Content warning: This article discusses drug use and eating disorders.
As we start the second month of 2023, New Year’s resolutions of getting that “dream body” are in full swing. Perennially inescapable but especially heightened this time of year, this sentiment haunts copies of Cosmopolitan, social media, and casual everyday conversations. The pervasive message is that one can always be healthier, and more importantly, hotter. Hotter, by whose standards? The volatility of beauty standards, exemplified by the second coming of heroin chic, sharply illuminates the socioeconomic politics of bodily modification.
If female media personalities such as the Kardashians or Hadids are any barometer for the constantly changing goal post of what the cultural zeitgeist deems the dream body, then 2023 signals a transition from “thicc” back toward heroin chic. A resurgence of a mid-’80s and ’90s fashion photography trend, “heroin chic” is characterized by pale skin, emaciated features, and an overall sickly-looking aura, drawing its name from common side effects of the drug. Gia Carangi, Kate Moss, and other original heroin chic models were known for rampant partying and substance abuse, utilizing appetite-suppressing cocktails of opiates and stimulants to fuel their lifestyles.
After building her brand upon her curvaceous figure, Kim Kardashian sported a much smaller frame at the last Met Gala, dropping 16 pounds in three weeks to fit into Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday” dress for the occasion. Supermodel Bella Hadid left very little of her svelte figure to the imagination as she walked the runway in a dress spray-painted upon her nearly naked body for Paris Fashion Week last October. The message is clear: Big asses and boobs are out, protruding collar bones and wrist bones are in.
Our everyday lives have quickly reflected this change, and TikTok is the most obvious mirror. “She’s been blamed for promoting anorexia and heroin use, and her nicknames include Cocaine Kate and Kate Mess. She’s Kate Moss, and she’s a rockstar trapped in a supermodel’s body,” one popular soundbite narrates. Used in over 30,000 videos, the sound turns eating disorders and substance abuse into a sexy, grunge aesthetic. Though TikTok has tightened regulation of videos promoting drug use, self-harm, and disordered eating, the continued popularity of such videos indicates the voracious appetite for conformity to changing societal standards as well as TikTok’s limited content regulation abilities.
Heroin chic’s reign manifests outside of social media, too. Low-rise jeans, once decried as a fashion abomination, are repopulating runways and retail. Pilates classes have seen a significant uptick in the number of women enrollees, which studio owners attribute to a desire to obtain the “long, lean look.” Demand for diabetes management and weight loss drugs such as Ozempic has shot up, resulting in nationwide shortages.
The return of heroin chic highlights not only the dangerous implications of chasing a beauty standard but also the exclusive social position associated with said standards. The ability to sculpt one’s body at will is only accessible to the upper echelons. Brazilian butt lifts, previously popular before the return of heroin chic, are no longer as relevant as the Kardashians downsize their behinds. Instead, buccal fat removal, targeting facial fat reduction for more angular cheekbones, has become the new trend. The swinging of the beauty pendulum comes with a steep price tag: A BBL can cost anywhere between $3,000 to $30,000; a BBL reversal $5,000 to $30,000; and buccal fat removal $2,000 to $8,000. The physical metamorphosis demanded by fluctuating beauty standards is thus reserved for those with deep pockets.
Plastic surgery may be a drastic—albeit illustrative, case, but the same situation stands for other beauty-conforming measures. Many have speculated that Kardashian utilized Ozempic for her Met Gala weight loss. In a nation notorious for sky-high pharmaceutical costs, the ability to procure these prescriptions on a whim is an incredible luxury. Not only that, but the popularity of the drug has come at the expense of those who actually need it for blood sugar control.
The inaccessibility of a societally perfect physique is further heightened by the fact that 44 percent of Americans struggle to even afford basic healthcare and 60 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Even access to healthy food is increasingly becoming a privilege, with an estimated 53.6 million Americans living in food deserts. For many, basic healthcare is out of reach, and participating in body trends even more so.
The politics of bodies has become a battleground for distinguishing social strata. In an era of such abundant consumer optionality and agency, a “non-trendy” body is an indicator of personal failure. And so, like upgrading to the newest model of the iPhone, our bodies become an extension of our consumerist power, directly reflective of our individual investment in the alleged “self-care” market. These actions contribute to a self-reinforcing cycle of chasing validation and fueling the next body trend.
The pursuit of the newest ideal body and the accompanying social messaging is clearly harmful to our well-being. According to an Ipsos survey, 79 percent of Americans report feeling dissatisfied with their body. According to the National Organization for Women, 45.5 percent of teens report considering cosmetic surgery, and 70 percent of college women report feeling worse about their body image after reading women’s magazines. The prevalence of eating disorders has more than doubled in the last two decades. Amplified by social media and consumer culture, expectations of the perfect body are contributing to a brewing mental health crisis.
And yet, beauty trends remain popular. There’s a certain allure to being able to revamp one’s closet inventory in sync with fast fashion and attend boutique fitness classes. Conformity comes with intoxicating social capital: It broadcasts the message that you have the time and money to indulge in the slew of consumer activities necessary to reshape the body. Or, if you don’t have the time, then you at least have the financial resources to obtain the drugs and surgery to uphold such an illusion.
Our society puts transient beauty standards on a pedestal while glorifying consumerism, drug abuse, eating disorders, and cosmetic procedures as a means to achieving that end. Barraged by a flood of marketing, media personalities, and harmful social media messaging, we become stuck in a loop of perpetual dissatisfaction and insecurity. Deconstructing these narratives is no easy task, but it begins with seeing the societally-deemed “dream body” for what it is: a transient illusion that fluctuates with the seasons. As the self-improvement resolutions draw nigh in 2023, let us acknowledge how body trends amplify existing socioeconomic imbalances and reflect on our own personal definitions of well-being instead of what is promoted through mass media. Some food for thought as we enter the new year.