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Love Is Blind and ‘heroin chic’ proves bodies as trends has always existed

Love Is Blind’s Zanab Jaffrey called out her former fiancé Cole Barnett for making comments about her body. Social media immediately attacked her for it. Meredith Clark writes how the online response to Love Is Blind, and a recent New York Post headline, represent a retaliation against the body positivity movement of the last 10 years

Wednesday 23 November 2022 17:57 GMT

Love Is Blind is the Netflix reality dating show that people can’t stop talking about, but for all the wrong reasons.

The social experiment involves 30 single folks going on dates in small rooms known as “pods” in the hopes of finding the one, all without seeing each other in person. When contestants spark up a romantic and emotional connection, they get engaged sight unseen. What could possibly go wrong?

Unsurprisingly, a lot. The recent third season of the dating show was perhaps the most controversial one yet, and has incited much social media conversation since the final episodes aired this month. While the experiment proved to be successful for a (small) handful of couples, Zanab Jaffrey and Cole Barnett were anything but a perfect match, despite how much they professed to be up to their wedding day. Really, it was no surprise there were cracks in the surface of their relationship, which were revealed to viewers during the season three reunion. Zanab claimed Cole made disparaging comments about her appearance, weight and eating habits. Cole told his former fiancée she was lying.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer my mind-numbing, all-around entertaining reality TV binges to be without disordered eating language and disguised fatphobia. And I would hope that the viewer’s response wouldn’t be in support of the person allegedly making those comments, but one can only dream.

With any reality show, there’s a lot we don’t see. So let’s start by describing what viewers actually did watch. For starters, Zanab and Cole’s relationship wasn’t always rocky. The two seemed to have formed a strong emotional connection in the pods, and even seemed to be physically attracted to each other once they met in person. But things took a turn when the five engaged couples left the pods for a pre-honeymoon retreat in Malibu, California. There, Cole revealed his former pods fling – ballet dancer and quintessential “girl next door” Colleen Reed – was more his type. After a little budging from Zanab, he even went so far as to rate Colleen a 10 out of 10, while his fiancée was a nine out of 10.

It’s important to note that Cole wasn’t the only guilty party in the breakdown of this relationship. In one scene, Cole tried to make dinner for Zanab, but she took over when the meal wasn’t cooked to her standards. He often called her out for her passive aggressiveness, and Zanab freely pointed out Cole’s flaws.

When it came time to say “I do,” not only did Zanab reject Cole at the altar, but she also called him out for lowering her self-confidence. “The last two months have not been picture perfect,” she told him. “You have disrespected me. You have insulted me. You have critiqued me. And for what it is worth, you have single-handedly shattered my self-confidence. And I hate that you have had that kind of effect on me.”

It was like the dramatic moment was taken out of a reality TV handbook. The third season could’ve ended there, but Love Is Blind producers rehashed the lowest points of their relationship in a reunion special filmed more than a year after filming was wrapped. It was there that Zanab listed moments from their short-lived relationship which weren’t shown on screen.

“The pushing food away from me, asking if I’m gonna eat that, trying to get me to order a salad, the daily comments about my face and my body were not used,” she claimed. “And that’s great, because it really did protect you.”

Then came the infamous “Cuties” scene. Truly, a seedless mandarin orange brand causing this much chaos on a reality dating series wasn’t included in my 2022 bingo card.

In the unaired scene, which was then included at the end of the reunion special by the shady producers, showed Zanab grabbing two of the bite-sized oranges and peeling one of them. The conversation goes like this.

Cole: “Peeling oranges. Are you about to eat two of those?”

Zanab: “Maybe. That’s a serving. You okay with that?”

C: “You better save your appetito.”

Z: “I’ve only had a banana and a scoop of peanut butter today.”

C: “I’m talking a big old sucker tonight. You only had a banana today? Why?”

Z: “I could tell you, but probably shouldn’t.”

C: “I offered you a poke bowl.”

Z: “I know you did but we had that last night.”

C: “Oh, are you getting wedding dress bod?”

For Cole, it was a seemingly innocuous conversation. But for Zanab, his comment is a reflection of a pattern of body-shaming that both Zanab, and women everywhere, have been subjected to their whole lives.

Virgie Tovar is an activist who has spent the last 10 years educating people on weight-based discrimination and body image. She is the author of four books, including You Have the Right to Remain Fat, and a contributor for Forbes, where she covers the plus-size market and workplace weight discrimination.

“We live in a culture that tells people – especially women – all of the time to control how much and what they eat,” Tovar tells The Independent. “In our culture, how much food you eat and how much you weigh are considered the same thing, even though the science is actually a lot more complex than that.”

“In this culture, how much you weigh is correlated to how much access you have to acceptance, employment, and medical care. This all means that for many women, food is incredibly high stakes,” she said. “So, when someone we love comments on how we eat, they may be activating the stress that is associated with those high stakes.”

Perhaps the greatest reflection of this wider system of body-shaming came not from Cole, but from the social media response to the Love Is Blind reunion special. These were just some of the comments made by viewers after the controversial “Cuties” scene:

“Zanab is the real villain in #loveisblind season three,” one person tweeted. “Seeing the Cuties clip, Cole did nothing wrong. Zanab, out of her insecurity, made it a bigger issue than it was and blamed Cole entirely. He did not deserve that humiliation at the reunion.”

Another person wrote: “Based on that ‘Cuties’ interaction, I don’t believe anything that Zanab said was happening happened in the way she portrayed it. I really hope she watches that and realised that what she THOUGHT Cole was saying wasn’t what he said AT ALL. She really needs self-esteem.”

“Zanab really allowed her own overthinking and insecurities to lead the narrative of how she said Cole treated her & that orange story really showed that,” said someone else. “She really tried to manipulate that situation. I def don’t like her now”.

In the same Love Is Blind season that had its first plus-size contestant ever, Zanab was painted as a “villain” for being open about her insecurities and calling out Cole for what she felt were body-shaming comments. But for writer and cultural critic Rayne Fisher-Quann, this is just part of a growing trend where women face online attacks simply for speaking up.

Fisher-Quann is the author and creator of the popular Substack “internet princess,” a collection of essays and blogs which analyses pop culture through a revolutionary feminist and anti-capitalist lens.

She tells The Independent: “I think that the online reaction is really in line with what we’ve seen in a lot of other cases, where women are far more vilified for reacting to negativity or reacting to mistreatment in an uncouth way, or in a gender deviant way, that isn’t submissive, that isn’t passive. They are far more vilified for that than men are vilified for actually doing the things that warrant that reaction.”

For me, the response to Love Is Blind would be more surprising if I hadn’t come across this New York Post article just one week before the reunion aired, the headline of which reads: “Bye-bye booty: Heroin chic is back”.

The article describes how the “heroin-chic body” of the 1990s and early aughts is making a comeback, leaving all the curvy bodies that miraculously managed to make recent headway in the fashion industry in the dust. Now, “waifish girls” are all the rage, as supermodels Bella Hadid, Lila Moss, and Kaia Gerber dominate the runway.

Not all hope was lost in the world when the New York Post article immediately sparked criticism online (yes, the same internet that tore Zanab apart just days later) and people – including actor Jameela Jamil – echoed a similar sentiment: that bodies are not trends.

From Zanab speaking about her eating disorder on a highly-popular Netflix show, to the New York Post receiving widespread attention for a poorly-worded article, it may seem that eating disorder culture in the media is inescapable. But really, these sequences of events prove that a popular culture obsessed with weight, dieting, and disordered eating has always existed. Now, it may just seem more prevalent through the invention of social media (think the subtle cousin to heroin chic, TikTok’s “What I eat in a day” videos). Or, perhaps this supposed return to emaciated figures could be connected to the fact that we’re in an economic downturn, as some studies show beauty standards drastically change during a recession. Or, this “heroin chic” comeback – and the negative response to Zanab online –could simply be a retaliation against the body positivity movement, which has since made it acceptable to talk about these issues.

“A lot of the time, these sort of ‘trend piece’ articles get a lot of specific criticism, when they’re kind of just calling it like they see it,” Fisher-Quann says. “I do think we are entering a period where extremely skinny and emaciated bodies are being largely celebrated by popular culture again.”

“But I think that criticism is best directed at the system in which this is happening, rather than this one article that talked about it in not a good way,” she added. “I don’t think it’s quite so simple as being like: ‘The nineties are back. Everyone wants to be skinny.’ I think that a real criticism of this would look at a variety of factors at how this could be a reaction to the body positivity movements of the last five to 10 years.”

It’s inarguable that women’s bodies shouldn’t be seen as trends to be copied and consumed by the general public in an effort to conform to societal beauty standards. But the simple declaration that women’s bodies aren’t trends fails to acknowledge how the female existence has been innately tied to consumerism and capitalism since the dawning of time – or, at least since women became drivers of the global economy with control over $31 trillion in annual consumer spending.

Some of the earliest known representations of the female body depicted women with round, pear-shaped bodies and large breasts, often signs of fertility and *cough* reproductive labour *cough*. Artists in the 17th and 18th centuries continued to portray women as voluptuous, and Western women from the late Renaissance to the 20th century began purchasing corsets to accentuate their curves.

The 20th century marked a constantly changing body type, as the 1920s flapper reflected a desire for a more slim physique, until pinup models and Hollywood actresses like Marilyn Monroe became mainstream in the 1950s, as did the fuller body types they had.

The rise of skinny, waif-like women dominated the supermodel craze of the 1990s, with Kate Moss representing the ideal body type. Anorexia nervosa also became pervasive during this time, with the highest rate of mortality among all mental disorders during the 1990s.

Even in my own short 23 years of life, I’ve happily seen mainstream culture shift from the Tumblr-infused “pro-ana” images of my chronically online adolescence, to the celebrated plus-size bodies of the body positivity movement. Shifting brand identities and marketing tactics to a culture of body inclusivity has proven to be profitable too, now that retailers like Abercrombie & Fitch – which were once synonymous with thinness – are forced to adapt to the changing cultural perspective on body acceptance.

“This headline has made national news because of the past three or four years of incredible progress for plus-size fashion,” says Tovar. “Unfortunately, some people are eager to return to a time in the not-so-recent past when weight wasn’t considered a political issue and no one was aware of body positivity – and publications get clicks when reporting on divisive topics.”

There’s always a benefit to having discussions about body image on a large platform, especially if they are actually nuanced discussions with the hopes of creating awareness towards a wider issue. But it’s unlikely that will actually happen in a some-hundred word “trend piece” article, or with a reality TV show like Love Is Blind.

With any curated program, viewers are watching a highly-edited version of events, designed to provoke discussion and debate. And by leaving out certain details and scenes, ones which Zanab believes will fully exonerate her body-shaming claims against Cole, nuance is completely thrown out the door. Until that happens, we should probably stop commenting on body image all together.

“In general, we need to stop commenting on how others eat. Period,” Tovar says. “Everyone reacts differently to people commenting on how they eat. Some people don’t care, and that’s fine for them, but they don’t get to dictate how others react. No one gets to dictate what another person’s boundaries and limits are.”

The Independent has contacted Netflix and the New York Post for comment.

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