This story discusses body image, weight loss and diet culture; please take care.
OPINION: Two weeks ago Reductress shared a post featuring one of their signature snappy, satirical headlines: “Quiz: Which one of these Met Gala looks opened a portal back to pre Roe v Wade America?”
The photo was of Sarah Jessica Parker’s Christopher John Rogers gown and the post referenced the heartbreaking news that had, surreally, broken towards the end of the Met Gala red carpet. It was, as always from the satire website, a cutting commentary on the state of pop culture, media, politics and our nihilistic collective consciousness.
Change a few words and the image, and the post also worked for another moment of the evening that felt like I was existing in another dimension where all progress made in recent years had regressed. Which one of these Met Gala looks opened a portal back to the early noughties, where diet culture and beauty standards were toxic?
* Festival of Fashion: Let’s talk about sizing in fashion
* Women’s rights are losing ground around the world. We can’t let it happen here
* Why has #BodyPositivity failed to make us positive about our bodies?
* Why Kim Kardashian’s Met Gala diet isn’t safe to try, says nutritionist Mascha Davis
Enter Kim Kardashian, fitting into Marilyn Monroe’s actual dress after an extreme three-week diet – or “challenge”, a trigger word for many who suffer from an eating disorder – to lose 16 pounds (7.25kg).
Kim’s weight loss for a photo op feels insignificant in comparison to the possible destruction of reproductive rights in the US, but the whole episode (and yes, it likely will be an episode of her new reality show) is a reminder that in the eyes of the patriarchy, women’s bodies are still seen as objects to be controlled.
It also reflects a wider and worrying conversation that is happening in fashion right now: that when it comes to body image, positivity and representation, we’re starting to go backwards again.
To quote Tyler McCall, editor-in-chief of the US website Fashionista, on Twitter: “I simply never need to hear about any celebrity losing weight to fit into anything ever again, thank you”.
There was, unsurprisingly and fittingly, plenty of outrage at Kim’s honesty at what she went through to fit into the dress. Actor Lili Reinhart, who has shared her struggles with body dysmorphia, wrote that Kim openly admitting to starving herself for the sake of the Met Gala was “so wrong. So f….ed on 100s of levels […] The ignorance is other-worldly disgusting”.
The way that Kim spoke, and the media coverage afterwards, made me deeply uncomfortable, too; my spidey-fashion senses tingled and anxiety spiked. The moment said a lot about where we’re at with the state of beauty standards right now – how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go.
I was reminded of conversations I’ve been having with other fashion industry friends for a while now: this feeling that ‘skinny is back’, clearly a sneaking backlash to the body positive and fat liberation movements that have forced fashion to reckon with itself in recent years.
We saw it in the buzz surrounding Miu Miu’s noughties-inspired, very mini skirt (worn mostly by very slim influencers and models), and in the TikTok theories that the Kardashians have had their BBLs (short for Brazilian Butt Lift) removed to ‘prepare’ for this new beauty standard.
It’s in the trend proclamations that “the body is back”, with our (apparent) post-Covid shrugging off of comfort and embrace of mini skirts, cut-outs, sheer fabrics and figure-hugging silhouettes. And it’s in the return of noughties Y2K fashion, from cropped baby tees and low-rise waistlines that highlight taut stomachs, jutting hips and flat behinds.
Fashion writers claim that the difference today is that the trend is more inclusive for ‘all bodies’, but from my point of view, it all looks pretty similar to how it did back then. And it wasn’t pretty the first time around.
I was in my early 20s at the peak of the mid noughties’ ‘size zero’ tabloid moment, a time when celebrity culture was establishing itself as culture and when fashion began to platform terrifyingly unhealthy habits. Every generation seems to have its own fashion moral panic – years before it was ‘heroin chic’ with Kate Moss as its figurehead (in 2009 she would maintain that status quo with her mantra ‘nothing taste as good as skinny feels’; she later apologised for it), and before that there was Twiggy.
In the mid noughties there was the size zero debate and the rise of the Zoebots – those celebrities styled by super stylist Rachel Zoe in a Hollywood version of Boho, with oversized bags, sunglasses and watches that made arms, wrists and faces look even smaller. Nicole Richie, Lindsay Lohan and Mischa Barton were everywhere, and they were extremely skinny, just like their stylist.
The Olsens had their own Boho look going on (they were at NYU wearing layers of clothing and huge bags on their tiny frames; Mary-Kate had earlier sought treatment for an eating disorder in 2004). America’s Next Top Model judges were openly critiquing models for being “huge” when they were far from it (I recall similar cringeworthy conversations like this from the judging panel of our local version; they have not aged well). The fashion magazines and runways that I was obsessed with were the domain of a very white and thin model archetype.
These were the years that I was at university studying media and communications, and entering the fashion and women’s magazine industries that I had dreamed of working in (I’m surprised that I am not more screwed up having come of age during that time).
I look around today and feel an uneasy sense of déjà vu, and it’s wearing very similar Y2K clothes. The fashion industry here and overseas has been doing better when it comes to size inclusivity, with more visible representation of ‘bigger’ bodies – but that’s compared to how it was. It’s still not enough or normalised, and there is still a sense of ticking a box.
New York model Paloma Elsesser is one of fashion’s most popular faces of the moment, and certainly its most visible ‘curve’ model having appeared on the cover of US Vogue’s January 2021 issue. In February she was one of the cover models for i-D’s ‘out of body’ issue, dressed in a custom version of Miu Miu’s controversial very-mini skirt.
Sharing the cover on Instagram she wrote: “Although I am growing increasingly tired of my body being the centrepiece of conversation – I feel privileged to share it, for it is my home and the vessel that has allowed for even a select few to see what so often is denied: themselves. Our bodies are what we are lucky enough to know best.”
When her earlier American Vogue cover was revealed at the end of December, Elsesser wrote that while her heart was swelling with gratitude, “I am not satisfied”.
“I urge fashion to never let this momentum seize until seeing bodies and experiences like mine and beyond are no longer radical, no longer different; no longer rare,” she wrote. “I want to see bigger bodied femmes, dark skin femmes, disabled people, and all the iterations of identity that have left so many alone in media. I want this moment to render a new year of possibility and a lifetime of hope.”
I, too, have felt that hope of change in fashion, but recently have sensed a backlash to this ‘moment’. Some of it’s obvious, some of it is quiet and sneaky: local influencers with young and impressionable followings championing ‘skinny’ and thigh gaps, magazine covers featuring sad and slim looking models that look like they could have been released in the mid-noughties, or brands (most of them are the younger ones, actually) featuring a parade of skinny models and influencers in their campaigns and on their social feeds.
Recently the influential global stylist Lotta Volkova, who styled the show for Miu Miu that featured the infamous noughties-inspired mini skirt, shared a (since deleted) photo from an i-D shoot that made me stop scrolling in disbelief; the model’s legs so thin that I was convinced that the image must be distorted (it was not).
I am not alone in my concern about all of this, although much of it is coming from overseas. Dazed reported on the ‘return of size zero’ in March, noting that Rachel Tashjian, New York-based writer and founder of the invite-only newsletter Opulent Tips, had “touched on a growing sense of unease among industry peers at a potential backlash to ‘body positivity’. Despite some good steps forward, she observed, “just as often, the models look thinner than ever.”
On TikTok, the algorithm does its job and reads my mind/anxiety, serving me videos of thoughtful fashion fans who are also worried about the inherent fatphobia in the original noughties fashion – and how it presents itself within fashion’s current Y2K trend renaissance.
Others ask the existential question that has plagued the entire premise of the fashion industry for centuries: “Is it fashion or is she just skinny?”
In September 2020 London-based stylist Francesca Burns shared her frustrations around sample sizes with a viral post on Instagram, asking fashion designers to make sample sizes bigger (samples are garments that are created to be worn by models for fashion shows and campaigns, and are sent out to influencers and media for fashion shoots).
She called out Hedi Slimane and Celine in particular, and wrote that the industry has a responsibility to celebrate, empower and make consumers feel good – and a responsibility for those models in our care on set.
“Putting this girl into these trousers made me feel like a twisted creep and my beautiful model feel like she wasn’t good enough so thank you for that,” she wrote. “Things have to change in so many ways but how hard is it to size things up? Any stylist worth their safety pins won’t complain about it.”
In April Burns posted the same photo with a follow up, expressing that things hadn’t really changed: samples remained impossibly small and body diversity is the exception not the norm.
“As an industry I feel we have a responsibility to change the narrative. This is an old system – it’s completely outdated and it shouldn’t just be on the shoulders of young designers to do this; houses like @chanelofficial @dior @ysl and @celine (and many more) continue to only show their collections on one type of woman: what message does this send?”
Model Karen Elson, who has been vocal about fashion’s “toxic truth” of bullying and body shaming, replied to Francesca’s follow up post expressing her support. “Thank you for keeping this dialogue alive. What is the most frustrating is this expectation that we aren’t allowed to have our bodies shift and change as we get older. Like it’s a badge of honour to halt your bodies [sic] natural evolution from adolescence.”
Multidisciplinary artist Tanya Barlow hosts a panel featuring Sarah-Jane Duff, Qiane Matata-Sipu, Jess Molina and Kaarina Parker to discuss size inclusivity as part of Ensemble and Stuff’s Festival of Fashion.
Having worked in fashion for a long time now, both in the capacity of commentator and an editor commissioning and casting shoots for a magazine, I know that the issue of size and body representation is a controversial and complex one. The discussion tends to go in a circle of defence and blame: editors blame designers blame model agencies blame casting directors blame stylists blame… and so the cycle continues.
For many, fashion will simply never be good enough when it comes to size and inclusivity; I get that. It could and should be better, but I know many within the local industry who are in positions of power who do hold it to account and push it to be better when it comes to representation across the board (I like to count myself as one of them).
But while fashion and society’s beauty standards have changed for the better, sometimes they feel just as restrictive – and perhaps today are simply covertly toxic. Fashion has progressed (thank god), but as we pat ourselves on the back for all our good work, perhaps we’re not paying attention to the fact that we’re starting to slide backwards.
Where to get help for an eating disorder
- Canopy Eating Disorder Services Community-level treatment and support programme, plus live chat from trained peer supporters, 9am-11am Tue-Sat.
- 1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 to talk to a trained counsellor.
- Healthline 0800 611 116, available 24/7
- EDANZ 0800 2 EDANZ – Support for family of those with an eating disorder.
- If you think you are suffering from an eating disorder, see your GP immediately for a referral to specialist services.
- If it is an emergency or you or someone else is in immediate danger, call 111.