Aspirational Bodies and the Pressures to be Perfect

Love Island captured the U.K. in 2018. It is the programme of the moment – like the first series of Big Brother, or for the older among us, Brideshead Revisited, or Scott and Charlene’s Wedding in Neighbours. Whatever else Love Island is or isn’t, it is a runaway success story as a TV progamme, and other countries are following suit: The Australian version is airing now and the format has been sold to Finland, Germany, and the U.S. Whether you sat glued to it every night or hated its very existence, you will not have avoided it. You will know that Love Island has been on and has been controversial. Loved by some (with MPs admitting to sneaking out of votes to watch it) and apparently there are more applications to appear on the show than to go to Oxbridge. Hated by others for inducing mental health and body image issues. What does Love Island say about us as the programme of the moment? 

Big Brother was at the beginning of the turn to reality TV; no longer would we all sit and watch fictional lives. It was real people, people like us we wanted to watch. We wanted to believe in our “10 minutes of fame”—that it was possible for us, for anyone, to make it, and become a celeb. The message of Love Island is that, in our culture, bodies matter. Getting, having, and working on the body beautiful matters. We still want to believe we can make it—but only some of us, only the beautiful. Contestant’s diets have been shared and scrutinised, their workout regimes promoted on and off the show. And using the gym—and working out right, for the right body, or failing to, was a common theme in the show. 

Love Island tells us that our bodies are ourselves and that to succeed we must succeed in beauty. Being better is about having a better body and this is something we can and should achieve, or at least be working towards. Love Island has been criticised for promoting beautiful, ideal, even perfect bodies. Undoubtedly the level of modification of the bodies on the show – by cosmetic surgery and other practices – is extreme. Paul Mortimer, Controller of ITV2, has defended that: He said “It’s a very aspirational programme for our audience. It’s the perfect holiday they can only aspire towards, it comes along at a time when people are readying for holiday, a week in Magaluf or whatever, and we’re showing them the best example of what they could have.”

But aspirational, and something we “could have,” are – by definition – things which are attainable. They are not things which can never be attained – as Mortimer seems to suggest when he says “they can only aspire to.” Instead it’s something we are told we could have, if only we worked hard enough – ate right, exercised right, got the right surgeon and had the right procedures. If only we looked after ourselves – our bodies – right. Megan Barton-Hanson is at the centre of this furor, generating massive interest in the tabloids, broadsheets and online. She had her first surgery – to pin back her ears – at 14, and has spent £25000 on surgery since. Her transformation is dramatic – and a quick Google search shows you numerous before and after shots – with shock, delight, amazement, and envy among the many emotions that accompany the commentary. But, whether approving or disapproving, a common focus is on Megan’s transformation. That she looks like a different person. In Perfect Me, I explore how working on our bodies has become working on ourselves, how beauty has become an ethical ideal, a primary way in which we judge ourselves and others. We feel shame if we do not work to improve and attain a better body. The beauty ideal is not something which applies only to other, beautiful, different people, but to us. A quick look at the response of young women to Love Island shows this clearly:

Response of young women to Love Island

Source: Twitter

Feeling like a “proper whale,” “insecure,” “fat,” and “ugly” with “no self-esteem” are snapshots that capture the feelings of failure, shame and dissatisfaction. While we have always had beauty ideals we have never been able to body-modify so extensively, nor has beauty mattered so much, and feelings of shame and disgust have not run so deep. Love Island’s popularity, or infamy, tells us something we need to take note of. It is not enough just to dismiss this. As Megan graces this month’s cover of Gracia, why would a young woman not believe that in our world success is about attaining a perfect body? We can tell our daughters that it’s what’s on the inside that counts, but they know this isn’t true. We need a better response than this, one which recognises just how powerful the beauty ideal is and how much pressure this puts on very many of us.

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