What I Learned From My 'Love Island Years'
The Debrief: What I learned from years of focussing on being sexy above all else...
Illustration by Sophie Brampton
The trousers were so tight l couldn't cross my legs. They impeded walking, induced cystitis and were hands down my favourite item of clothing. ‘High Shine’, black, waxed J Brands. They were the bottom half of what I now call my Love Island look and I wore them with pride.
During my J Brand era, 2011 to 2012, all my t-shirts were a little too thin. My bras served no purpose. Vests were scooped out under the arms. All jeans were freshly washed and tumbled so they skinned my legs like a sausage casing. Jumpers were cropped to the top of my trousers and I reached up for things a lot. Bronzer featured heavily and my hair was waist length and peroxide. I was single for the first time in years and knew this tried and tested look worked. Above all else, I wanted male attention.
I didn’t care to dress imaginatively. I didn’t want to look 'interesting' or 'unique'. I just wanted to look ‘sexy’ as our society conventionally conceives of female attractiveness. I certainly didn’t want to look ‘fashiony’, those skinny jeans, their denim corrupted with Lycra were anything but cool.
It worked! The midriff, the side boob, the fake tan, the body con, all that hair. I’m still not sure why it’s a ‘sexy’ look: the gloopily glossed lips are, ironically, unkissable, the extension filled hair is, deceptively, untouchable and the photogenic fabric of choice is, in reality, uncomfortably scratchy. All of this has, rightly or wrongly, become so synonymous with girls who are ‘up for it’ that boys are programmed to find it ‘sexy’. And, to make sure there is no ambiguity, this is a look which hasn’t changed since the noughties. You could compare a contestant from this year's Love Island with a Maxim cover from 2002 and have trouble dating either image - the bikinis are cut the same, the breasts made the same, the only giveaway might be that today's makeup is a little dewier. What this look really has going for it is that it’s not about the end result, its success lies in the effort and intention. In that way, it’s quite democratic unlike say, the ‘Nonchalant French Girl’ look which requires a God-given chiselled jawbone.
But, underneath it all, by God was I lonely. Because throughout my twenties, it was when I was at my lowest, or feeling the most vulnerable, that I’d gravitate back to the safe haven of ‘sexy’ dressing. For me, then, it was a refuge, a safe space in the world where I just had to play a singular and simplistic role of a girl-on-the-pull. There was a year when I wore hot pants throughout the seasons with and without black tights. 2005 saw the end of a 6-year relationship (at age 22!) which meant I piled on the lip gloss to find the next man. 2007 was my American Apparel gym girl summer, at 24 life was getting real, job stress kicked in, pay packets never went far enough - my self-worth was taking a beating so I sought the pick me up of a cat call. However much I thought I was mixing it up the fashion, it was a version of a homogenised look, like science Barbie vs Safari Barbie, it’s the same aesthetic. The most baffling thing about the current Love Island is the discussion of ‘types,’ because physically, at least, there's almost no distinction between the female contestants. The length of the girl's hair differs by an inch – God forbid someone with a bob walked into the villa. Curly hair isn’t allowed either. The island's fake tanned skin tone that transcends ethnicity. The boys’ ‘types’ in the villa are divided into blonde or brunette and small or tall. For the girls, it’s merely with tattoos or without, and whichever they choose they’ll get a side order of white jeggings.
Confusingly, when it came to work, I used to intersperse dressing for the opposite sex with dressing as the opposite sex. I worked in advertising and the department I worked in was generally 80% male. While men worked their way to the top of agencies, the women were mainly young and bouncy. In the 12 years I was in that industry I worked with only 3 mums. Only 3! Although it is changing now, agencies then seemingly disposed of women at age 29. Where did they go? I never found out, they just…disappeared. So, I’d go from dressing for my male colleagues to another extreme, where I’d dress exactly like the men I worked with - button up blue shirt, navy chinos and a pair of Grenson brogues – in hope that my gender wouldn’t determine the outcome of my career. When that produced confusing results, I’d plug the GHD’s in and go back to playing the game I knew how to win. It felt like society knew what to do with me when I was playing sex object.
I found ‘sexy’ an easy role to play, not because I was sexy, but because years of culture have doggedly taught women and men how to behave around a stiletto heel and a bodycon dress. Ditto a thong bikini or a tanned, toned inner thigh. Sometimes I miss my Love Island years. OK, the lonely bits weren’t great, nor the desperation, or suppressing parts of my personality, but the single focus was pretty blissful, like having a very tight and easily achievable brief. I know it’s not a look I’m going to revisit anytime soon, but sometimes today in my opaque t-shirts and my skirts that go all the way to my knees I feel the weight of having to be many things. This role playing weighs heavily on so many women. Sometimes I find it hard work being multifaceted with many and manifold points to prove. I do like being able to cross my legs though, and walking unhindered by heels is pretty handy too.
As women, we’re taught from a young age that we are somehow lacking. We’re too fat, too thin, too tall or too small. So, we go through our lives thinking that we have to fix ourselves with make-up, surgery, false eyelashes and clothes. There’s something to be said for glamming up (you only have to watch a Love Island getting ready montage to see how much fun it can be) but there’s also a need to appreciate ourselves as we are. It’s a shame that to feel sexy we often feel the need to correct many parts of ourselves and that the look our society most associates with sexiness is one where many parts of the body have been altered.
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