It says something about the power of a TV programme when even just the release of its trailer can stir up debate. When Love Island unveiled the latest round of white of tooth and glossy of hair 20-somethings who'll be gracing our screens this summer, the lack of body diversity among them became the key talking point.
Where were the women with a dress size above an 8? Why was nobody older than 28? What was with the identikit teeth, hair and eyebrows? (At least the show had learned from last year and managed to find two women of colour – rather than the standard one.)
A furore erupted around Love Island’s exclusion of plus-sized people. Jameela Jamil’s hamfisted tweet suggesting that the slightly curvier of the female contestants was the show's attempt at "plus size" prompted a row with former Love Island contestants, who accused her of being sizeist. Meanwhile, body positivity activists lamented that – once again – producers had decided that only very slim men and women were deemed worthy to appear on the show.
But here's the thing: as a plus-sized woman myself, I never really believed that any women who looked like me would make it onto the Love Island line-up. And I don’t blame the producers for excluding them. Because any plus-sized woman would likely have a horrific time of it on the show.
In the past, Love Island has made some token efforts to go beyond the catwalk-model-thin female contestants who usually feature. In 2017, Tyne-Lexy Clarson strutted onto the show, keen to prove that having hips with a centimetre of fat on them didn’t stop you from being a "peng sort". Unfortunately, she couldn't get so much as a second glance from any of the guys and shortly found herself being voted off the island. Last year, Alexandra Crane became the show’s token attempt at body diversity. Alexandra – a woman who might once have let a sandwich pass her lips, but is still far below the average UK female dress size (a size 16) – was sent in to tempt pink-faced Dr Alex. But Alexandra faced the same fate as Tyne-Lexi before her. Viewers saw a confident, beautiful, smart woman reduced to worrying about what she ate and how her body compared to those of the other girls in the villa.
The reason I don’t want to see plus-sized women on Love Island is because I’d be concerned for their emotional wellbeing. The reality is that, as a society, we have a very narrow (literally and figuratively) view of what makes a woman beautiful. While we might like to pretend that we’ve evolved beyond only finding young, thin, able-bodied, white women attractive, what Love Island proves is that we’re really not as open-minded as we think we are.
Last year, I watched with growing anger as every boy in the villa rejected Samira, a woman of colour who was funny and smart and ridiculously hot. Watching Samira break down and be comforted by Megan – a young, thin, able-bodied white woman who happily admitted that most of what made her appealing had been bought from the plastic surgeon – was one of the most depressing moments of the show. What we saw happen to Samira on-screen is what the data tells us happens to women of colour on dating apps every day. They are overlooked – because somehow, in 2019, lighter skin is still seen as the beauty ideal. And the same applies to plus-sized women, or older women, or those with disabilities. As a society, we’re still profoundly ableist, fatphobic, ageist and racist when it comes to celebrating beauty, in all of its diverse forms.
So what are the Love Island producers to do? It’s a show that is wholly based on hooking up with someone you fancy – meaning that the show’s contestants are those likely to conform to society’s restrictive body image ideals. Asking producers to round up a solitary plus-sized girl and then throw her into a situation where she spends weeks being rejected by men who are more concerned with whether or not their mates will fancy her than what she’s actually like as a person would be throwing her to the wolves.
Blaming Love Island for its lack of diversity in casting misses the wider point. We need to be teaching kids to critically assess the images they see in adverts and understand how they’ve been photoshopped. We need to celebrate beauty in all of its forms, whether you’re a size 6 or a 26. And we need to check our own behaviour, too. Do you still use fat as an insult? Then you’re just as responsible for the lack of body diversity in Love Island as the producers.
Love Island reflects how we as a society choose to define beauty, and the people we leave out. All of us need to have a bigger conversation about why our definition of female beauty is still so narrow. Until then, I'm relieved there are no plus-sized women on the show.