A tweet by the New York Post declaring that “heroin chic is back” and curvy bodies are out caused a great deal of backlash earlier this month, with body positivity influencers like Jameela Jamil highlighting the dangerous consequences of this 90s and 00s trend. The tweet came amid increasing numbers of very thin models walking the runway during New York Fashion Week and a revival of trademark styles from the era, such as bucket hats, low rise cargo pants, and halter neck tops. While fashion and styles inevitably evolve and change, expecting women’s bodies to change with them will continue to drive up rates of disordered eating and body dissatisfaction.
What is Heroin Chic?
“Heroin chic” is an aesthetic became popular in the 1990s and glorified thin, often malnourished-looking bodies, dark kohl eye makeup, pale skin, and often dishevelled looking hair or clothing. Supermodels of that time like Kate Moss filled magazines with this “effortless, runway ready look.” As a result, thigh gaps, protruding hip- or collarbones, and slim, flat waists became the desirable look, which drove up rates of disordered eating. Between 1990 and 1998, the prevalence of eating disorders in the US increased sharply in those aged 15 to 29 and only began to slowly decrease again in 2010 .
Although this aesthetic is associated with the 1990s and fashion trends of that era, the term “heroin chic” was originally associated with supermodel Gia Carangi, who used heroin and tragically died of AIDS in 1986 at age 26.
Changing Body Ideals
Women’s bodies have always been the target of harsh scrutiny and judgment. During the Italian Renaissance and Victorian era, an hourglass shape with rounded hips and bellies and a fuller bust was most desirable. Moving into the 1920s, slim, flat chested women were considered the most attractive. The 1930s to 50s saw a change again with curvy, Marilyn Monroe type bodies becoming the most desirable and accepted in Hollywood and beyond. Then, once again, the 1960s brought back slim, long legs, flat waists and chests, and what was frighteningly described as an adolescent physique. The 1980s then celebrated an athletic, “toned” body that was svelte but curvy, with workout videos spurring a “fitness craze” that lasted until the 1990s, when “heroin chic” became desirable.
Since then, throughout the 00s, the ideal body type has become fuller, with Kim Kardashian often hailed as the poster woman for ideal beauty standards due to her large, full breasts, wide hips, tanned skin, and curvy shape.
There has, however, been increasing acceptance of the wide variety of shapes and sizes that women come in and the individual beauty of them all. Body positivity movements have influenced even the largest fashion brands, where slim bodies have historically dominated catwalks and magazine covers. Similarly, acceptance of smaller breasts and flatter butts is becoming more mainstream, with many refusing to have their worth defined by fleeting fashion trends and diet culture.
What are the Risks?
The danger of rapidly changing body ideals and the pressure on women to keep up have been widely discussed by mental health professionals, eating disorder survivors, and body positive influencers.
Particularly in the teenage years, bodies go through changes that can cause distress, discomfort, and confusion. For some, a desire to maintain control over their lives and bodies, coupled with the intense pressure and expectation to look a particular way, can result in disordered eating, self harm, over-exercising, and other body image issues. Social media can be both a warmly accepting and an intensely judgmental space. Now more than ever, young people’s bodies can be watched and scrutinized 24 hours a day. With celebrities and role models posting highly edited images online, selling weight loss teas, pills, diets, and exercise routines, the constant pressure to fit in with the latest trends can become all-consuming. Such content perpetuates a pervasive narrative of inadequacy inside the minds of young, impressionable, and often already perfectly healthy young women.
Approximately 28.8 million Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime, with EDs affecting people from all genders, ages, sexual orientations, and socio economic backgrounds . Eating disorders are the second most deadly mental illness, behind opioid use disorder , yet popular media is fuelling widespread disordered eating through the active glorification and sale of diet culture and weight-loss and beauty products. Diet culture is now often carefully masked as “healthy eating,” “detox,” and a “healthy lifestyle” to sell an ideal that is almost always unattainable. It fundamentally values appearance and thinness above health and conflates thinness with moral virtue .
This message is particularly dangerous to young women and girls, whose bodies are still growing and changing from adolescent to adult and who are often still forming their identities and learning what it means to be healthy. Surrounded by messages about restrictive eating, calorie counting, “skinny ideals” and “clean/dirty” foods, women can grow to equate size with self-worth. What may begin as trying out the latest diet trend for summer can quickly become an obsession. The National Eating Disorders Association found that 35% of dieting becomes obsessive and that 20 to 25% of those diets turn into eating disorders .
Changing the Narrative
The response to The New York Post’s declaration that “curvy bodies and big butts are out” has been overwhelmingly damning. From those with lived experiences of eating disorders sharing how internalization of the thin ideal and the media fueled their dangerous and destructive eating patterns to people within the fashion industry, there is consensus that reducing women’s bodies to fleeting trends is no longer acceptable.
Our bodies are not trends to be accepted and worthy of praise only if they meet the latest aesthetic ideal. The return of big 90s cargo pants may be relatively harmless, but there is no place for heroin chic in 2022.
If you or someone you care about is struggling with disordered eating and the impact of fitness and diet culture, Heather Hayes and Associates can provide high quality support and intervention.
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 Arcelus, Jon et al. (2011) “Mortality rates in patients with anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders. A meta-analysis of 36 studies.” Archives of general psychiatry 68,7: 724-31. https://doi.org/10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.74
 Daryanani, A. (2021). What is “Diet Culture?” UC San Diego Recreation.
 “Eating Disorders on the College Campus.” National Eating Disorders Association, Feb. 2013.