If you grew up in the early ’00s, you’re probably intimately familiar with the era’s unrealistic beauty standards. It was previously reported that that period was so uniquely and irrationally fatphobic that millennials are still coping with its effects. How could one forget the slew of fad diets, size 6 models scrutinized for being “too big” on TV, and the uproar over Jessica Simpson’s high-waist jeans? I certainly haven’t—and neither have today’s diet-obsessed almond moms who are passing dangerous calorie counting on to their daughters.
Body standards are still very much part of today’s zeitgeist. In recent weeks multiple outlets have reported on the return of extreme thinness after Kim Kardashian—who is often credited for pioneering contemporary beauty standards—lost 16 pounds in two weeks for the Met Gala. This, paired with the return of early-aughts aesthetics overall, has prompted the spread of a troubling narrative: That era’s body standards are now “trending,” so much so that an article headlined, “Bye Bye Booty: Heroin Chic Is Back in Style,” went viral last week.
“While no one is immune, adolescent girls’ brains are more malleable,” says Kara Lissy, LCSW, a psychotherapist at A Good Place Therapy. “They cannot yet think as critically as adults in terms of assessing what information is harmful or helpful, let alone who is controlling that information and if it’s even true.” The end result? History repeating itself in the worst of ways: Despite at least a decade of body positivity and neutrality, we are once again being told that body types are binary—good and bad; thin and fat—practically rendering the past 20 years’ worth of activism futile.
“Aside from the obvious fact that it gives a nod to a dangerous and highly addictive drug, this language sends the message that depriving your body of nutrients for the sake of appearing more attractive in society is acceptable,” Lissy continues. “This is a slippery slope in terms of our vernacular: Heroin chic is not a casual household term we should be throwing around to describe the aspirations of young women.” The implication that using drugs—and/or needles—to achieve the “ideal” body is also damaging, especially now that diabetes medication has become such a common tool for weight loss that it’s led to a nationwide shortage.
Some experts actually believe “body positivity” wasn’t particularly impactful, or convincing, because the thin ideal never really went away. “It has merely shape-shifted through the years,” says Samantha DeCaro, PsyD, psychologist and director of clinical outreach and education at eating disorder recovery organization The Renfrew Center. “The thin ideal will exist as long as there is something to sell.”
There are other key players in the unraveling of body positivity, though, such as innocent-seeming viral video trends. “The ‘hot girl walks’ trend or ‘what I eat in a day’ trend can be unintentionally harmful,” says Gigi Robinson, a mental health and body image advocate. “I have seen young people begin to obsess over routines, [such as] a caloric deficit diet plus ‘hot girl walks’ to lose 20 pounds or create abs—leading to disordered eating and poor self-esteem and body image.”
At least those who fall victim to these trends will continue to see diverse body types in the media…right? Not necessarily—bringing us back to why “Bye Bye Booty” is so much more harmful than one might realize. “The average woman weighs 170 and wears a size 14—these women will find it harder to find clothes to wear due to brands supporting this ‘curvy is out’ trend,” says Phylice Kessler, a licensed mental health counselor with Mindpath Health. “Saying ‘curvy is out’ disregards a lot of the work that we [activists] have already done to create space for and include a variety of body types in marketing, in stores, and online.”
The Kardashians are the most notable example of the aforementioned phenomenon, having been known for their curvy frames and aesthetics pulled straight from Black culture, only to exchange them for smaller and whiter models when it’s convenient or lucrative.
“The Kardashians have played a major role in normalizing and popularizing Blackfishing: the cultural appropriation when people alter their appearance with makeup, cosmetic surgery, filters, and digital editing to appear Black,” Kessler says. “Kim Kardashian originally displayed a more ‘curvy full-figured physique’ and is now promoting how she lost 16 pounds in [two weeks] to fit into the dress she wore at the Met Gala this year.” Kim and her sister Khloé have since been reported on for how much weight they’ve lost in the past year, leading to egregious headlines like “Bye Bye Booty.” “With this change in culture, the Black woman goes back to being objectified, hypersexualized, and having to deal with a disdain for their bodies that they have faced for centuries,” Kessler says.
What can we, as individuals, consumers, and social media users, do when faced with this kind of rhetoric moving forward? The first step is to address our own internal biases. “Confront and unpack internalized anti-fat bias and weight stigma: Harvard University offers a free implicit association test. “Examine your own relationship with your body and the harmful messages you’ve absorbed about size, weight, and shape.”
And be sure to remind yourself—and others—that bodies are not trends. “We are born into our bodies—they are literally our life source, and they need to be nurtured and taken care of in order for us to survive, and ideally, to thrive. We should be focusing on how we can take care of the body we have, rather than forcing it to fit someone else’s idea of what ‘looks good’ at a given moment in time.”
Hear that? 2002 called; it wants its unattainable beauty standards back.