A lot has been written about love–what it is, what it should be, and what it should feel like.
Simone de Beauvoir emphasized the significance of partnership when it comes to loving authentically. For Schopenhauer, love was a formidable illusion, a force. Love transgressed the material world according to Rumi; to love was to long for the divine. In his novel Nausea (1938), Sartre likened falling in love to a job, suggesting that the process of falling in love requires “energy, generosity, blindness.” Aristotle noted how crucial self-love is if one desires to experience true love. And here’s one of my favorite lines about the experience of love: “This is how we are: we fall in love with each other’s strengths,” Salman Rushdie wrote in his novel The Golden House (2017), “but love deepens towards permanence when we fall in love with each other’s weaknesses.”
Love as a concept is one of those difficult subjects. Despite all the valuable words spoken and written on the intricate nature of love, everybody’s definition is shaped by their own experience(s) and idiosyncratic theories about love. The Netflix reality show Love is Blind is a case in point.
Why am I thinking about a reality show? Why am I even watching it? I asked when I found myself venting my frustration about the show on my close friend in a voice message. And I’m asking myself the same question as I write this post, typing these very words. Well, why would anyone watch a reality show about a group of men and women seeking love, trapped in tiny pods separated by a wall?
Love is Blind is just another dating show produced to entertain its viewers. I watched the first season when it came out in 2020 when the world shut down. I don’t recall whether it was before or after our collective indulgence in Tiger King during the pandemic. What I recall is that I was intrigued by the idea of “a social experiment,” as the hosts called the show. It was too dramatic for my taste, and I was finishing up my dissertation so I watched each episode by skipping ahead and while multitasking. Having observed the altercations between the couples and the shift in their interactions once they return to their normal routines, I do remember thinking, Yes this is a social experiment, alright. It would be a lie then if I said I wasn’t delighted at all when I saw a few weeks ago that Season 3 was out on Netflix. And when I hit play, the inevitable question I’d recalled from two years ago was posed again: Is love really blind?
Well, it should be, but no, of course it isn’t so let’s all watch people make awful decisions is the message I have received from the show so far.
If you’ve seen the first two seasons, you already know that some of the participants are awfully shallow. You may have even wondered, as I did, whether they were paid actors.
Oh, I know– my naïveté surprises me too, at times.
The participants may have chosen to be part of this experiment for various reasons: becoming a social media influencer, finding love, for fun, and so forth. But I doubt that any of them are paid to put on a show. To be honest, the notion that they are, in fact, “real” men and women saddens me a little–particularly when I think of the horrible words and thoughts to which some of the women participants have been subjected.
A quick disclaimer before I continue:
This post isn’t a review or a critique of the show by any means. The last time I checked I knew nothing about reality shows, which is a fact that still remains true to this day. This post is merely me thinking out loud about why I was deeply disturbed by some of the scenes on the show. I’ve only seen seven episodes of Love is Blind Season 3. I fast forwarded through the majority of the scenes; I was not entertained by the show at all. On the contrary, the interactions between the couples after they left the studio/pods stressed me out. But I kept watching it. I continued to hit “Next Episode” on the screen in hopes that two of the women participants, Zanab and Nancy, would eventually understand the absurdity of the way they were being treated, and they would leave.
And it was difficult to watch them stay, but I was hopeful.
In the show, the engaged couples enjoy a getaway after meeting their significant other in person in the studio. This getaway is also where all the engaged participants get to see the other men and women they dated in the pods.
In one of the scenes at the holiday resort in Malibu, the camera focuses on Cole (26) and Zanab (32). The couple bonded over their shared faith and values, as well as deep conversations interspersed with romantic banter. Back in the pods, Cole also dated a 25-year-old ballerina, Colleen. Although Cole was infatuated with Colleen’s potential, mostly with the idea of her physical flexibility, he remained true to the the purpose of the experiment and ended up proposing to Zanab.
At the resort, however, when he saw Colleen for the first time, he seemed disheartened. To the camera and to Zanab, he told several times, Colleen is exactly my type. Who I would go for “in the real world.” Her body… Colleen looks like all the women I’ve dated so far. Colleen is gorgeous. Your name is Zanab, of course I wasn’t expecting you to look like a Lily.*
The scene at the resort finds Zanab and Cole in the midst of a heated discussion in their hotel room. The intensity of the moment is amplified by the camera’s angle, switching between eye-level and POV shots, as well as by the blurry quality of the clip, offering the viewers all the pleasures of voyeurism. Zanab, whose bare face is often hidden behind the white comforter or her hands, would like to know, So, you met Colleen. What did you think? To which Cole replies, Yes, she is exactly my type. She is just gorgeous. I was physically attracted to her.
As the engaged couple continues to have this excruciatingly uncomfortable conversation in bed, Zanab asks Cole to rate all the women participants who got engaged and made it to the resort– all the women whom he had seen for the first time. Cole does as he is told. According to Cole, Colleen and Raven, a pilates instructor/fitness aficionado, are a full 10, and Zanab is a 9. Zanab’s attempt to express her discomfort (and perhaps her pain) is countered by Cole stating, Just because you’re my fiancée, do you want me to say “I only see you. You’re the most beautiful girl.” This is bullshit. I’m attracted to her physically, but I chose you because of our emotional connection. He then repeatedly reminds the viewers in his monologues, I am so attracted to Colleen physically. And I’m so attracted to Zanab emotionally. Where’s the perfect girl?
The couple doesn’t handle this formidable hurdle well. Zanab, who discusses her struggle with self-esteem, visibly withdraws from the relationship, and Cole gets frustrated and tries in vain to reconnect with his fiancée through banter.
In a similar scene at the holiday resort, the camera takes us to another couple’s room, Bartise, in his late 20s, and Nancy who is in her early 30s. An agitating conversation akin to that of Cole and Zanab unfolds as the couple evaluates how the meetup with the others went. Here, Bartise reveals his attraction to Raven, the other participant whom he dated in the pods. He repeats throughout the show, Raven and I make sense on paper. If someone sees us together at a bar, we would make sense. She is gorgeous. She is a head turner. I still care about what she thinks about me. Those eyes. That body. We had such a deep connection over our love for fitness. She is WOW. **
Yes, to the camera in his monologues, he reiterates that “in the real world” he would absolutely go for Raven, that looks matter, and that his attraction for Nancy has faded away. He also informs Nancy, his fiancée, of how delirious he is over Raven. Repeatedly.
One might appreciate the honesty. And I can only assume that dating multiple people every single day for over a week without seeing them distorts one’s perception of reality. I can’t help but wonder, though, when it has gotten normalized to look your date, fiancée, or significant other in the eye and tell them that they are not enough– for you. And I can’t help but wonder when it has become commonplace to expect women to receive collectedly deprecating (and internalized) comments that they do not absolutely deserve.
I am further befuddled by the fact that both Zanab and Nancy are well-spoken, sophisticated, educated, affluent, successful, and truly beautiful women.
Of course, the nature of beauty, whether it is objective or subjective, is a perennial question that has been discussed from a variety of philosophical and artistic angles. The way I experience and perceive “beauty” transgresses the dichotomy of objective and subjective–the Form and the Ideal. Philosopher Crispin Sartwell’s (2017) conceptualization of beauty “as a form of connection to a particular thing or event” corresponds to my understanding of beauty. This approach to beauty juxtaposes “all experiences most attentive to the details of things, the differences among things, the real externality” with “the real connection and the real profuse character of real things” (304). Beauty for me then is simultaneously subjective and objective; both the beholder (subject) and the object help create the experience of beauty.
This is all to say: The unabashed way Bartise and Cole have announced their fiancées’ purported inadequacies to the world has perplexed me because–
I find Zanab and Nancy objectively, aesthetically, and subjectively more beautiful than the women to whom they were compared. I failed to understand what Bartise and Cole meant. Zanab and Colleen even look so much alike that there were times when I thought they were the same women at the beginning of the show. My heart hurt when Zanab cried in another scene and told Cole I know I will never be as gorgeous as Colleen. I know this, and there’s nothing I can do. Or when Nancy sobbed at a party because her fiancé wasn’t physically attracted to her.
Perhaps there was more to my discomfort, though. Perhaps the unabashed way Bartise and Cole have announced the two beautiful women’s purported inadequacies to the world has perplexed me also because–
It hit a little too close to home.
As I watched both Bartise and Cole tell their fiancées, whom they met only a few weeks ago, how they weren’t enough, I recalled a conversation I had with a man I’d been dating for two months. We seemed “perfect” on paper and spent the weekends together. One day, on the spur of the moment, he asked me, So, what attracts you to me?
We had been having deep philosophical conversations about emotional unavailability, trauma, vulnerability–one of the reasons I was drawn to him. So, what attracts you to me?
A long silence ensued. It was too soon to have this conversation.
Eventually, I said, Well, the conversations we have, the time we spend in coffee shops, in the city, walks by the sea, it’s all fun and enjoyable. I added playfully, and you’re cute so that helps, too. What about you? just slipped out of my mouth immediately after.
The moment the question hovered in the space between us, I tried in vain to reach out for the words, grab them, and put them back into the drawers in my mind, neatly folded. But some words are slimy, as what he said next confirmed. He thought for a second. I am no longer looking for someone who is aesthetically beautiful, he said and then continued to speak compulsively.
But I was already disconnected. The words that followed didn’t make any sense to me; I was no longer interested in his monologue. I had already put a magnifying glass on the words that hung in the air like faces at a packed subway station during rush hour, unfamiliar and nondescript. What did he mean? I had never been told before that I was not aesthetically beautiful. What does it mean for someone to not be aesthetically beautiful? Why would anyone date someone that they don’t find aesthetically beautiful? Going back to my own understanding of beauty, I would never settle for anyone with whom I am not connected on a physical, emotional, and intellectual level (but then again, I’m realizing now that my perception of beauty has always been different). What did he mean I am not aesthetically beautiful? That I’m skinny but 5’3? Am I too skinny? That I am not blonde? That my eyes are brown? That my hair is thick and frizzy?
These questions ran around in circles in my head for a while–not because I am vain; I truly am not (Is it vain to say that? I hope not)–
but because an uneasiness settled into me. Having unleashed all the false narratives that the society and the media have worked ceaselessly for me to internalize, the uneasiness ensconced itself in my mind, and in my heart too.
And I’m glad it did; I fully trust my instincts. But the process of negotiating how those words made me feel (inadequate and discombobulated) and of questioning myself and then him was arduous. As a woman in her 30s who had been working on her emotional wellbeing for a while, I knew my self-worth, and I had learnt to tackle any questions and situations that would undermine my self-esteem. But this is where it gets tricky: the idea that you are not enough is baked into the making of women in the 21st century.
In the introduction to her famous work The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (1990; 2002), writer Naomi Wolf*** discusses the huge stack of letters she received from women about their struggles with the conventional beauty standard. “There was no common thread that united these women, in terms of their appearance,” she writes:
…Women both young and old told me about the fear of aging; slim women and heavy ones spoke of the suffering caused by trying to meet the demands of the thin ideal; black, brown, and white women — women who looked like fashion models — admitted to knowing, from the time they could first consciously think, that the ideal was someone tall, thin, white, and blond, a face without pores, asymmetry, or flaws, someone wholly ‘perfect,’ and someone whom they felt, in one way or another, they were not.p.3
“The beauty myth” as perpetuated by the patriarchal, capitalist system targets women of all sizes, ethnicities, and ages, but is, in fact, not about women. The notion of conventional beauty is “about men’s institutions and institutional power.”
Wolf explains further:
The beauty myth tells a story: The quality called ‘beauty’ objectively and universally exists. Women must want to embody it and men must want to possess women who embody it. This embodiment is an imperative for women and not for men, which situation is necessary and natural because it is biological, sexual, and evolutionary: Strong men battle for beautiful women, and beautiful women are more reproductively successful. Women’s beauty must correlate to their fertility, and since this system is based on sexual selection, it is inevitable and changeless.
None of this is true. ‘Beauty’ is a currency system like the gold standard. Like any economy, it is determined by politics, and in the modern age in the West it is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact. In assigning value to women in a vertical hierarchy according to a culturally imposed physical standard, it is an expression of power relations in which women must unnaturally compete for resources that men have appropriated for themselves.p.12
The existence of this currency system is inherently contradictory at a time when women are increasingly embracing their individuality. Yet the myth needs to be maintained for the perpetuation of heteronormative patriarchal principles and for corporations to continue reaping profits. “As the myth has it, ‘beauty’ is by definition inert, timeless, and generic,” Wolf writes, “that this hallucination is necessary and deliberate is evident in the way ‘beauty’ so directly contradicts women’s real situation” (17).
The men on Love is Blind, like the man in my dating scenario, were drawing on the discursive beauty hierarchy constructed by the patriarchal society. It was simple; Zanab wasn’t the “perfect” woman for Cole, and nor was Nancy for Bartise. In their perspective, they didn’t conform to western beauty standards in terms of body shape and size, and skin complexion. Cole’s fixation on Colleen’s appearance and Bartise’s on Raven’s body is troubling on many levels. I kept thinking to myself while watching the show– they could have chosen to obsess over the emotional connection they had built with their respective fiancées. Instead, they chose, perhaps subconsciously, to fixate on the faces and bodies of other women that seemed to achieve conventional beauty. Wolf’s comments on this type of obsession are curious. Wolf asks, “What becomes of the man who acquires a beautiful woman, with her ‘beauty’ his sole target?” She writes as follows:
He sabotages himself. He has gained no friend, no ally, no mutual trust: She knows quite well why she has been chosen. He has succeeded in buying a mutually suspicious set of insecurities. He does gain something: the esteem of other men who find such an acquisition impressive. Some men do get a sexual charge from a woman’s objective “beauty,” just as some women feel sexual pleasure at the thought of a man’s money or power. But it is often a status high, a form of exhibitionism, that draws its power from the man imagining his buddies imagining him doing what he is doing while he does it. Some men feel a sexual thrill upon smelling the leather interior of a new Mercedes-Benz. It is not that that thrill is not real, but that it is based on the meaning assigned by other men to that leather. It is no deep psychosexual attachment to leather itself. There is certainly a reflexive—not instinctive—male response to the cold economy of the beauty myth; but that can be completely separated from sexual attraction, the warm dialogue of desire.p.175
Wolf’s analysis is curious, and one with which we are familiar. Does the experiment on whether love is blind ultimately fail then? Is it bound to fail each time? If we look at Bartise and Cole’s experiences through the lens Wolf offers, we see two men who are trying ineffectively to transgress the desire to earn other men’s respect, and perhaps envy. But what disturbs me more is that the overemphasis on the physical attributes that the men’s fiancées “lack” but that can be found in the other women is unfair to all four women, deflecting all the women’s credibility, accomplishments, and character.
I am not arguing that the men on the show were consciously supporting or contributing to the system that preys on women’s insecurities and profits from false narratives about beauty. Maybe they were; maybe they weren’t. But this post is not about Cole, Bartise, Zanab, Nancy, Colleen, or Raven at all; it is about the troubling fact that the society is still a long way from challenging the ideals of a myth that work to fuel institutions and systems relying on white supremacy and male dominance.
Going back to my scenario–
When I discussed my discomfort with the man I was seeing, he apologized and expressed his thoughts in a way that I still couldn’t understand. You don’t understand; I’m still so attracted to you. When I asked him why he was settling for a woman whom he doesn’t find “aesthetically beautiful,” his response was, How can I ever find someone like you here? In other words, everything else he uttered after I am no longer looking for someone aesthetically beautiful kept unsettling me, driving me further away from him. When we were having this conversation, I realized that I didn’t care at all whether he was settling or not, I did not want to settle. Because of this bizarre moment and some others, I stopped seeing him right away. I felt befuddled, edged with relief.
I don’t know yet whether Zanab and Nancy are still seeing their respective fiancés. I do know that it has saddened me and made me uncomfortable to see two beautiful, independent, and successful women buy into the myth that they are not enough. My discomfort partly stemmed from the fact that I knew and experienced how challenging it is, even if you are confident and know your self-worth, to disentangle yourself from the narratives whose function is to make you question yourself.
“When faced with the myth, the questions to ask are not about women’s faces and bodies,” Wolf writes, “but about the power relations of the situation. Who is this serving? Who says? Who profits? When someone discusses a woman’s appearance to her face, she can ask herself, is it that person’s business? Are the power relations equal? Would she feel comfortable making the same personal comments in return?” (280).
I wanted Zanab and Nancy to ask these questions and challenge Cole and Bartise, respectively, right on the spot, since it took me a few days to do so. But now I know better, and I hope that they do too.
After all, the concept of love still remains a mystery. It may be difficult to define what love is, but it is easy to define what love isn’t. It isn’t unease. It isn’t doubt. It isn’t distress.
In The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts (1967), philosopher Iris Murdoch writes that love can be “the source of our greatest errors,” but:
…when it is even partially refined it is the energy and passion of the soul in its search for Good, the force that joins us to Good and joins us to the world through Good. Its existence is the unmistakable sign that we are spiritual creatures, attracted by excellence and made for the Good. It is a reflection of the warmth and light of the sun.p.384
Love may or may not be blind.
If it is, then I hope it is not the fear of intimacy, intimidation, and the beauty myth that blind you, but the reflection of the warmth and light of the sun in the form of love–
and nothing else.
*These are paraphrases of his words. Any quotes I am using from the show are paraphrases and not the exact words the participants used.
***These are paraphrases of his words. Any quotes I am using from the show are paraphrases and not the exact words the participants used.
***I’m aware of Naomi Wolf’s conspiracy theories and the shift in her thinking, which in my opinion doesn’t detract from the strengths of her work The Beauty Myth.