This article was written at the start of Love Island 2019. We’ve also looked into whether the show has become a substitute for sex education.
“Half an hour into the new season of Love Island and I’ve already got body image issues.”
This might have been a half-joking comment made by one male viewer on Twitter, but it’s a debate that threatens to cast a cloud over the Mediterranean villa this summer.
Does Love Island have a responsibility to represent diverse body types, or is it just entertainment? Jameela Jamil recently reignited the discussion that’s bubbled under the surface in recent seasons, while commentators have been ready to provide their “hot take” on the casting of “plus-size” model Anna Vakili.
But less has been said about the men of Love Island, who, currently seem to fit one specific body profile: muscly arms, pecs, six pack.
Ahead of this year’s series, the Mental Health Foundation surveyed more than 4,500 young people about body image and the impact of reality TV shows – including Love Island. Almost one in four people (24%) aged 18 to 24 said reality TV made them worry about their body image, while a similar number (23%) said they had experienced suicidal thoughts and feelings because of concerns about how they look.
Data from 2017 also revealed an increase in the amount of men under 24 in the UK using anabolic steroids to bulk out. Some academics have linked this to body image pressure perpetuated by shows including Love Island.
But fans of the show have said they do not mind the lack of body diversity on screen, saying it’s not meant to reflect reality – an argument the Love Island bosses maintain.
One episode in, and the male body types on show are certainly garnering attention.
“Once again casting has fallen short when choosing a realistic line up of men,” says George Pallis, co-founder of men’s wellbeing brand Manual, who believes this is particularly problematic for the show’s predominantly young audience. “It is disappointing that they will spend the summer being force-fed negative messaging that you have to look a certain way to be desirable.”
Pallis fears “this pressure will lead to many experiencing anxious and negative feelings towards their own bodies, not to mention deeply affecting confidence”.
Danny Bowman, 24, from York, tells HuffPost UK he’s grateful that Love Island wasn’t around when he was younger. As a teenager, Bowman was diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) and now campaigns for greater awareness of body image pressures on men.
He believes the show would have amplified his pre-existing symptoms. “The male body types represented on Love Island provide me with increasing levels of anxiety about my body type,” he says.
“More importantly, they make me feel increasing levels of concern for young boys growing up being told this narrative that only one body type is beautiful, when actually what we should be teaching them is to be comfortable in their own skin.”
Ryan Williams, 22, from Essex, also says Love Island makes him feel “insecure” but describes himself as “addicted to watching it”.
“It makes me feel like I’m not good enough for love,” he says, adding that Love Island airs in the summer – a time when covering up in layers of clothing is impossible. “There’s just no avoiding the vanity, fakeness and stereotypes during the summer while it airs.”
Williams points out that even if you avoid the programme, the Love Island stars still dominate social media, ads for big brands and club promotions for weeks after the show ends.
“Unless we digitally switch off till winter, we are victim to Love Island all summer,” he says.
In response to criticism over this year’s casting, Love Island’s creative director Richard Cowles stated: “We’re not saying that everyone that’s in there is how you’re supposed to look.”
“First and foremost, it’s an entertainment show and it’s about people wanting to watch who you’ve got on screen falling in love with one another. Yes, we want to be as representative as possible but we also want them to be attracted to one another.”
And many fans acknowledge the same – while still expressing concern for this year’s participants.
David Brockway, from The Good Lad Initiative, which runs workshops in universities and workplaces to challenge toxic masculinity, agrees with the entertainment argument to a certain extent.
“Let’s face it, Love Island is what it is, and isn’t really trying to represent the variety of human shapes and sizes,” he tells HuffPost UK – in words that uncannily echo the “it is what it is” response of two of this year’s male contestants to being rejected in Monday night’s opening episode.
However, Brockway does believe representation of “so many hyper-muscly men” has the potential to impact on men and boys who watch the show. And this is why Love Island has become a topic of discussion in his workshops, which focus on the “distinction between appearing fit and being fit.”
“The closest any of the male contestants comes to looking ‘average’ would be Curtis – and he’s still quite clearly in good shape,” Brockway says of the last male contestant to join the lineup in the first episode. “He’s a professional dancer, which requires an immense amount of fitness – going to show that one doesn’t have to have the incredibly chiseled look to be fit and healthy.”
It’s important to encourage young men to exercise and maintain their physical health, says Brockway, who explains young people he works with believe fitness requires a six pack “and that anything short of that would make you less healthy”.
“This is simply not true and is a dangerous view as it moves the goal posts of what counts as ‘fitness’ so far that even the healthy will start to see themselves as needing to do better,” he says.
Josh Denzel, who was a finalist in last year’s series, recently opened up about feeling body image pressure ahead of the show.
In a recent interview with BBC Sport, Denzel spoke about how “everyone in there is in mad nick”. Although he was already physically fit, he pushed himself harder than ever before when he knew he’d be joining the villa.
“I lived in the gym for Love Island, because I was thinking I’ve got to be on TV, it’s bad enough when you’ve got to go on holiday,” he said. ”They didn’t say to me explicitly you’ve got to look like this… but of course there’s an expectation.”
And with Love Island producers placing a renewed focus on contestant wellbeing and aftercare in the wake of Mike Thalassitis’ death, reducing the body pressures for men and women may not only benefit those of us watching from the sofa, but those in the villa, too.