Our perception of the landscape of current cultural relevance is inherently linked to social media. Nowhere else is this more apparent than with the way in which modern beauty standards are enforced. With this decade’s explosive rise of platforms such as Instagram, Pinterest, and, more recently, TikTok, social media has carved out a pathway for trends to inconspicuously permeate our day to day lives.
This is ever increased by the role of the influencer. TikTok has the power to distribute influence to millions of ordinary members of society overnight. There are considerably less barriers in place to gaining an audience. Instagram models and TikTok influencers make a substantial income from creating content that aspires to high aesthetic standards. With the age at which people have access to such platforms lowering, and the amount of people with largely unregulated power to influence increasing, the impact these social media sites have on cultural trends is difficult to overstate.
In the early 90s, the fashion industry was flooded with models, most famously Kate Moss, that embodied an aesthetic controversially dubbed ‘heroin chic’. Pale skin, dark circles, emaciated frames, thin hair and disheveled, androgynous clothing adorned runways and magazine covers. Undercurrents of rampant drug use, though never exactly promoted by mainstream media, were suggested by the party girl lifestyle associated with such models. Elements of the nihilistic grunge of the 90s, specifically the glamorization of ultra-thin bodies, prevailed into early 2000s culture. At its extreme, online ‘pro-ana’ (pro-anorexia) communities associated mainly with Tumblr saw teenagers idealize the essence of the heroin chic, and the use of extreme caloric deprivation as a tool to achieving it.
In the 2010s, the Kardashians spearheaded the growth of a new beauty ideal: the hourglass. Though in itself presenting a new realm of unrealistic standards, with an increase in popularity of the risky cosmetic procedure of the Brazilian butt lift among others, it did seem as though society had reached a refreshing breathing point, where emaciated bodies had been swapped for a healthier ideal. Recently, however, a storm of media attention has been received by Kim Kardashian as she swaps out the BBL and curves in favour of a much smaller frame. Besides highlighting the problematic nature of the way in which prominent celebrities swap out body types out with the same ease as hair colour or handbags, this serves as an indication of the trend cycle churning its way back to the return of the glamourization of thinness associated with the 90s and early 2000s. The difference this time, however, is our society’s heightened capacity to influence all members of its population, especially the youngest and most impressionable among us.
In the fashion industry, increasingly skimpy clothes have been worn by increasingly skinny models. Clips of the spray-painted dress applied to Bella Hadid’s naked frame as she closed Paris Fashion week have circulated social media. Low-rise jeans have recently made their comeback, yet this was taken a step further by the brand Miu Miu, whose ultra-low rise mini skirt was displayed on thin body types at their Spring 2023 show in Milan. The narrative and commentary that the fashion industry provides about what constitutes the aspirational body is significant, in spite of whether they recognize the associated dangers.
In popular culture, 2021 saw the second season of Euphoria, which became the second most watched show on HBO, only behind Game of Thrones. The show received criticism for its aestheticization of teenage drug use, with its main character Rue being dubbed as producing pop-culture’s most mainstream depiction of heroin use. The New York times reported that in 2020 cigarette sales had increased for the first time in two decades, declaring that “smoking is back”. On TikTok and Instagram, hashtags such a ‘thinspo’ have been banned, their previous use sharing concerning similarities with the promotion of anorexia inherent to 2000’s Tumblr aesthetics. Regardless, ‘body checks’, and videos of women showing off their ultra-slim physiques remain common under more subtle hashtags. ‘What I eat in a day’ videos show a number of grown women and teenage girls eating the calorific equivalent of a toddler’s diet. Tutorials on how to create under-eye bags using make-up have surfaced on such apps, alongside the growth of skincare brands such as bad-habit that represent a kickback against wellness culture.
The resurgence of this ode to 90’s has begun to be recognized by the media. In early November, the New York Post published the article, ‘Bye-bye booty: Heroin Chic is back’, which went viral in days, seeing countless public figures, such as Jameela Jamil and Fearne Cotton, calling out the publication for the implications of the way they chose to word and present the piece. Although, it was perhaps not as scathing a condemnation of the aesthetic as those whose body images have not yet recovered from the impact of the ‘heroin-chic’ era might have hoped, there was little talk of the problematic nature of the movement’s resurgence at large.
Much of the response to the media’s suggestion that we’re returning to the 90’s aesthetic centres around a fear of the return of the celebration of thinness, and the use of thinness as an accessory. Eating disorder clinics have reported an increase in the number of people seeking help in recent months, demonstrating the ways that this cultural shift is permeating our self-perception. Eating disorder charity Beat saw the highest numbers of patients seeking out support sessions in a single month in January 2020. It is widely accepted that the accessibility with which social media presents to us often doctored versions of picture and videos that represent the ideal feeds into poor mental health and disordered eating.
The fear, then, is that in the context of contemporary hyper-relevance of social media in our day-to-day existence, the popularization of an aesthetic that encourages the discarding of personal health and the promotion of malnourished bodies will see a generation’s relationship with food and body image fundamentally scarred. As such, it is crucial that we join our efforts with those celebrities that are currently working to promote the normalization of healthy bodies in the interests of preventing this eating disorder epidemic connected to the resurgence of the 90s aestheticization of thinness.