Last week, Lexxie Harford appeared in the news promoting self-confidence. She had been asked to appear on the show Too Ugly For Love? because of a birthmark on her face, but instead of accepting the offer she posted pictures of herself to Imgur along with a strong rebuke. Made by the same production company who produce The Undateables, Too Ugly For Love? focusses on people with a variety of concealable medical conditions navigating the dating world, and is part of the growing trend of faux-inspiration television that rely on us buying into society’s outdated notions of the "proper way to be".
Earlier this year in May, I too was approached for the same show, found due to an essay I wrote about my experiences with vitiligo. However, while some of my interactions with people can be said to be frustrating, I’ve never had real personal insecurities about my vitiligo, and especially not with regard to dating. I was curious about the offer to be part of what was described as an educational and uplifting documentary casting its second season, but during the phone conversation it appeared to be the case that they wanted to tell a story of me from a starting point of insecurity, self-doubt, and struggle. The title of the show was not given, but I gathered it through a quick search – wisely they knew that saying the name would give a clear indication about how they would frame the topic.
There is a general idea that people only find those who fit in narrow perimeters attractive, even though our day-to-day lives disprove that. Those who fall even somewhat outside the boundaries of “normal” are automatically assumed to secretly carry the weight of shame with regard to their appearance, and through these shows we engage in a public demonstration of pity – urging them to love because they are “deserving” and “inspiring” rather than just fellow humans. It is these attitudes that make a production company approach me despite my essay having spoken about the assumption that my vitiligo makes me inherently ugly and requires someone special to look past it. If other people have already judged you as not worthy, the only option is that you must be in denial.
Obviously in wider society people do sometimes react badly – the charity Changing Faces was specifically set up because of this bias, and it’s an area that need change. Yet a show can’t claim to promote education then use a title like Too Ugly For Love? which sets up the daily frustrations of dealing with ignorance as something deeper. It implies that it is a universal truth there are people who might be "too ugly for love". It makes us assess each individual on our own scale of attractiveness to see if we think if they should expect issues in finding relationships.
It urges us to hope that those we connect with on a show will somehow find their personality alone seductive enough, and neglects why we allow society to view them as faulty in the first place. There are still people who feel incredibly insecure, and to see their condition labelled a barrier to love further reinforces any other negative messages they have received. This is especially critical as the show relies on the theatre of the reveal, with dates suddenly discovering that someone they are with is actually different and we wonder if these “normal” people will walk away from their emotional investment. It suggests that so long as you hide your condition you are acceptable to date but that your true self is a risk, and something only a kind and generous soul could take on. In its page on TLC the show’s description says that “for singles with a secret physical affliction the search to find ‘the one’ can seem almost impossible". Conditions are never seen as something that could ever be neutral or make you more appealing to another person.
Not everyone is beautiful to everyone. People find me unattractive, but it is for a wider variety of reasons than just a skin condition, which is a single part of my whole aesthetic. Human attraction is a wonderfully varied thing – my friends find my adoration of Mesut Özil confusing, and likewise I find the veneration of Chris Pine bizarre – but the key part is that it is incredibly malleable, and people exposed to confident portrayals of alternative beauty can alter their views. Spend long enough looking at changing attitudes to women’s personal grooming and you realise that beauty is not as fixed as we like to imagine it is.
“Those who fall even somewhat outside the boundaries of “normal” are automatically assumed to secretly carry the weight of shame with regard to their appearance”
Inevitably, I have privilege over other people – my vitiligo isn't as contrasted with my “usual” skin colour as it is for someone like Winnie Harlow, and time has changed its spread as well so that it now covers most of my face, just making me look consistently a little under the weather. Therefore I navigate less day-to-day issues than others might. But regardless of what state my vitiligo decides to be in, there are a hundred other things that can rule me out, like a tendency to start dancing weirdly in public, or pull stupid faces, or my failure to understand why certain topics are not a suitable for dinner. Yet a show focusing on how inspiring it is for me to try and date despite a sardonic sense of humour would be ridiculous.
Yes, these shows can raise awareness of different conditions and the prejudices that individuals face, but they still frame physical difference as something that needs to be overcome, and imply hidden or hideable differences are dirty secrets that have to be disclosed like a confession. We need to work on analysing our instinctive assumptions about attraction so that we can see these programmes for the absurdity that they are.
Fundamentally, shows like these won't disappear; there is a market for them and we enjoy the idea of demonstrating our compassion and kindness by silently urging individuals towards love from the comfort of our sofas. Ultimately though, we all need to take a note from Lexxie Harford and start to rebel against those who would seek to define human attraction by such tiny, restrictive criteria.
Follow Rushaa Hamid on Twitter here @thesecondrussia