Bum implants, steroids, boob jobs and lip filler – how Love Island is changing how we look
Despite its manufactured drama and unattainable bodies, some Irish viewers believe the show reflects real people. Suzanne Harrington speaks to the experts who assess the impact of such shows on the self-esteem of our youth
It’s Love Island season — that time of year when we collectively lose our mind over a group of young people vying for likes and lucrative influencer outcomes in a villa while wearing very little.
A kind of Big Brother/Tinder/pop video mash-up, Love Island is about as realistic as porn and has an identical aesthetic — smooth and hairless, tits and teeth — although in 2020, an unnamed representative of the show denied it was scripted, saying it was “a combination of reality and produced elements”.
Nevertheless, it’s created in an editing suite and is as fake as the contestants’ eyelashes.
Unlike skills-based reality TV (where the focus is on the cake, the dinner, the pottery etc), Love Island involves the usual manufactured drama, conflict and viewer ridicule associated with the appearance-based reality genre, except the contestants are in bikinis and high heels or have waxed chests and six-packs.
Its main audience demographic is 16 to 34-year-olds, and it has been associated with three suicides — two former contestants and a former presenter.
Yet we persist in believing it’s real. A 2019 iReach survey showed how 20pc of Irish adults believe Love Island reflects real people, while 24pc believe it reflects real situations — 18pc think it’s a fair portrayal of contestants and 21pc believe the contestants are genuine.
In terms of how it impacts on viewers, 78pc agreed that reality TV can be damaging for mental health, while 68pc agree that Love Island presents impossible physical ideals.
Almost a third — 31pc — said it made them feel unhappy with how they look, even if they wouldn’t do anything about it. A further 26pc said they’d try to change their bodies through fitness, while six per cent would consider plastic surgery.
Carolyn Halstead, a psychotherapist at UK-based online therapy service Livelife, has noticed a steep rise in people as young as 16 presenting with social anxiety, poor body image, low self esteem, disordered eating, depression.
While she acknowledges increased awareness and open-mindedness around mental health and accessing therapy, she believes this shift is predominantly driven by social media and appearance-based programmes — like Love Island.
“I find it alarming,” she says. “People who don’t work in therapeutic settings don’t see the damage being done — I worry that there is going to be an entire generation of damaged people.
"We can’t get away from it — this cherry-picked perfection that’s presented as normal, when it’s clearly not a true representation of how people really are. In the past, we would copy clothes — now we copy faces and bodies.”
She describes how young people are copying lips, eyebrows, saving up for bum implants, boob jobs, nose jobs, taking steroids for broader shoulders. And how it can lead to bullying, exclusion, isolation, and spending your life on your phone waiting for likes.
“My job is to challenge this,” she says. “How we see ourselves as people — how we look is not who we are. What I would like to see, apart from more young people accessing therapy, is a Love Island that’s genuinely diverse in its representation of people, that has people on it who looked like people from real life.”
Psychologist Malie Coyne, author of Love In Love Out: Parenting Your Anxious Child, reminds us that according to US research, only five per cent of the population naturally possess the looks presented as ‘normal’ in the media.
“The process of identity development happens in adolescence, which means teens are very prone to comparison — and this can feel bad if the comparison is unfavourable,” she says, adding that teens are more susceptible to compare-and-despair than adults as their brain continues to develop.
“In the past, magazines Photoshopped photos of models and celebrities,” says Dr Coyne. “Today, it’s everyone — friends, classmates, colleagues, neighbours — thanks to photo editing apps.” This can result in a visual gap between the online self and the real life self.
However, Dr Coyne reminds us that correlation does not imply causation: “It’s important to remember that watching Love Island is not going to directly cause low self esteem in viewers, but if people already have low self esteem, then they are more likely to be impacted.
“If you are parenting a teen, it’s also important to be aware of what they’re watching — you could always watch it with them and remind them that what they’re watching is not reality, just as what they are seeing on social media is not reality.
“If a teen has positive self esteem, looking at this stuff won’t affect them too much. But — and this can happen at any age — there can be an adverse effect if you’re experiencing low mood, not feeling great about yourself. So remind yourself — it’s only a show.”
The bodies we see on Love Island “are in no way normal or average, and present an impossible ideal”, says Dr Vincent McDarby, President of the Psychological Society of Ireland. Dr McDarby reminds us how teens and young people “tend to be egocentric and self-conscious”, so when Love Island bodies are presented as the norm — that is, every contestant looks like that — it’s going to create insecurity.
“Love Island is on six times a week, which is a lot of exposure,” he says. “It’s contrived in an editing room to stoke controversy, drama and conflict. But it’s not just Love Island where unrealistic [appearance] ideals are being promoted — this is happening on Instagram too, where influencers are presenting manipulated and touched-up images of themselves while promoting self acceptance and body positivity. It’s hypocrisy — it’s bullsh*t.”
However, suggesting people should simply not watch Love Island or The Kardashians or come off Instagram or Snapchat or whatever is hardly going to work, given how, “it’s the young person equivalent of a water cooler moment”, says Dr McDarby.
“If all your peers are watching Love Island, you are excluding yourself from the conversation,” he says. “So while it could be beneficial to step back a bit sometimes, the key is to understand that it is manufactured. That it’s fake.
“Young people need to be inoculated against this through building resilience. You can build resilience by being accepting and comfortable with who you are, while learning how this type of media actually works — that it’s not real and it’s not the norm.”
This is not to say that changing your appearance is always negative. It can create and instil confidence, but only if any underlying psychological issues are dealt with as well, rather than changing the outside and expecting to automatically feel better on the inside.
Also, there is a billion dollar beauty industry working very hard at making us feel ugly, starting with the adverts in between Love Island segments.
“Love Island is visual, but it’s just one [medium] of many in a society that perpetrates narrow ideals of attractiveness and handsomeness,” says psychologist Louize Carroll, co-founder of Prism online therapy. “These contestants have decided to look after their bodies [as a career strategy].”
While looking after your body is obviously a good thing, becoming appearance obsessed is not.
“We can improve how we look, which can in turn improve self-esteem, but really, self-esteem must come from within, from connecting with your purpose — and as adults, we have a collective responsibility to connect with young people, so we communicate about what matters,” she says.
“Conversations around being comfortable in your own skin are so important — beyond marketing, aesthetics are only a tiny part of building a sense of self. It’s so much bigger than how you look.”
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