The New York Post recently declared that ‘heroin chic is back’

…and subsequently came under huge fire for even suggesting such a divisive thing. But are they really wrong? We’re seeing all the tell tale signs that fashion’s most dangerous aesthetic is looking to make a resurgence. 

If you’ve been paying even the slightest bit of attention to trends the past couple of years, you’ll know that the nineties & noughties have been revived in a big way. They’ve been popping up in music, fashion and tv. One glance at what the Euphoria girls are wearing is enough to clue you in on where we’re at recently. Gone are the huge generational gaps; now we’re already throwing back to times that plenty of under-30s still vividly remember. This is partly thanks to social media’s ravenous appetite for new content. But also fast fashion’s desperate trawling for new stock ideas. The two are a match made in heaven.

But of all the styles and subcultures floating around in the last few years, none has taken a hold quite as strongly as the late nineties/early aughts. Specifically that sweet spot right around the millennium, when ‘trashy’ was the vibe and being thin was in. It didn’t matter if you were into grunge or glam, the archetypal figure for both was super-skinny. 

A blonde woman in a brown jacket, jeans and band t-shirt is stood in front of a chainlink fence
By Megan Ruth via Unsplash

Heroin chic makes its debut

Heroin chic got its name from the drug’s breakthrough into the fashion industry in the early 90s. Supermodels were allegedly getting their uber slender physiques with help from cigarettes and hard drugs, leading to one of the most dangerous dieting trends to date. Copycat behavior and an explosion in eating disorders soon followed as people desperately tried to shrink down to the era’s coveted ‘size zero’. The UK equivalent of this American term would be around a size 4. Famous faces like Kate Moss, Shalom Harlow and Jaime King set a precedent for this on the catwalk. It wasn’t long before it seeped into everyday life. 

There were washed out complexions, dark circles around the eyes and an overall vibe of being too busy partying to do anything else. Least of all eating or sleeping. Part of this can be traced back to the health-conscious, fitness-focused 1980s; a time when aerobics was all the rage and tracksuits were basically mandatory. The 90s were here to turn that on its head. Grunge was on the rise and provided the perfect soundtrack to an angsty, troubled teenage culture that didn’t care about looking after itself.

Starving to fit in

As the baggy jeans and flannels gradually phased out, they were replaced with mini skirts and skinny t-shirts. The music may have begun to shift but the new, emaciated body image wasn’t going anywhere. It was only just getting started.

The clothes themselves, particularly those approaching the Y2K mark, amplified the need for a boyish, androgynous figure. One that was simply genetically impossible for many women. Tiny crops tops and low rise jeans were designed to emphasize flat stomachs and sharp hip bones in a truly unforgiving fashion. There was nowhere to hide with many of these outfits. What looked incredible on Kate Moss came at a huge mental and physical cost to the average, healthy adolescent trying to copy her look. 

Pop culture’s part in the madness

The term ‘body positivity’ didn’t exist as we know it today. That all began tentatively around 2012, only really taking off in the past few years. Back in the 2000s, the only bodies to be positive about were the thin, and typically white, ones. 

Celebrities, magazines, television, diets; this message was reinforced from every direction. Even the early internet was awash with blogs and sites that promoted it. While it was less obvious at the time, looking back the messaging was everywhere. Women’s magazines were frequently plastered with paparazzi shots of celebrities deemed to be ‘fat’. The unwritten message being that ‘YOU better not look like this’. By today’s standards, these women were perfectly normal and healthy. 

Ludicrous crash diets were being dreamt up and fed to millions of women by a media obsessed with weight. Ads for the infamous Special K diet promised to help you drop a dress size in 2 weeks. If you replaced 2 meals every day with nothing but their cereal. It’s recently been revisited, with women sharing their stories and many upset they were ever fooled into trying it.

A brunette woman with grunge haircut wearing a leather jacket
By Dalton Smith via Unsplash

Why’s it back?

What began with the rock n roll aesthetic of heroin chic, morphed into the tanned and toned figures of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie on The Simple Life. The styles were totally different but the body was still waifish. No matter what subculture you were into, you couldn’t escape it.

Much like the 90’s stark rejection of the upbeat, vibrant 80s, it’s a backlash. Years of wellness culture, girl bossing and time-consuming self care have left the culture feeling burnt out. The polar opposite of that is the lifestyle of smoking, neglecting yourself, and simply not caring. [Although actually caring very much, because that’s how the ‘reckless’ look actually works.]

It could be argued that this idealized physique never even truly went away. The early 2010s saw a brief revival of ‘grunge’ on Tumblr. With help from shows like Skins, and an unhealthy fixation on troubled celebrities from Amy Winehouse to Lindsay Lohan, the stage was set. ‘Thigh gaps’ were the must-have accessory. It’s easy to forget now – in the age of Kardashian curves and BBLs – that just a couple of trend cycles ago, things were very different.

But surely we’re smarter now…

Why is this happening again if we already know how bad it is? Well, part of the problem is that young Gen Z-ers don’t know how bad it is. As teens who came of age in an era when body positivity was already the norm, it’s unsurprising that this insidious trend has slipped past their radar. All that goodwill towards people embracing their natural shape may seem like common sense to a generation who’ve always had it. It’s built on very fragile foundations though. One nudge from popular culture towards a repackaged version of heroin chic could bring it all crashing down.

And even despite all this self love, we’ve already seen a disturbing rise in young people seeking out cosmetic surgery to emulate their online idols. The trap of ‘What harm could losing a little weight do if all the influencers are doing it?’ could all too easily come next.  

A blonde woman in a black tshirt and jeans
By Ian Dooley via Unsplash

Along came social media

Like pretty much all cultural shifts, social media plays an enormous part in this resurgence. You don’t have to be on TikTok for more than a couple of minutes before you see videos of waifish teeangers ‘bodychecking’ and posting what they eat in a day. Millions of users are already unwittingly participating in practices that cause enormous harm when taken too far. The app’s modus operandi of pushing the most viewed [read: controversial] content to the top of people’s feeds is exactly the kind of feedback loop that eating disorder culture thrives on. It’s frightening to think what power these platforms will have if Size Zero makes a full blown comeback. You’d have to dial up the internet or go out to buy magazines to consume this harmful content the last time it was in vogue. Now it’s in the palm of your hand, 24 hours a day.

Can body positivity save us?

Well, yes and no. There’s so much to be said for the movement’s work in normalizing healthy figures of all shapes and sizes. It granted us all the permission to stop and say that, yes, actually, we do like how we look. Even if that’s not what the media was telling us. 

But there’s also a danger that it’s become a new form of obsession. Is it really all that good for our wellbeing to be constantly thinking about our weight, even if it is in a positive way? Perhaps what we should all be striving for now is ‘body neutrality’. This new movement aims to help people accept and respect their appearance. Without necessarily needing to fight the battle to love it. In a world where everything winds up being taken to extremes, might it be more helpful if we were all just… okay with ourselves and didn’t constantly dwell on it? Could this give us the power to just shrug at heroin chic and carry on with our lives instead? 

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