The appeal of Reality TV and it’s negative impact on mental health

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I am sure that many of us, at least one time in our lives, have gotten hooked watching a reality TV show. I’ll admit it, I definitely have. Especially during the quarantine months, I would spend hours watching shows like America’s Next Top Model, Keeping up with the Kardashians and The Bachelor. Reality TV has become a huge part of television culture. There’s something about watching drama unfold in the lives of real people that’s extremely appealing. However, there’s a negativity that the genre brings upon its viewers. 

One of the biggest impacts reality television has is its influence on body positivity, or should I say lack thereof. Take a glance at most reality shows and it’s pretty self explanatory on why this is such an issue. Most people that grace the screen are thin, tall, perfect hair, perfect features and just all around drop dead gorgeous. When viewers surround themselves with this image for hours on end, it leaves us in a vulnerable state facing body anxiety. In an interview with Marie Claire magazine, psychologist Jacqui Manning, says that people can’t help but compare themselves to what they see on television.

“Most images we see of people are not how they look in real life, and humans cannot help but compare, however, it’s comparing apples and oranges,” she said. “If we look to the enhanced reflections on which to base our self-image, we are always going to lose and it can lead to a dangerous mindset that allows the idea of changing ourselves to become acceptable.”

There is a very obvious ideal beauty standard that casting directors look for, especially in the reality television genre. Furthermore, a lot of editing and enhancement happens towards the cast, even when they already look naturally stunning. The end result is millions of viewers stuck with the desire to look like the people on the screen. Consciously, we know this isn’t exactly a healthy wish and the people we are watching are faced with a lot of makeup, filters and enhancements. We also know the root of this envy is being fed by the show itself. Yet we can’t seem to change the channel.  We harm ourselves by measuring our beauty based on those we see on camera, yet refuse to walk away from the source of our harm. It’s an endless cycle of unnecessary suffering that has yet to be broken.

The toxicity doesn’t end there. Many reality tv shows have a tendency to only show the lives of the wealthy and elite. There are shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians, any of The Real Housewives, Selling Sunset and Bling Empire that are exclusively based on the luxurious lifestyles some people live. There’s a high fascination towards watching how affluent people live, how much money they spend and the problems they consider struggles in life. The problem is that, just like reality television’s effect in body image, you start to compare your own lifestyle to the elite.

When I watched Keeping up with the Kardashian’s, I was thoroughly entertained by the drama, but constantly walked away feeling bad about myself. I suddenly wanted a bigger house, designer clothes and couldn’t even feel appreciative of everything I had already. Even when I realized the toxic mindset I had, I wasn’t able to stop watching the show. Perhaps I felt the need to stay tuned into the affluent lifestyle of others because it’s a life I don’t think I will ever attain myself.

That brings us to the question we all ask ourselves — why is reality television so appealing? It has such detrimental effects to our mental and physical well beings, but remains one of the most top watched genres in entertainment. There’s no one right answer to this question, but I personally think reality tv is a form of escapism. It’s ironic to think we may watch the reality of others in order to escape the reality of our own lives. It’s a sad but honest truth.

As negative reality television can be, it’s here to stay for the long run. It’s too prominent in television culture to go away anytime soon. As viewers when we watch these reality shows, we need to remind ourselves that this is only entertainment — nothing more, nothing less. Life is too short to let what is on a television screen affect our health and wellbeing.

Janelle Sessoms

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