Looking at fashion’s role in unhealthy body image, from Heroin Chic to BBL Thic.
Not gonna lie, I don’t know much about fashion. One time, my friend told me my style was “Ponsonby Mum”, and you know what, I’m not mad about it. Don’t get me wrong, I like wearing nice things, but lots of clothing items that I perceive to be ‘trendy’ are not things that I would feel comfortable wearing—so I just don’t. (Maybe this is what all people with no fashion sense say, though, and I’m so out of touch that I don’t even know what is and isn’t a cliche—[insert grinning face with sweat emoji here].)
Even though I hardly am purposeful about engaging with fashionable clothing, when it comes to my body, that’s a different story. I feel like most of the time, I’m in this weird headspace where I simultaneously accept my body and want it to look different. Like I don’t feel the need to save up for a BBL and I appreciate my body for what it can do, but I’m conscious of how my stomach looks and whether it could be flatter. For sure, one of the reasons I go to the gym is aesthetics, and there have been times in the past where it has been my only reason—which I recognise is not a healthy relationship to have with exercise. Convincing yourself that you need to exercise everyday despite fatigue or even muscle pain beyond just regular old DOMS is easy when you think everyone is doing it or it’s part of fitting in. Feel free to disagree, but I think activewear and athleisure trends propagate ideas about how we should behave and look. For instance, scrunch leggings that make your booty extra peachy suggest that there’s something wrong with your butt regardless of how many kilos your glutes can squat.
What I’m saying is that clothes (and accessories, makeup, and shoes, etc.) are not the only things that fluctuate in popularity, but bodies do too. When we asked Craccum readers, 92% of the respondents also felt that body shapes came in and out of style. When we engage with trends or are exposed to media in general, I think it’s inevitable that we internalise an idea of what our body should look like in order to pull off a certain outfit or, at least in my case, how it should look full stop. One respondent pointed out that what we think our body should look like largely depends on the type of media we consume. This is probably or has been some PhD student’s thesis topic, and even if it hasn’t, it makes sense. I mean, I’ve seen plenty of influencers talk about how they felt much more confident about their appearance after they changed who they were following to better reflect their ethnicity, culture, or body type. Similarly, at the height of my over-exercising, I was watching a lot of content created by fitness YouTubers.
It’s been said that fashion trends run on a 20-year cycle, and this figure seems scarily accurate with the return of Y2K. Many readers commented that how for the past five years or so, a “specific type of thic” has been trendy, but now as we see more and more models and celebrities wearing low-rise jeans, exposed g-strings, and baby tees, ‘heroin chic’ is having a comeback too. The Y2K movement of the late 90s and 2000s seemed to celebrate the bodies of pre-pubescent teens, glorifying the super skinny. It’s worrying to think that being unhealthy might count as being ‘cool’—again. It’s true multiple trends can exist at the same time, however, and the heroin chic look does seem at odds with the burgeoning trend to have a six-pack.
Some commentators have discussed how the body positivity and inclusivity movements might help counteract possible harm that could arise from mimicking 2000s fashion.1 But this seems more likely to be a sweeping generalisation or, at the very least, an optimistic evaluation of the reach of those spreading positive and empowering messages. It was common among our call-out responders to feel like changing body trends were harmful. This is because whether the trend is skinny, skinny but ripped, or skinny but curvy, they are always somehow unrealistic or only obtainable through having very specific genetics, or behaving in an extreme way (such as through restrictive eating, over-exercising, or plastic surgery). When specific body types are idolised, one person said, it makes people “feel like a commodity at best and worthless at worst”.
In saying this, as many people mentioned, one body type never seems to go out of fashion. If you’re skinny and white, chances are, you will fit in (to the majority of what’s trending and Western society at large). Nancy, our favourite Lifestyle Editor, summed up the insidious nature of the thin ideal by pointing out the “is it a fit, or is she just skinny?” trend. To participate, people analyse or try on the outfits of thin people, like Kendall Jenner or Emma Chamberlain, to test whether or not a look is actually fashionable or if it just looks good because of the original wearer’s body shape. For example, other authors have critiqued outfits like a top that is cut-off just below the bust-line paired with jeans.2 While they admit it looks good on the likes of Emily Ratajkowski, it’s not something that anyone could wear and then receive admiration for. If a fit is not accessible, it shouldn’t qualify as fashion. The trend highlights how many people base what’s stylish on body types rather than clothes.
Responders felt that the thin ideal was particularly problematic for people who do not identify as cis, are not thin or white, and who experience obesity, diseases like polycystic ovary syndrome, or are on medication that effects their weight. Similarly, the ‘thin ideal’ is one of the main drivers of increasing body dissatisfaction among western nations.3
While fashion is undoubtedly a vehicle for self-expression, it’s also a vehicle for cultural and social norms. Regardless of how diverse a collection is, if it is not designed with all sorts of body shapes in mind or modelled by all kinds of people, then only select population members will count as acceptable wearers. Fashion should be fun, not another source of differentiation.
- Sims, Jess. 2021. Y2K Fashion is Back. Are its Bad Vibes Back too? https://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/features/a37078963/y2k-fashion-is-back-are-its-bad-vibes-back-too/
- Gauss, Curran. 2021. Is It Fashion Or Is She Just Skinny? https://patternindy.com/is-it-fashion-or-is-she-just-skinny/
- Bury, Belinda. 2015. Digital Alteration Disclaimer Labels on Fashion Magazine Advertisements: Role of Social Appearance Comparison and Effect on Body Dissatisfaction. https://flex.flinders.edu.au/file/741a37aa-8796-400c-bfed-67a0987f3b4e/1/ThesisBury2016.pdf#page=75