The word is out peeps: thin culture is back for 2023, with the incredibly toxic and damaging ‘supermodel skinny’ aesthetic that once thrived during the 90s and 00s set to surge in the next few years.
While the 2010s certainly had their fair share of shameful and totally unscientific ‘skinny tests’—the belly button challenge, the bikini bridge, the thigh gap and the clavicle coin challenge to name just a few—overall, the decade can be defined as one of slow progress towards body acceptance.
Though it’s undeniable that more work needs to be done, the 10s saw beauty brands begin to showcase and celebrate diverse women in order to reflect this changing attitude. Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, which began as early as 2004, grew into a global phenomenon over the course of the 2010s, and had a vital impact on the decade for its effort to redefine what beauty meant.
It gave the term ‘beauty’ the potential to mean more than just skinny, tall, white, and blonde. Sadly, the same can’t be said of the 2020s. In the past few years, social media platforms and beauty campaigns have taken a step (or more accurately, a giant leap) back towards diet culture and thin physiques. So, what tipped the scales, so to speak, in favour of the skinny aesthetic?
The answer perhaps comes at the tail end of 2022, when actress Lea Michele posted a selfie on Instagram highlighting her hollowed-out cheeks. While it’s not been confirmed whether she has had the procedure, nonetheless, the photo sparked a surge in searches for the cosmetic procedure known as ‘buccal fat removal’ on TikTok, which only continues into the new year.
The trends which sprung up in the 2010s were certainly worrying but it seems the 2020s are taking a much more extreme turn towards unrealistic and unhealthy beauty standards.
In an August 2022 survey, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) reported that three-quarters of cosmetic-focused plastic surgery practices are seeing more business than before the COVID-19 pandemic, with nearly 30 per cent stating that their business has more than doubled.
Don’t get me wrong, cosmetic procedures are not inherently bad. A little physical tweak can have a hugely positive impact on a person’s self-confidence, thus improving their lives overall. But there is a line to be drawn here. The increase in the past few years in needless cosmetic procedures—yes, buccal fat removal, I’m looking at you—crosses that line. In a way, this surgery perfectly encapsulates the return of this trend: both are unnecessary, extreme, and come with potentially dangerous side effects.
In order to hinder a movement, you must first recognise where it came from. Fashion is cyclical and as the theory goes, trends are recycled every 20 years or so. The return of Y2K style with its brazen ab-bearing, low-rise aesthetic certainly goes hand-in-hand with the cult of thinness’ concerning comeback.
However, the roots of this problem run much deeper than low-rise jeans. Fashion is just a symptom of our cultural environment, one that is influenced by the attitudes of today. In fact, the pith of this problem is in the body positivity movement itself.
Body activism is an offshoot of fourth-wave feminism—a movement which utilised social media to push back against sexual harassment, rape culture, and body shaming. But social media is a double-edged sword: it gave the movement global visibility, but it also opened the door to widespread exploitation.
Brands recognised the movement’s popularity and soon co-opted the cause for commercial gain. Our feeds became swamped with posts hashtagged with ‘body positivity’ for exposure. It was all lip service. It lacked substance and an appreciation for real inclusion. The bandwagon had become overcrowded, the wheels had fallen off, and the progress that had been made ground to a steady halt.
The return of skinny culture can be seen as a rejection of this superficial style of feminism—an edgy, but immature, response to the condescending commerciality of 21st-century activism. However, by rejecting superficial activism, what has ironically been embraced now is complete superficiality.
Anything good that came from the body positivity movement, any real progress, is quickly being erased. So how do we avoid being sucked back into the skinny vortex?
Digital creator and body confidence activist, Charlotte Peirce (@charlottepeirce_ on Instagram and @charlottepeirce_ on TikTok) believes social media can be very toxic, but it can also provide the antidote to this poison. Speaking to SCREENSHOT, she explained: “We aren’t born hating our bodies. It’s very much learned behaviour, and with [gen Z] spending so much time online, it’s paramount that they see more diverse, healthy content.”
Ultimately, “your mindset towards your body can only be as positive as what you consume,” Peirce added. She’s not wrong. A 2021 study found that people’s perception of the ideal body type depended upon the bodies that they looked at. When presented with larger body arrays, participants regularly chose an average weight as the ideal body type, unlike those who were exposed to thinner bodies.
Thus, as Peirce said, “seeing different body types in mainstream media helps to build a better relationship with [our] own bodies from the get-go without feeling the need to conform to trends.” The advice she gives? “Filter through your social media, clear out anything that does not bring you peace and joy, surround yourself both on and offline with things that make you feel good and add value to your mental wellbeing.”
Her strategy—to tailor your social media feed to provide a defence against the coming onslaught of skinny imagery—is a good one. It puts control back into our hands and allows us the chance to shore up our self-image.
Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, noted that it is those of us with “underlying vulnerabilities […] who are most susceptible to these [social media] trends.”
If we’re feeling the pressure to conform to this trend, she encourages us to explore the psychological reasons behind this: “What has your body come to symbolise about you and your self-esteem?” By questioning our own belief system, we can work towards undermining the power that these harmful trends hold over us. “If someone has an inner confidence and a stable sense of self, they will be much less affected by these trends as they already have a strong internal compass in terms of their beliefs and who they are,” Dr Touroni added
Peirce perfectly summed this up: “Self-love and appreciation will never go out of style.” Honestly, I couldn’t agree more.