The Love Island discussion on plastic surgery was eye opening - but let’s not pretend it’s a feminist act

·6 min read
 (ITV)
(ITV)

If Love Island were a room, plastic surgery would be the elephant lurking in the corner. Since the show started in 2015, it has been well-documented that many of its contestants have gone under the knife. Each year, countless articles are published in the tabloids, showing “before” and “after” photos of those who have had procedures, often detailing exactly which ones and exactly how much they cost.

And yet, those who have had plastic surgery on the show are never shown speaking about it. Or at least, they weren’t, until this week. In Tuesday’s episode, Hugo Hammond was vehemently criticised by fellow Islanders Sharon Gaffka and Faye Winter, who took offence to Hammond’s repeated claims that he’s not attracted to “fake” women shortly after Gaffka and Winter both confessed to having had cosmetic work done.

The revelations came as part of the annual Mr and Mrs competition, whereby those in couples have to answer questions about one another (typically about each other’s sex lives and sexual partners). But this year, in an unexpected twist, the men were asked to guess which cosmetic procedures their partners had undergone – that this question wasn’t reciprocated speaks volumes.

It transpired that all bar one of the women (Kaz Kamwi) had undergone either botox, lip fillers, breast implants, or all three. Despite the Islanders’ openness about their procedures, however, Hammond’s “fake” comments struck a nerve, with Winter calling on him to “get f***ing educated why girls get work done”, while Gaffka explained that it’s “fine” if Hammond isn’t “not into fake stuff or girls that look really fake”, but added that he doesn’t “know the reasons why we’ve had stuff done”.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Judging by Twitter, the majority of viewers sided with Hammond, and criticised Winter and Gaffka for overreacting. It didn’t help, of course, when Gaffka compared plastic surgery to racism (”I would never turn round to a guy and be like, ‘I wouldn’t date you because of your height, or I wouldn’t date you because of your race’”), or when Winter recalled how, after years of feeling insecure about her “underdeveloped” body, she’d received her breast implants for her 18th birthday as a present from her parents (the average cost in the UK is up to £8,000), in a tone that one user compared to “an X-Factor sob story”.

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Mockery aside, though, the fact that both women (and the majority of social media) reacted so vehemently to the ordeal tells us something important about the impossible beauty standards women face on a daily basis. Given the fact that plastic surgery has never once been acknowledged on the show – despite countless reports in the media – you’d think there’d be a degree of relief felt by women when the Islanders finally spoke about the reality of the situation, particularly when they did so very openly and honestly.

Liberty Poole, Rachel Finni and Sharon Gaffka pictured in last night’s episode during the Mr and Mrs challenge. (ITV)
Liberty Poole, Rachel Finni and Sharon Gaffka pictured in last night’s episode during the Mr and Mrs challenge. (ITV)

All too often, those in the public eye who do go under the knife deny it (or diplomatically avoid answering questions on it), exacerbating the unrealistic beauty standards women are conditioned to meet. At least if we knew those “perfect” body parts were the result of surgery we either can’t afford or don’t want, it might relieve us of some of the pressures we feel to have them ourselves. Take Kylie Jenner, who famously denied having had lip fillers, only coming clean in 2015, shortly after the advent of the dangerous #KylieJennerLipChallenge, which saw young women place a glass over their lips to create an airlock on their skin for as long as five minutes, the idea being that this would plump their lips to look like Jenner’s.

Neither Winter nor Gaffka seemed to indicate any shame around the fact they’ve had surgery, which is a good thing. But how seriously should we take their arguments that having plastic surgery is something to be celebrated on national TV with audiences of mainly young people (in 2018, the ASA banned an ad for breast enlargement that had been running during the show’s ad breaks as the Mental Health Foundation argued it exploited young women’s insecurities and portrayed plastic surgery as aspirational).

Let’s be real here: having cosmetic surgery is not exactly a radical feminist act.

Gaffka pictured in the villa (ITV)
Gaffka pictured in the villa (ITV)

Talking about it in that way – as some viewers accused Winter of doing – perpetuates the falsehood that spending thousands of pounds on altering your body is a necessary evil, one that will boost your social currency and somehow empower you. It might, but it would be myopic to think of plastic surgery like this without also acknowledging the reasons why women feel compelled to under the knife in the first place – and chances are, it’s about a lot more than mere insecurities.

We live in a world where women are conditioned to look, think, and behave a certain way from a young age. This is down to a mix of sexism, misogyny, and the patriarchal society we all operate within. Because of this, subscribing to the concept of choice feminism - i.e. Winter may argue that because she chose to have breast implants, that makes it a feminist act because she is doing what she wants with her body - has become increasingly appealing.

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But while thinking this way might offer temporary relief, it negates the fact that these women are still conforming to a model of attraction (whether it’s large breasts or plumped-up lips) created by and for men. They are the ones that are benefitting from it. And any power women may feel from reconstructing their bodies in this way is, it should be stated, entirely reliant on that male gaze. How, then, can plastic surgery be considered empowering for the female cause? Particularly when it benefits nobody but the individual having it?

You’d think that a debate around female beauty standards would have made some of the male Islanders a little more sensitive to how much this affects women. And yet, in the same episode, Aaron Francis revealed that his major “turn off” in a woman is “hairy arms”, a comment that prompted a furore on Twitter, but nothing in the show itself. This is the despite the fact that cosmetic surgery is a choice. Having hair on your arms is not.

If the episode taught us anything, it’s that when it comes to the way they look, women are ultimately damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Having surgery might boost your confidence and give you more social capital. But the very fact that it does that says a lot about the world we live in, and how much needs to change.

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