July 27, 2021   7 mins

“You notice a bump in clientele as soon as Love Island starts to air,” observed Chris Hoo, a Belfast plastic surgeon. The ITV show, with its audience of 3 million, has catapulted a heavily surgically-enhanced aesthetic into the British mainstream. Demand for Botox, fillers (injected hyaluronic acid or lipids, generally into the lips) and cosmetic surgery in younger and younger women has surged since 2018, linked to viewership of Love Islandthe most-watched digital channel programme this year for people aged 16-34. In the three weeks since the present season began, requests for lip filler have risen by 37%.

“Many this year want a pout like Sharon,” says Hoo, meaning Sharon Gaffka, the former beauty queen turned Department for Transport administrator who — despite having prominent work done to lips, face and breasts — failed to form a romantic connection with any of the men and was booted out of the villa last week.

Her failure to attract represents a painful Love Island irony: the correlation between surgery and attractiveness to men — and especially the ability to generate strong feelings — is weak. The less obviously enhanced women, from surfer-girl Lucie Donlan to winner Amber Rose in winter 2019, to Millie and Lucinda in this season, more often stoke an unambiguous, instant lust (they’re “fire”), while the women with more exaggerated features often struggle. Season Five’s Anna Vikali’s £100,000 of plastic surgery didn’t stop her from being summarily dumped when a better option came in, while Shaugna Phillips’ (Season Six) boldly artificial-looking mouth, eyes and nose did not keep Callum Jones from trading her in for a thinner, younger blonde at Casa Amor.

So why do women bother getting work done? Partly, of course, because it’s a fashion, disseminated at warp speed since the arrival of Instagram through the lucrative, Kardashian-inspired world of ultra-filtered influencers. That fashion has capitalised on a uniquely contemporary mixture of deep insecurity, and the politicisation of that insecurity: a defiant pride in “doing what makes you happy” and therefore doing what it takes to “pass, to survive and to thrive” — even if that means capitulating to one of patriarchy’s most devious regimes.

The confused but angry politics of the new beauty burst to the surface in the first gripping set-piece of the current season of Love Island. The islanders were playing a game in which each person had to guess something about the person they were paired up with, to show how well they’d got to know them. The women’s cosmetic procedures were included in the game, with a frankness never seen before in the programme’s six-year history: one of the questions the men had to answer was what “work” their women had had done.

I’d have found such a question excruciatingly embarrassing, but then I belong to an outdated era in which one’s beauty is meant to look effortless — a fairly burdensome requirement in itself. By contrast, these women wrote with jolly loudness on their little blackboards what they’d all had done: all bar one (Kaz) had had something; a significant number had had Botox, filler and breast surgery. All of them were under the age of 27, and none of them seemed remotely coy about it.

A number of questions involved each party stating what they liked, or didn’t like, in a partner. Fan favourite Hugo, a 24-year old PE teacher with a club foot who has frequently been passed over for being “too nice”, used the word “fake” three times. He declared a strong dislike for “fakeness” or “anything fake” in women — personality and looks. It sounded like a fairly general word for a barrage of bad things in a society obsessed with authenticity, and no worse than what the other men claimed to revile, including women with visible arm hair. But after Hugo’s second invocation of “fake”, the heavily enhanced Faye growled: “that word keeps getting thrown around, doesn’t it?”

On the third time, Sharon and Faye exploded, calling Hugo “ignorant” and demanding he “get fucking educated” about why “girls get work done”. Hugo, oblivious, then burst into tears at the extreme consequences of his word choice, to which Faye responded, “I don’t give a fuck if he’s upset, he can fuck off”.

It was clear now that “fake” had been taken as a slur word on a par with open racism — a comparison later made by a furious, filler-lipped Sharon, to the consternation of fans. Twitter duly exploded with “fake gate”, with former islanders — women who’d had work done — weighing in. Amber Rose agreed that the word had seemed pointed, while Laura Anderson, of Series Four, claimed that the women had “gone too far” in their reaction.

Faye explained her strong retort in telling terms:

“For me the word fake doesn’t go well. My mum and dad watched me cry every day from the age of 13 to 18 because I was underdeveloped, then they bought me a boob job for my 18th birthday because I was having such a tough time.”

Getting work done was a reaction to body insecurity — a helpless, only-human female response to patriarchy. Sharon had also taken offence because “fake” insulted women who were driven to do it: “you don’t know the reasons why we’ve had stuff done and I think that’s really unfair”.  That she — that all the women on Love Island — had embraced and then benefitted hugely from the system she’s criticising was not acknowledged.

Fake-gate highlighted a new kind of feminist, then: a woman who sees her obsession with her own looks as both something justifiable and a sign of patriarchy-created vulnerability. This type of feminism has crystallised since social media allowed people, especially women, to get rich and famous from home-made self-portraits and videos — the more suggestive and exaggerated the better. The “fake” look condemned by Hugo is more likely to be seen on working-class women (the Love Island fan base is not generally middle class), but influencers’ use of some form of sexiness crosses class. This sexualised route to stardom doesn’t feel particularly feminist to someone schooled in, say, Women’s Liberation — but then, it can certainly be lucrative.

And she may even recognise, like the women of Love Island, that she’s playing a game with rules set by patriarchy. Sissy Sheridan, a teen TikTok star with 5.3m followers — whose videos mainly show her pouting and lip-syncing in bikinis — believes her medium “is the most misogynistic platform ever,” replete with “slut-shaming and cyberbullying” of female stars. She condemns these slut-shamers as “haters,” proclaims to be a “feminist,” and continues to dance near-naked for her fans and rack up followers: one more example of how blurred the lines between feminism and sexualised self-selling have become.

Love Island’s fake-gate is another example, of course. But the row caught fire because the manipulation of our bodies has never been as explosive a political issue as in this era of trans rights and body positivity. In some circles, “natural” — one of the buzzwords of the body positivity movement — has become as political as “fake”. Right-on beauty observers like Sesali Bowen see the celebration of the “natural” as a judgement of those who manipulate their bodies because they are “marginalised”: trans people getting surgery to suit their true gender identities, say, or those hoping to escape pressures intensified by racism, ableism and lookism. Bowen also argues that plastic surgery is a democratising force that wrests “pretty privilege” from the hands of the few.

Perhaps she’s right. But the downsides of excessive bodily manipulation are painfully obvious. As well as signalling a moveable feast of insecurity and the tyranny of constant self-monitoring, fake-gate has highlighted how easily women can plunge from the envied and powerful into the pitied and reviled. This is part of a long-term female conundrum: how do we change our bodies enough to be beautiful but not too much to cloud our sexual allure? As Ben Jonson put it in a 1609 song, “Still to be neat, still to be dressed”, women should aim for a look of “sweet neglect”, which required being “powdered, still perfumed” — but subtly. Women who use too many additives are suspected of falseness (fakeness’s ancestor) and trickery. Robert Herrick, the 17th century poet, railed at those who were: “False in legs, and false in thighs; / False in breast, teeth, hair and eyes”.

The potential for pitiable grotesquerie has always been waiting in the wings for women grasping too hungrily at perfect figures, faces and eternal youth. Today, we are inundated with stories of plastic surgery gone wrong; of monstrous transformations in which the attempt at beauty radically backfires. Testimonies by remorseful surgery addicts make eye-watering reading. Heidi Montag, an American reality star, has admitted to procedures all itemised in print: mini brow lift, forehead botox, nose job “revision”, fat injections in her cheeks, chin reduction, neck liposuction, pinned back ears, second breast job, liposuction on hips, waist and inner thighs, and buttock augmentation. “People have fewer scars from car accidents than I have on my body,” she observed.

Like Montag, the women of Love Island — and their millions of fans and followers — are caught up in a stressful, physically damaging game in which the potential payoff of fame is pitted against the brutal facts of time, human flesh, and fashion. And what are they playing for? The islanders throw everything into their appearance but seem flummoxed about how to actually talk to each other. In the end, the contestants find, no amount of paid-for, hard-won bodily perfection can fill the gap left by really “getting to know” someone — and liking them. When everyone has bodies on the tight spectrum of contemporary perfection, the ability to attract comes down to other things — in Love Island parlance, having “a bit about” you.

And the fashion may soon be turning sharply against enhancements — or “tweakments,” as they’ve called them this season. Ex-contestant Anna Vikali has just announced she is reversing her £100,000 of work, starting with a breast reduction, and Molly Mae Teague, runner up of winter 2019, has turned anti-“tweakment” after failing to recognise her own reflection in the mirror.

Still, the demand for surgical enhancement is continuing to rise, and the danger is that fakeness — understood in the surgical sense — becomes more seamlessly integrated into standard aesthetics, perhaps even morphing into the “natural”. After all, tweakments are now presented by their “feminist” purchasers as an only natural response to marginality, suffering and patriarchy. Like Faye and Sharon, they’ve cracked under the pressure to look a certain way, and surgery was their answer.

But forcing this unfortunate chain of events into a vocabulary of politicised victimhood conceals the seriousness of the motive, which is an obsessive focus on the body as the font of all worth. Recognising this helps us to see Botox, fillers, butt-lifts and boob jobs for what they really are — extreme, often counterproductive measures to fight time and nature — rather than acts of female bravura. They are short-term solutions, not only for individual women, but for women generally — who’d be much better off if the whole sexist system were dismantled, rather than propped up “fake” feminism.

Zoe Strimpel is a historian of gender and intimacy in modern Britain and a columnist for the Sunday Telegraph. Her latest book is Seeking Love in Modern Britain: Gender, Dating and the Rise of ‘the Single’ (Bloomsbury)