies within skill, such as baking, greater variation is present. However, it seems that when the focus is on attraction, vanity or individuals, it ceases.
Following the immense growth of the reality TV show phenomenon and the extensive accessibility of streaming, the need for more vivid bodily diversity is at its highest. Moreover, in an age where differences are being accepted and celebrated at a greater level, it must be met with incorporation and representation. There is no diversity without inclusivity.
The real question is: Would you rather see TV views increase, or the esteem and quality of innocent lives decrease?
Written by Jennifer Reynolds