Love Island: Alex Light and Emily Clarkson on body diversity criticism
Earlier this week the line-up for the 2021 cohort of Love Island was announced and it’s an understatement to say many called out the apparent lack of body diversity in an era when diversity across the board – from race to gender and sexuality – is demanded.
When it had been touted as ‘the most diverse line-up yet’, many voiced their disappointment on social media that the most anticipated TV return of the year appeared to feature only straight-sized contestants.
One branded the lack of body diversity ‘toxic’, as another said it was ‘awful’.
‘It would be so cool if Love Island actually went through with the claim there will be more body diversity on this season,’ one wrote on Twitter in the wake of the casting announcement. ‘I’d love to see more normal, relatable body types on my telly! Not everyone is attracted to the stereotypical “love island” bodies anyway!!!’
Many also shared their anger at the inclusion of only one dark skin Black woman, citing the lack of racial diversity as well.
In response to the criticism, an ITV spokesperson said the broadcaster ‘celebrates diversity of every sort across our range of programmes in our schedule and across our channels’.
‘In terms of casting for Love Island, the only stipulation to applicants is they must be over 18, single and looking for love,’ they told Metro.co.uk. ‘This year’s Love Islanders come from a diverse range of backgrounds with a mix of personalities and have a healthy BMI.’
While there may be a lot of conversation around Hugo Hammond, the first Islander with a physical disability, many were lamenting the lack of anyone without a six-pack, with body hair, or plus-sized.
Alex Light and Emily Clarkson, influencers and activists who have formed an engaged following calling out BS when it comes to body diversity in the media and on TV, had a conversation with us about the Love Islanders set to become the names on everyone’s lips come tomorrow evening.
It went further than just the faces – and bodies – who will be competing for love in the Spanish sun later this month, as the pair unpacked the wider ramifications of continuing to perpetuate a lack of diversity on our prime-time shows that appeal to younger audiences.
Responding to the line-up, body confidence activist Light admitted she was ‘very naive’ and felt due to the highlighted conversation around body inclusivity, she’d see more sizes reflective of society among the Islanders.
She says: ‘I was convinced that the Love Island producers and the casting team were going to have at least made an effort with body diversity, so I really wasn’t expecting it. I was expecting to see perhaps not a fully diverse lineup, but at least more of a diverse lineup than we’ve seen in previous years.
‘But as it happens, all of the women and men are all completely straight-size and uphold the typical standard of beauty that we have come to know through the media.
‘I just think it’s such a shame and I was totally naive and I was really convinced that this was the year.’
Fellow activist and author Clarkson, on the flip side, was ‘not surprised at all’.
‘I sat with my own thoughts afterward,’ she says. ‘It’s such an extraordinary concept for a show, it’s got such popularity and they do just sort of seem to keep going in the face of a lot of things that other shows probably would not withstand or push through.’
She goes on: ‘I was actually not that surprised. The job of diversifying this show would be really difficult and that’s not an excuse not to diversify it, I think there is an element of… [I] look at them not enviably but just almost like I look at The Sims.
‘It doesn’t feel real to me at all and there’s something about the cast, and this is not to diminish their individual personalities, because I’m sure they’re all great, but when they all look so similar there’s an even playing field to an extent.
‘I think if you put one plus-size person in, it puts a target on their back and it changes the whole rhetoric and really focuses on them, perhaps in the way they wouldn’t want. I do think that in keeping the formula exactly the same they know that people invest… it does actually become, when you’ve got them all looking so similar, about their personalities.’
Light agrees it would be difficult to diversify the show and believes putting one plus-size person in isn’t the answer, but instead to include several people who are plus-size, noting ‘a plus-sized person is bigger than size 16 in the true sense of the word’.
The writer explains: ‘Rather than, say, eight contestants [who are] straight-sized and then three plus-size, it would be to diversify as if you were looking at a cross-section of society. Not just a couple people who have to carry the burden of being diverse.’
‘I mean they came out a few years ago, the Love Island producers said that they didn’t want to add body diversity because they wanted everyone to be attracted to each other, so that’s their stance on it, that’s their take and they’ve come out publicly and admitted that.’
Producer Richard Cowles had said in 2019 of the show’s diversity: ‘Yes we want to be as representative as possible but we also we want them to be attracted to one another.’
Be that as it may, both women concede the formula is clearly working for the show, which has made a lot of money doing what it does and has gained incredible popularity over the years, with international spin-offs keeping the flame burning overseas.
And while she will still watch the show, despite the criticisms, Clarkson branded the series a ‘fascinating beast’, questioning her own standing to call out its shortcomings if she’s still tuning in.
Light adds: ‘It’s everywhere, everyone’s talking about it, family, friends, it’s all over social media, all the memes on Instagram, you can’t get away from it.
‘It’s so easy to get sucked into it.’
But like many shows, Light believes Love Island also has a shelf life and by not listening to those who are calling for it to better reflect society – as well as calls for LGBT inclusivity – it might be left behind.
She says: ‘I think that by not embracing the diversity they all go down the same path as Victoria’s Secret, which stood firmly in its “we are not going to have the plus-size and trans models”, they just weren’t up for exploring that and it’s come to bite them…they’re changing their stance and leaving the angels [VS has since hired a trans model] but it’s too late, we needed that a few years ago, and I think that’s the same with Love Island. I think they’ll regret the casting decision, personally.’
While Clarkson finds it ‘almost laughable that you can just continue so bullheadedly in the wrong direction,’ we all continue to buy into the formula because it’s the TV we love to tune into in order to tune out.
‘We are proof that this formula is fantastic,’ the author adds. ‘Victoria’s Secret did run a phenomenally long course because we do enjoy watching beautiful people get off, apparently, but it is fascinating and on so many levels… I have reflecting to do.’
Both believe responsibility for change doesn’t lie with viewers, but with show bosses who know we’re sticking to the show – as we call for better representation.
‘I actually got quite a lot of criticism for saying I was going to watch it, which I don’t think is totally unfair,’ Clarkson says, later adding: ‘But the onus shouldn’t be on us. Ultimately, it is. This show is happening, ITV is running it, this is what we’re dealing with. All we can control now, as individuals, is our reaction to it, and so, if it makes you feel like trash, don’t watch it.’
As an activist who is honest about her own journey with body confidence, Light adds: ‘I can watch the show and not think “oh, my body doesn’t look like hers” because I’m so hyper-aware of what’s gone into their preparation for the show.
‘I take pleasure in watching it just as a bit of escapism you know. We talk about this stuff all day long. At the end of the day, I like to put my phone away and not have to think about size inclusivity.’
Clarkson chimes in: ‘We know this isn’t real… [but if] you’re 17 and you’re watching this, there is an element of this being the aspiration.’
While unpacking whose role it is to ensure the show is diverse in body types, Light has some guidance for the bosses.
‘Hire an inclusion and diversity expert first of all, I think, would be the first starting point,’ as Clarkson adds: ‘If I were talking to them as individuals, please don’t let yourself get swept up in this.’
She continues of producers: ‘They have to ultimately curate something watchable, perfect, addictive, they’ve got a job to do, and within that they lose the humanity totally.
‘These contestants are characters and they are being packaged as such, and they will be displayed to us as such, and what everybody needs to remember, particularly the producers, is that not only are they dealing with real people, but real people are watching these real people and the effects that they will have on very real lives are quite catastrophic.
‘It’s not healthy to continue to sell something completely unattainable.’
Love Island begins Monday 9pm on ITV.
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