There's little doubt that reality TV shows have become the nation's guilty pleasure, offering escapism and voyeurism. However, as contestants become more 'telegenic', perfectly formed and, reportedly, cosmetically enhanced, the growing dominance of these programmes seems to be doing little for viewers' self-esteem and body confidence, particularly that of younger women and girls. At the Priory Hospital where I work, I treat a wide range of mental health issues from anxiety and depressive disorders to stress around a whole range of issues including, sometimes, body image. Of course, all of us are influenced by each other, that is just the way that society works. However, younger people - because they are forming their values and opinions of themselves and the wider world - are more impressionable than older people who have already formed theirs. We are all susceptible but 'younger brains' which are in the process of identifying a sense of identity and self-worth are far more vulnerable.
And with reality TV continuing to attract viewers from a largely younger, female audience, there is a very real worry that it will lead to an increase in inquiries into cosmetic surgery and enhancements due to the unrealistic 'bodies' paraded on screen. A recent study shows that 91% of all cosmetic procedures in 2015 were performed on women; 20% of these procedures were liposuction, 16% face or neck lift and 12% breast augmentation. So, it stands to reason that if you are constantly viewing programmes where there are glossy bodies and people having an amazing time, it's inevitable that some will start to think that they have to be like that too.
I'm not against people wanting to look good - it is what they are doing to get there, whether major surgery or seemingly superficial tweaking. It may sound obvious, but I can't stress enough how important it is to remember that you'll still be the same person underneath no matter what you do to your body. Social media relentlessly reflects everyone smiling and looking their best, even though we know instinctively that those images may have been filtered. Worryingly, reality TV can breed insecurity in the most secure person, gradually convincing them to believe, 'I should always be looking my best' - an unrealistic expectation. Sadly, people with lower self-esteem - and those who lack confidence - are going to be even more influenced by shows like these.
The reality is, nobody is totally happy with every aspect of their body or themselves. Body dissatisfaction is becoming more common and it's clear that both the media and the growth of smart phones have an important role to play in this. Humans are influenced by our surroundings and the images we see and in today's 24/7, digitally dependent society, you simply cannot escape these 'perfect' bodies. Interestingly, I think this issue is more of a Western phenomenon although it does seem to be creeping into the East, with countries and cultures where we never used to see eating disorders now reporting an increase in such problems.
Everyone has access to satellite TV and the internet now and everybody wants to be what they are not. If you are exposed to images of people with perfectly toned abs, slender hips, pneumatic breasts and sculptured eyebrows, then inevitably you're going to think that is what I want to look like. I want to be a soap star, a TV star, a reality star. I just want to look like them.
In 2015/16, the NSPCC's ChildLine service received nearly 1,600 contacts from girls worried about body image, a 17% increase on the previous year. I would advise parents of younger children or those with low self-esteem, to steer them away from these types of programmes. However, if they are already watching reality TV, or if they feel peer pressure to do so, then the parent sitting with them needs to explain that the body types 'on show' are not the norm, not natural and not something they should be aspiring to. Of course, these programmes can make fairly harmless and fun viewing for many but we do need a balance with more responsible programming which promote values that as a society we want more people to absorb and become.