ITV2’s hit dating show, Love Island, is one of the most successful reality TV shows. Now in its fourth series, the show’s premise remains the same – twelve young, attractive singletons are left to find their perfect match in a closely monitored Majorcan villa, with the added lure of a £50,000 prize. Until now, I was one of a small minority never to have watched a single episode. So, quite naturally, feeling rather excluded from friends’ conversations about the next ‘coupling up’, I wanted to discover what all the hype was about. But it was far from the harmless fun I thought it would be.
Only a few minutes into the first episode, I could see why the programme is so popular among its targeted Instagram-obsessed young viewers. The men appear one after another with the same ripped muscles and washboard abs while the female contestants laze around in scanty swimwear with boobs as fake as the grass they lie on. There is no denying that the contestants are a treat for the eyes. Yet as they are encouraged to judge each other based primarily on appearance, I cannot help but wonder if this programme, rather than being a guilty pleasure, is an unhealthy indulgence for its young and impressionable viewers.
Since its inception, Love Island has sparked debate for promoting unrealistic body image standards, and this series has been no exception. Yet the media has generally targeted female contestants and the harm it causes towards girls trying to emulate their unachievable beauty. But if this series has shown us anything, it is that men can be equally as insecure as women about their body image, if not more.
Episode one featured the first ‘coupling-up’ of the series, in which each male contestant stood before an all-female panel, tasked with choosing their perfect partner based entirely on looks. Perhaps I am not completely familiar with the superficiality of reality shows but, to my mind, this was nothing more than an exercise in mean and hurtful body shaming towards the male competitors. A&E doctor Alex had the most crushing start to the competition with his unsuccessful attempts to win over the women. When invited to stand forward if they ‘liked the look’ of Alex, none of the women moved from their position, leaving him red in the face. Disheartened Alex was given a second chance when presenter Caroline Flack allowed him to pick a partner for himself, only for him to be dealt a second crushing blow when 29-year-old Laura traded him in for the younger, more tanned and toned Wes.
Yet Alex is not the only male competitor to feel the pressure of unrealistic beauty expectations. On the sudden arrival of personal trainer Adam, muscular Wes joked ‘I should’ve spent more time in the gym’. All eyes were now fixed on Adam – the women enthralled by his perfect physique, the men fearful of his every move should he prey on their match. I could not help but sympathise with his opponents who clearly felt their masculinity challenged by the unexpected addition of ‘Mr Fifteen Pack’ to the villa. It was Coventry student Niall who quite astutely termed the competition as ‘David vs Goliath’ when he lost his match, Kendall, to Adam. Kendall’s proclamation that she wished she could merge Niall’s personality and Adam’s body to make the ‘perfect man’ was significant. Niall’s outraged response underlined the double standards, ‘If I said I’d like to put your personality in another girl, I would be out of order’. And indeed, he would be.
To the viewer, Niall and Kendall’s acrimonious exchange sums up just one of the many damaging subliminal messages that Love Island sends out to its young male audience: if you do not flaunt a perfectly bronzed six pack, you are simply not attractive enough. The line-up of male contestants looks like Action Man meets Ken – all with the same sculpted body and a distinct lack of chest hair. 26-year-old salesman Jack is constantly referred to as having a ‘dad bod’ on social media, but I have yet to see a flabby beer belly overhanging his swimming trunks. In fact, there is nothing wrong with Jack’s healthy physique at all. Branding him as having a ‘dad bod’ for being just slightly less toned than his rivals is truly harmful. The suggestion is that you will be criticised for having ‘let yourself go’ if you do not look like an extra from Magic Mike.
I am convinced that shows like this, aimed at a young and impressionable audience, must take responsibility for the rise in male body image issues. I am aware of several cases of men suffering from muscle dysmorphia at university – a mental disorder leading to an addiction to exercise and misuse of steroids to maintain a muscular physique. They are not alone. Recent NHS figures show a 70% increase in the past six years of men admitted to hospital suffering an eating disorder. It comes as no surprise that ex-islander Simon Searles admitted to The Sun that several of his male competitors refused to eat carbs while in the villa in order to ‘stay ripped’. The popularity of a programme such as Love Island is beyond me when it promotes such unhealthy and unachievable body image standards.
Love Island has the potential to have a hugely positive impact on society. Instead of brainwashing its viewers into believing that having an athletic body is the only way to find love, surely it would be much more uplifting (and arguably less predictable) if it set out to show that love is not all about appearance. But in a world where dating apps such as Tinder have generated a ‘judge a book by its cover’ attitude among young people, perhaps Love Island’s superficiality reflects dating in the 21st Century. And its impact is not insignificant.