Content Warning: Suicide.
Love Island – the nation’s favourite Marmite. You either love it, or you hate it. And those that hate it, really, really hate it. When asked why, they supply a variety of reasons, and not just focusing on the quality of the show itself. They include:
- The show promotes unhealthy body goals by only accepting those who look like they belong on the front of a swimwear catalogue, and their idea of ‘plus size’ is about as laughable as the witty commentary provided by comedian Iain Stirling (very).
- The suicides of former contestants Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis has tarnished the show for many as a ‘pressure cooker’ for those with mental health issues. Their deaths brought much criticism to the treatment of contestants during their time in the villa, and whether reality TV programmes need to provide more care after airtime, in a star’s transition to global fame.
These are very valid points, however, here comes my ‘but’. Yes, the show presents contestants who are, undoubtedly, unbelievably attractive and the show is based on the premise of good looks. Every contestant is fit, and there is no distinct range of body shapes or sizes – it is a show that focuses on unrealistic cosmetic standards for the everyday man and woman. Yes, it’s superficial – but isn’t all reality television? In fact, isn’t all television?
There has been a boost in body positivity in recent years, backed by an abundance of celebrities, such as former Love Islander Olivia Buckland whose Instagram posts show how angles can distort what a body looks like and promotes acceptance of our natural flaws like cellulite and stretch marks. Companies like Boohoo have also been praised for not photoshopping out models’ stretch marks in a bid to support body positivity.
But when we look at our reality TV stars, our film stars, our entire media, we are surrounded by the undeniable fact: they are all beautiful. And though we see these beauty ideals finally being challenged and see healthy steps towards diversity, we cannot avoid the fact that Love Island is just one of the many shows that is part of a culture that has for years encouraged unhealthy body standards. What about dating shows like Take Me Out, Your Face or Mine, or even Naked Attraction? All of these are built on the premise of how someone looks. Personality may factor into it later on, but initially, they are all the same. We can’t paint Love Island as this unhealthy programme without considering it in its wider context, and how it fits into this culture of unhealthy body standards. If we challenge one, we have to challenge them all.
The deaths of Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis were heartbreaking, as is the case for every person who reaches the point where they no longer feel able to live anymore. The show undoubtedly puts contestants in extremely pressurised circumstances, which only build when they leave the show and find themselves catapulted into fame. From being an unknown quantity to suddenly having people across the country scrutinising everything you do, the fame that these contestants find themselves with can be extremely challenging.
But isn’t this is the same with every reality TV show? Contestants from shows like The X Factor experience this same overnight fame sensation. Fame comes with a heavy cost – and I am not saying that this is right, or okay, but being in the public eye brings heavy pressures: online trolls, the vulture-like media who jump at every perceived flaw, and celebrity-ism is a difficult lifestyle. The difficulties that Love Island contestants may face can be found in so many other places, and the lack of support for mental health issues cannot be reduced to one single show; it is a symptom of a much bigger problem.
Mental health has slowly garnered increased awareness in recent years and not before time. The true impact of it is finally starting to be recognised across all ways of life. Following Love Island’s rise in popularity and increased media attention, ITV Today published a statement entailing key changes that aim to support the wellbeing of its contestants before, during, and after filming. This includes a senior team on the ground trained in mental health first aid, a welfare team exclusively committed to the Islanders both during the show and up to 14 months after, and a minimum of eight therapy sessions for each contestant after leaving. Recent villa resident Amy Hart has praised the show’s new aftercare system since leaving, stating how she made regular trips to see the show’s psychiatrist during her five weeks there.
Love Island’s increased support for the importance of mental health mirrors the attitudes of our developing society, and has brought significant awareness to the issues regarding reality TV shows and the situations their contestants may face. Love Island is not a show in isolation; instead of blaming it for what we see as its negatives, maybe we should consider the wider context of the show and whether more needs to be done to challenge the media which perpetuates certain ideals of beauty and fame.