A psychosexual therapist looks at the societal impact of the popular but contentious TV series.
One of the interesting outcomes of the UK reality TV show Love Island this summer was the focus on mental health in personal conversations, blogs, tweets, media comment and magazine articles about the show. Questions were raised about whether the show was fueling anxiety about body image in young viewers (the show is aimed at a 16-34 year old audience) and whether the contestants might find it difficult to cope emotionally once they were back in the real world.
As a teenager, I remember watching beautiful and similarly clad women on TV but no one was interested then in the effects in the Miss World Competition on the mental health of the contestants or the audience.
What has changed? Does the drawn out intensity of modern day reality shows such as Love Island lead to more mental health issues in contestants and viewers alike? Does the explicit sexual content cause more disturbance? Or is it that audiences today are more aware of and willing to discuss mental health concerns?
Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England claimed recently that the increased pressures on teenagers about body image was leading to more eating disorders and mental health issues. He explicitly criticised ITV for playing adverts for plastic surgery during breaks on Love Island, saying that these fuelled a culture of low self-esteem and being judged as ‘not good enough’.
Sexual performance hang-ups
As a psychotherapist specialising in relationship and psychosexual issues, I see young people both male and female who are concerned about their sexual performance. Some may have low self-esteem and/or an eating disorder. The reasons behind these symptoms are many and complex but, in my experience, clients with eating disorders, addictions or a compulsion to change their bodies through plastic surgery do not have the ability to soothe their distress in ordinary ways.
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The distress can feel overwhelming, as if they are small children unable to think or act for themselves. In such cases, there may well be the fantasy that having the cosmetic surgery advertised during the breaks on Love Island, or starving oneself in order to get a tiny waist like the contestants, will end their depression. But, of course, if the problem is an inability to self-soothe, caused by attachment difficulties as a young child or by later anxieties, then problems will continue to feel unsolvable and the desperate quest for solutions will continue.
The conversations and debates around this year’s Love Island have shown that there is a growing concern about mental health issues, eating disorders, and low self-esteem in the public and in the media. There have been questions about why so many of the contestants have felt a need to have plastic surgery and the contestants themselves have spoken on the show about their own anxieties and their experiences of being bullied. Rather than fueling a culture of judgement and anxieties about not being ‘good enough’ programmes like Love Island may, in fact, encourage an acceptance that people in films and TV and social media are ordinary and vulnerable people, not perfect ‘stars’ shining far above us.
Marian O’Connor is Head of Training Psychosexual Therapy and Consultant Couple and Psychosexual Therapist at Tavistock Relationships.