How reality TV affects viewers perception of their body and mental health

How reality TV affects viewers perception of their body and mental health

It’s that time of year again. The weather gets warmer, drinks get colder and every evening, at 9pm the people of the UK collectively switch their channels to ITV2 to watch a group of sexy singles spend their summer in a Mallorcan villa in the hopes that they will find love. 

Love Island, one of ITV’s most successful and anticipated reality dating shows, is back and once again, the show is being criticized for its lack of body diversity amongst its new cast.  

This year, a whopping 100,000 applications were sent to ITV, and from this vast number of applicants, only a competitive 10 were chosen to be in the original cast and a handful of others to be entered later as disruptive segues known as “bombshells”.  

With prospects to find love, win a £50,000 cash prize and the potential to earn 6-figure sponsorships, the application pool for this year’s series skyrocketed! So naturally, invested watchers of the show were excited to see a fresh cast with a range of different body types in the villa, but this year, like previous years, viewers were left disappointed.  

With the female cast, we were met with more of the familiar slim, petite and athletically toned physiques that many reality TV shows are notorious for.  

Love Island’s creative director, has defended the show’s choice for not including more realistic body types in saying that “they want the contestants to be attracted to one another” but what kind of message does this send to the susceptible young viewers of these kinds of shows? 

The Thin-Ideal  

For years, we’ve been force-fed the idea of what the “perfect body” looks like for women; long slender legs, small waist to hip ratio, tall and toned physique. This ideal was and still is everywhere —from movies to social media to advertising. And despite diversity and inclusivity being words we see now more than ever; reality television is yet to adopt these and put them into practice when it comes to body representation. Instead, reality tv shows still seem to adhere to the ‘Thin-ideal’ media — a beauty standard pushed by Western society to perceive thinner as more desirable through the consistent imagery of slim women. 

From this notion of what the “ideal woman should look like” comes the idea that very natural aspects of women’s bodies are something to feel insecure about just because they are not positively depicted in the media; Hip dips, stretch marks, rolls, cellulite, and body proportions. 

From dating shows like Love Island and its international variations of itself (Netflix’s Too Hot to Handle, to Love Island: Australia) to make-over reality shows, shows such as these are all guilty of producing a very specific body type on women and with the rate of applicants increasing annually, we as viewers have to presume that the casting is intentional rather than by chance.  

Many argue that these shows have a very specific niche of the cast that they aim to have on-screen and so body diversity doesn’t need to be at the forefront of their agenda, however, when we look at how this "perfect body" narrative affects its viewers, it highlights a bigger issue than just representation (or lack thereof), but rather the negative impact on our mental health. 

Reality TV, Body Image & Mental health 

Television, even hyperreal genres like reality TV, has been shown to sway our perception of actual reality. A 2019 study found that people who watch television regularly had a stronger preference for women with slimmer body types than those less exposed to television.  

Studies like these show just how much influence reality tv has over what we perceive to be attractive in women’s bodies. We are constantly exposed to the idea that perfect body proportions are “aspirational” without acknowledging how it can affect our mental well-being. 

According to a recent YouGov survey, 23% of 18-24-year-olds feel that watching reality tv shows makes them feel more worried about the appearance of their bodies. With 1 in 7 of these young viewers experiencing suicidal thoughts or self-harm because of concerns over their body. 

The internalisation of this narrative can damage our self-perception resulting in mental health disorders such as body dysmorphia- the constant worry about the appearance of our bodily features leading to body dissatisfaction and, potentially, eating disorders.  

This is because consistent exposure to ‘thin-ideal’ media has perpetuated the notion that there is a link between a woman’s appearance and social desirability- a notion we can see clearly portrayed in reality TV. Whereas people with “undesirable” body types are left with lower self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and unrealistic standards of what a normal body looks like. 

Gladly, we are starting to see diversity and inclusivity within our media consumption, with more companies investing in marketing and imagery that better reflect the body types of everyday women. We can see how this positively impacts self-perception. 

Reality tv producers and casting directors are constantly rebuffing the demand to see better body representation as too much hassle or unnecessary, but contemporary research has shown just how necessary incorporating realistic body imagery is to people’s body’s satisfaction and appreciation can be.  

This research has found that exposure to fuller body types, bodies that don’t fit the thin-ideal, will experience better levels of body appreciation (the appreciation of your body’s functionality, strength and ability rather than focusing on aesthetic qualities). 

At Bamae, we value body appreciation above appearance. We don’t believe in limiting yourself by defining yourself by conventional beauty standards. Instead, we believe in striving for women to become their most confident and authentic selves through self-achievement, self-love and unconditional self-celebration.  

So once in a while, be sure to take the time to step away from imagery and messages that tell you that your body isn’t beautiful or worth celebrating. Being kinder about your body can be the first step to being kinder to your mind.