The reality TV star on the politics of self-love and plastic surgery
“I don’t think there is one type of beauty,” says Love Island’s Megan Barton-Hanson. “As long as you love yourself and you think you look good, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. If you feel good in yourself, that’s beautiful. If someone is confident, that’s the most beautiful thing ever.” At 25-years-old, it seems Megan finally feels beautiful, with her big lashes, tanned face, pillowy lips, button nose, sharp jaw, pointy cheekbones, and sparkling veneers. “But I never wake up and think, “Aren’t I beautiful today?’” She adds quickly. “You have days when you’ll feel a bit shitty but that’s life.”
It’s been 10 months since Megan first entered the public consciousness as one of the stars of Britain’s hit dating show, Love Island. A former stripper and glamour model, she was framed as this season’s femme fatale: confident, funny and sexually sure of herself. As a result, the male contestants fancied her and the female contestants were suspicious of her. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Megan, while she was enjoying her time in the Love Island villa, pictures of her when she was a teenager, looking slightly sheepish in her spectacles, started doing the rounds in the tabloids and social media. The general public was both shocked and excited by Megan's surgically-aided transformation. Overnight, two camps formed, those celebrating her liberated approach to self-fashioning and others decrying the make-over as shameful and anti-feminist.
Globally speaking, we’re more acclimatised to cosmetic procedures and non-invasive “lunchtime” treatments than ever before. In the UK alone, the cosmetic surgery industry is reported to be worth £3.6 billion, with non-surgical treatments like Botox and filler accounting for nine out of 10 procedures. Getting something “done” has never been more accessible or acceptable - a result of rampant selfie culture and the rise of reality TV shows whose stars have typically undergone at least one treatment. In fact, since series four of Love Island aired last summer, various UK clinics reported a 200% surge in demand for lip fillers and many now offer the “Love Island package” (botox, fillers, and a discounted non-surgical nose job). Similarly, in the UK and America, a “Kardashian” deal of some description is often available at clinics.
Considering this surge in popularity, it was surprising that the public response to Megan’s aesthetic overhaul was so extreme, to the point where she was receiving death threats. “Going on a show like Love Island, you know you’re going to get backlash,” she says. “For me, I thought it would be more about my love choices, but most of it was about my looks. When I was 13 and those pictures were taken, I didn’t look in the mirror and think, ‘Oh my God, I’m horrible,’ but people picked me apart.”
Born in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, Megan had a relatively positive relationship with beauty as a child. Growing up, she would spend a lot of time mirroring her mother, a school administrator, as she’d ritualistically go about her daily beauty routine. “I used to watch her in the bath when she would shave her legs. I didn’t even have any leg hair at this point,” she laughs. “I would use the bar of soap and pretend it was my razor.” Every Christmas, Megan and her mother would spend hours getting ready, “even though we weren’t going anywhere,” she adds. “I remember I had this wild thick hair which she used to put cotton in down the middle like they did in Victorian times. We had no money so she used to curl my hair with that. Because she always got glammed up, she would always get me glammed up with her.”
It was only in secondary school, however, that Megan started getting picked on by classmates because of how she looked. “When you’re young, I don’t think anyone loves themselves fully,” she says. “Everyone says it’s the awkward, insecure stage. I had these massive ears that really stuck out. People would make comments about them.” When she was 13, Megan’s mother agreed to lend her the money to get her ears pinned back. But the bullying didn’t stop. “I remember I came in with this massive bandage around my head and then it just created more drama,” she says. “They were like: ‘She wasn’t pretty before and now look, she’s just pretty because she got her ears done’.” The next big thing Megan changed was her nose and her breasts, which she did when she was 19. “My mum was having her boobs redone so I asked if I could go with her and get my nose done. She was going to lend me the money and I would have to pay her back.” Soon after, Megan started to get fillers, beginning with 0.5ml in her lips, followed by her cheeks.
Altering her appearance has never been about anyone other than herself, says Megan. Making these amendments made her feel better about herself: “It’s like when you go to the hairdressers and get a blow dry, you feel good,” she says. “I’m quite selfish in the sense that as long as I want to do something, I don’t care what anyone says. As long as you’re happy.”
But of course, people have said often negative things As a culture, we’re quick to tear women down for the choices they make regarding their appearance. Just look at all the weekly magazines and Instagram accounts like @celebface, dedicated to exposing celebrity surgery. It’s become almost a sport to flick through images of women, speculate as to what they’ve had done, and then shame them for it. “I feel like there’s so much pressure on women to look a certain way,” Megan sighs. “You’re getting bullied for how you look. Then you get all these companies running adverts saying, ‘You can get surgery on finance if you want to’ and ‘Get your new body today’. Then when you do it, you’re penalised for being fake or plastic, criticised for not loving yourself and the skin that you’re in.” Furthermore, in Megan’s experience, “most trolling comes from women. Men never comment. Before Love Island, when I was doing all the glamour stuff my following was 85% men and the rest women. Now it’s 85% women and the only people putting me down are women.”
So, what's the problem? Why are women policing other women’s appearances? Perhaps it’s because we all feel trapped by the longstanding beauty ideals – big lips, big breasts, high cheekbones, perfectly symmetrical features – impressed upon us, and resent women like Megan, who embody and thus perpetuate them. But while some feminists believe we should all be actively working to dismantle these ideals, others believe that feminism is about letting women do whatever it is that they want with their bodies and face. In many ways, Megan’s fame has made her a lightning rod for a much bigger debate.
Since leaving the Love Island villa, Megan has dedicated her platform to bringing awareness to feminist issues and campaigned rigorously against cyber bullying, particularly in the context of slut-shaming. She also regularly speaks out about mental health and encourages her audience to believe in themselves and be proud of their choices. It’s why she was so adamant to talk about her surgery in public. “If anything, it’s worse to lie to young girls and tell them, ‘Oh no, I was born this way, as I grew older I grew into my ears and my look’. Don’t lie. If you’re going to do it, own it. Otherwise, that’s just setting unrealistic goals for young girls.”
As the body positive movement grows, one of the biggest problems Megan now faces is the uncomfortable relationship between self-love and plastic surgery. If loving the skin you’re in is about doing what makes you feel happy and confident, can that include undergoing surgery?
Megan herself recognises this conflict, and feels the weight of being a role model to some of her 1.9 million followers on Instagram. “People say to me in interviews, ‘How do you feel if a young girl goes to a surgeon and takes a picture of you.’ Obviously, I find that hard. But if it wasn’t me, it’ll be Angelina Jolie or someone who is naturally born with everything in proportion. If you’re solely doing it for you, you’ve thought about it for a long time, you’ve weighed up the pros and cons, and you definitely want to do it, not because someone said something, but because it’s something that’s been bothering you day-in, day-out, then I think do it,” she says on the one hand. But on the other, she is clear: “You can spend all the money in the world, have everything changed. But if you don’t love yourself, changing your outside shell isn’t going to change how you feel inside.”
Ultimately, there are other things that can help, she says. Therapy, which she first got into around 17 and has taken up again recently. Stripping (“it made me really feel empowered and love my body”), yoga and meditation. But perhaps best of all for self-esteem is the work she’s doing now, in anti-bullying and mental health awareness. “If you’re ever going through something that’s making you feel bad, don’t ignore it, you need to address it,” she says. “Doing things for yourself and taking time out to love yourself, that’s really important.”
Photography Dexter Lander
Styling Charlotte Roberts
Make up Vassilis Theotokis
Hair Alfie Sackett
Nails Sylvie Macmillan
Talent Megan Barton-Hanson at Talent Agent Off Limits Entertainment
PR Callum Stephens
Photo assistant Alexa Horgan
Stylist assistant Kacey Amoo
Hair assistant Stephanie Anne
Nail assistant Lucy Martyn
Commissioned and produced by Saorla Houston