Thin is back! Or at least that’s what fashion and pop culture commentators would have us believe. After the SS23 runway round, some designers were chastised for returning to an ideal: chic heroin, pin-sharp hips and collarbones, pimply goose skin – all those arbitrators of messy eating, again with a bang.
Where was the diversity, the positivity of the body? Left! Along with the 16-pound Kim Kardashian she lost in record time to get into Marilyn’s dress. Left! Along with the credentials of her best friend Taylor Swift, after she was accused of fatphobia in her her music video for Anti-Hero.
Swift is shown experiencing her worst fears, including the fear of stepping on a scale and having the dial pointed to “FAT”. Shira Rose, a New York-based therapist and eating disorder activist, tweeted: “Fat people don’t need to be reiterated once again that it’s everyone’s worst nightmare to look like us.” That tweet was enjoyed 43,000 times, and Swift took the floor from her video, which sparked her own backlash.
Was Swift challenging or perpetuating subtle supremacy? What about the Kardashians – showing significantly reduced figures, a move that sparked a lot of speculation online as to whether they removed their butt implants, if they ever had such implants (they’ve always claimed otherwise). “Kim Kardashian launched her post-BBL era in a KKW Beauty campaign,” wrote essayist Michelle Santiago Cortés. “In the images promoting her Classic Blossom makeup collection, she posed on a bed of cherry blossoms, American Beauty style, neck, torso, thighs and buttocks that looked unusually supple … I remember seeing this photo everywhere as an omen: the thin is back, baby. ” It all seems to date back to the age of shrinkage – where, as a woman, you were nobody unless you were size zero, super tanned and dressed as Rachel Zoe (600-calorie-a-day advocate, post-baby diet).
Of course, if you believe that we are really getting back to the bad old days it depends on whether you believe it has ever gotten better. Has celebrity fashion and culture ever become truly accepting of bigger bodies? Personally, I’m not so sure. No doubt it has been paid for in words – even though, within the fashion industry, the vast majority of models are thin and always have been – and those who aren’t are the exception, not the rule. Take, for example, the photo shoot for the cover of Paloma Elsesser’s iD magazine in which she is portrayed in a belt skirt by Miu Miu.
This was presented as a celebration of a different body type than we would expect on runways and magazine covers. Miu Miu, however, is a particularly ruthless brand, and her own skirts aren’t actually available in the Elsesser size – the one she wore during filming was made especially for her.
Certainly, in recent years, body fascism has transformed from the zero dimension towards that more full-bodied aesthetic of “well-being”. As many have pointed out, however, that aesthetic – which requires fat distribution to specific, highly localized areas of the body – was in many ways much more difficult to achieve than plain old thinness. In her 2018 article for Vox – titled Body Positivity is a Scam – Amanda Mull argued that the movement had broken away from its radicalized roots. “[When it began in the Sixties] body positivity was just one element of an ideology that included public protests against discrimination and anti-capitalist advocacy against the diet industry, and it made a specific political point: to have a body widely insulted and discriminated against and still love it, in the face of the constant cultural message about your flaws is subversive.
In March of this year, an NHS study found that a record number of young people were receiving treatment for eating disorders
It was one aspect of a multi-pronged attack on systems and companies that kept women in check. In its modern version, he pointed out, body positivity supported self-love while nothing around us has changed to help us achieve that love. It has placed the burden on the individual of feeling good regardless of the companies that have created and profited from our negative self-image.
The last time I interviewed psychotherapist Susie Orbach – in 2021 – she told me that when she wrote Fat is a Feminist Issue (her 1978 treatise on the damage diet culture has caused to women) she thought it was the beginning of dietary anti-reflux. In fact, the bodily discomfort kept getting more and more acute as the years went by. In March of this year, an NHS study found that a record number of young people were receiving treatment for eating disorders. And in fact, throughout the Western world, hospital admissions for eating disorders increased during and immediately after the pandemic, after years of so-called “body positivity”.
Orbach, like Mull, realized that as long as huge global industries take advantage of our discomfort, we will continue to feel uncomfortable. Wellness, diet culture, the fashion industry, the beauty industry – all profit from selling an ideal that we consumers must strive to achieve. No doubt, the mainstream resurgence of a hyper-subtle aesthetic will serve to make things more difficult for those who don’t fit that ideal, but has that never been the case? And does dwelling on the bodies and actions of some women – models, Kardashian, Taylor Swift – change anything? They seem more like the canaries in the coal mine: they are telling us that greater forces are at play, that we must strive to create ethical codes and safeguards. That we need to do more than just change a scene into a pop video.