When it comes to bodies, this summer’s reality TV is anything but diverse. Tanya Gold asks: when will we finally embrace everybody’s body?
The mouth is wide; the hair is long; the teeth are the colour of bathroom tiles. The eyes are widely spaced, like a Disney princess’s. And the body? It is slim – no excess body fat is welcome here – apart from on the breasts and bottom, which are rounded and pert. There is no excess body hair anywhere; the skin is bronzed to the colour of tea. This is today’s ideal woman, displayed nightly on Love Island, and in the tabloids, and anywhere the Kardashians are admired. New arrival Alexandra – with her big bum and boobs – is at least a break from the super-skinny norm, yet equally unattainable.
It is an improvement on the ‘heroin chic’ of the Nineties, I give you that. But those women looked ill. These ones are almost a healthy weight. They have bottoms, breasts and, very occasionally, a belly. They look strong. But the look is still frighteningly homogenous; am I the only one to think they all look the same? And if they did not begin adolescence looking the same, they eventually got there with diet and surgery. Take Megan Barton-Hanson of Love Island. When she was younger she had a bulbous nose and a rounded jaw. She looked interesting: well, at least she looked like herself. But interesting doesn’t cut it now, apparently. After £25,000 of plastic surgery, she has the small nose and pointed jaw that has been considered beautiful since Marilyn Monroe was the world’s screen goddess. She doesn’t look interesting any more. She looks generically beautiful – but more generic than beautiful.
The men fare no better. Is it coincidence that Jack, who is my favourite man on Love Island, is a tiny bit fat, and I cling to this imperfection below his tombstone teeth? The rest are all buff and muscled. Tanned and smoothed, with any defining feature – anything individual that a lover could treasure – rubbed away. Wes Nelson’s brow and beard look like they were drawn with a ruler; how much better he would look with a proper beard. It may be a parody of the ancient Greek heroic look, but it is not sexy, and owes so much to the porn aesthetic. It is overwrought and cannot make him attractive. Take the embodiment of this ideal on Love Island, Adam Collard. He looks like a Disney hero with a rotten soul: self-obsessed, entitled and ignorant. I think he is as attractive as a side of beef.
Ideals of female beauty have changed through history. Sometimes thinness is fashionable, as it was in the Napoleonic era, the Roaring Twenties and the Swinging Sixties. More often plumpness was desirable, because it suggested wealth – wealth enough to eat well. The Italian Renaissance favoured fat and the ceilings of Europe were covered in giant female thighs, while the late Victorians and Edwardians liked big breasts and bottoms and small waists. Sometimes men were required to be muscular, sometimes slender.
Today’s ideal for women seems to be a combination of both thin and fat, which is almost impossible to achieve without surgery, and there is something very sinister and self-hating about that, something connected to the absurd reach advertising has today. It is as if nothing about women’s bodies can ever be good enough – and why would that be? Large breasts and a thigh gap? To be both thin and fat is a near-impossible ideal, but there is money in impossible ideals – which is why they are invented and sold to women who should be more comfortable with themselves.
But we can forget that. Where are our bodies? The jiggles, the mosquito bites, the breasts that are smooth to your rib cage, or bountiful enough to fill an average bikini twice over. There’s wonder in all of us and how would it feel to see it on screen. To not feel the need to change or buy or, like Megan Barton-Hanson, to pay surgeons thousands more? There is something heart-breaking in being denied this.
And for what? Because, outside of the television and the tabloids, in the real world, people are falling in love and having sex even if they are slightly hairy, pitted or fat; I promise you that. The ‘straight-from-the-gym to sex marathon’ crowd are, almost entirely, a media invention. And for almost all of us – those who trust our souls, rather than adverts, to choose our mates – it’s a lie. A wonky nose? Love it on the right face. A too-large mouth? Charming, with the right smile. Bald? So what, if you’ve got a twinkling eye? No one twinkles on Love Island.
Shakespeare wrote that a fair face will wither but a good heart is the sun and the moon, and I can’t argue with that. Personally, I think those enraptured by Love Island and porn have been sold a dud. When gleaming body part mates with gleaming body part, ecstasy comes there none. Perfection isn’t sexy, you see; in fact, the reach for it feels needy and self-hating. And that, as my grandmother told me, is the opposite of intimacy, and of lust.