FROM the catwalks to the Kardashians, over the past year, curves have been replaced with the waif-like figures of the ’90s and ’00s.
Fabulous investigates how body positivity went backwards.
Looking at pictures of the super-skinny models walking at the latest fashion shows, Yvette Caster felt her stomach lurch.
Their prominent hip bones, visible clavicles and prepubescent-looking limbs were all too familiar to her, a woman who had grown up in the “heroin chic” era of the ’90s. She had been taught to hate her body aged just 10 – and later developed a dangerous eating disorder.
“I grew up with that incredibly damaging culture of extreme thinness all around me. By 19, I was already yo-yo dieting and then in my 20s, during the early 2000s, size zero became fashionable,” says Yvette, 41, a journalist and mental health podcaster.
“At the worst of my body hatred, I’d grab my belly in my hands, wishing that I could cut it off.
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“In the last few years, the body positivity movement has boomed. But since seeing painfully thin models once again front and centre stage, it’s felt like we are taking 10 steps back, to a world where women are going to feel they have to be rail-thin in order to be accepted.”
Indeed, the fashion industry has, up until recently, been embracing women of different sizes, with plus-size models such as Ashley Graham and Paloma Elsesser, both a UK size 16, becoming increasingly visible.
In 2017, fashion groups LVMH and Kering – who own Louis Vuitton and Gucci respectively – banned size-zero models from appearing on their runways.
But at Paris Haute Couture Week at the end of last month, super-thin models flooded the runways for the likes of Valentino and Alexandre Vauthier once more.
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And the star of the Paris Fashion Week S/S ’23 catwalks last September was undoubtedly Bella Hadid, who stood almost naked for nine minutes while a skin-tight dress was spray-painted on to her tiny form on the Coperni runway.
Meanwhile, supermodel offspring such as Lila Moss (daughter of Kate) and Kaia Gerber (daughter of Cindy Crawford) are further evoking the ’90s with their supremely svelte figures.
But it’s not just on the catwalk where tiny figures are back in vogue. Famously curvy Kim Kardashian was extremely vocal about losing 1st 2lb in just three weeks to fit into Marilyn Monroe’s iconic “Happy Birthday, Mr President” dress at last year’s Met Gala – and has lost even more weight since.
Meanwhile, Kim’s younger sister Khloé has shed so much weight over the past 12 months that even her supermodel sister Kendall Jenner has voiced concern.
Now experts are worried that the return of size zero will have serious ramifications for women around the world.
“For those who internalised an emaciated body ideal when size zero was first popular, its return may unleash old patterns of comparison,” explains Dr Bryony Bamford, founder and director of The London Centre For Eating Disorders And Body Image.
“The message is that everyone is able to pick the body size and shape that they want, but the reality is that so much about our bodies is genetically determined, and trying to keep up with body-shape trends is dangerous.
"The fashion industry needs to accept its role in promoting body dissatisfaction and disordered eating.”
In the UK, eating disorders are currently at a record high – especially among young people.
Almost 10,000 children and young people were treated by the NHS between April and December 2021, a figure two-thirds higher than before 2020.**
“Growing up, there was only one way women were meant to look, and that was stick-thin,” says Yvette, who is a size 22.
“In secondary school, I was a size 10, but I always wanted to be even smaller – a size 8 or 6. We idolised characters like Monica and Rachel from Friends, who were tiny.”
When she was 19 and a size 12, Yvette went on her first diet, which led to over a decade of yo-yo dieting. “I first tried SlimFast, and then a bit later, Atkins, Slimming World and the cayenne pepper diet.
"The issue was that each time I dieted, I restricted myself so much that I’d end up putting extra weight back on when I did start eating again.
"I eventually went up from a size 12 to a 14, and then a 16, as I ‘failed’ at each diet. By the time I turned 25 in 2007, I’d started using laxatives.”
Later that year, Yvette decided she couldn’t diet any more. But instead, she found herself binge-eating.
“After a difficult break-up, I buried myself in work, and I would finish a 14-hour shift, tired, stressed and lonely, and go straight to McDonald’s, using food as a coping mechanism to avoid my feelings.
It not only ravaged my body, but also my mental health – and it took years to recover,” Yvette explains. “Some people might dismiss the prevalence of size zero as just a harmless trend, but the truth is, growing up with diet culture can affect you for the rest of your life.”
Yvette sought out a therapist, who she saw for two years, though she says she’s recently been considering getting more therapy, and she also attends a support group. Yvette now focuses on eating healthily and exercising daily, rather than just on her dress size.
“The rise of body positivity and the plus-size movement really helped with my recovery,” she says. However, she concedes that her battle with body image and binge eating will always be a “work in progress”.
Amy Mistry, a model booker at leading inclusive modelling and talent agency Zebedee Talent, confirms they are currently experiencing far less interest in their plus-size models.
“We’ve always had larger models on our books, and we recently launched a division solely devoted to curve models, from size 12 upwards.
"At the moment, we’re seeing far fewer bookings come in for those girls,” she says. “We are getting a few, from inclusive brands such as ASOS, but the fashion industry is very trend-focused.
“A few years ago, Kim Kardashian’s formerly curvy body was what everybody wanted, but it feels like that’s falling away now.”
Worryingly, some women are going to extreme lengths to stay on trend. Following numerous reports that celebrities, such as the Kardashians, lost weight quickly using treatments typically used to help treat diabetes, such as Ozempic, demand for the drug rocketed around the globe.
On TikTok alone, #Ozempic has had more than 470 million views.
And while social media can be a wonderful resource for body-positivity inspiration, experts agree it can exacerbate body image issues – for example, one in three female teenage users of Instagram say the app has made them feel worse about their body.***
Worryingly, 40% of users say they’ve been left feeling “unattractive”.
Liz*, 52, is mum to 13-year-old Grace*. She has become increasingly concerned about Grace using social media since the re-emergence of the size-zero trend, especially as Liz herself suffered from anorexia growing up.
“My mum was always on a diet,” Liz says. “Then, when I was in my early 20s in the ‘90s, I was obsessed with Kate Moss.
"I used to have a picture of her on my fridge as inspiration to diet, and I would do really extreme meal-replacement plans, where I was only consuming around 800 calories a day.
"It was around that time that the anorexia really took hold, and I went down to about 7st when I was 21, which was definitely underweight for my height of 5ft 4in.
“Back then, anorexia and eating disorders in general weren’t really treated as mental health issues, and when I went to my GP, he suggested I gain the weight by eating lots of salted nuts.
"But after about 18 months of struggling to cope alone, I finally saw a psychiatrist, who prescribed Prozac for depression, and a psychologist who helped me deal with my fear of food.
"I finally realised I needed to take care of myself, so that my body could function in a healthy way.
“I’ll never forget how hard those years were. With Grace, I’ve always been concerned about what might happen as she gets older.
"I was really pleased when a more diverse representation of women’s bodies started appearing in adverts and on social media, but just as Grace turned 13, the tide seemed to start turning again,” she adds.
Liz says Grace has recently become obsessed with fashion, spending hours on TikTok, poring over videos of supermodels, including Kate Moss.
“She’s developing a really narrow view of what’s beautiful. I’ve tried to encourage her to look at images of Marilyn Monroe or more Rubenesque figures, but she just wants to look at really skinny images,” Liz says.
“She’s even mentioned a quote often attributed to Moss: ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,’ which sent a chill down my spine, and she’s plastered her bedroom walls with images of really thin girls, including a poster of a girl with a thigh gap.”
Grace weighs around 7st 4lb, and is 5ft 6in, and while that’s a healthy weight for her age, she is extremely slim, which worries Liz.
“Grace is a size zero and she’s obsessed with a shop called Brandy Melville, which is famous for only selling clothes in one size – XS/S. She is now asking me if she can join a gym, which is making me very anxious.”
With Liz’s own history of eating disorders, she knows she must tread carefully – despite her own concerns.
“I don’t want to lecture Grace, as I know how sensitive this subject can be,” says Liz.
“But I am really worried. This renaissance of size zero can’t be a good thing for our daughters. I’ve been researching charities including Beat, which helps people with eating disorders, and Girls Out Loud, which aims to empower young girls, especially when it comes to the pressures of social media. I can only hope this is a phase that Grace will grow out of.”
Dr Bamford warns: “Being a size zero is highly unachievable and potentially dangerous for the vast majority of teenagers, and attempting to replicate it could contribute to the development of an eating disorder.
“Children closely observe the eating habits and body talk of those around them, particularly their mothers, so trying to ensure you are showing a healthy relationship with food and your own body is an incredibly powerful protector against the impact of fashion and social media.
"The most important thing parents can do is talk openly to their teenagers about their body image and the influences on it.”
Yvette now presents a podcast called Mentally Yours, where she speaks about mental health, including her experiences with binge-eating disorder.
“It feels like not much has actually changed in the fashion industry since I was younger – and the pressures to prescribe to an often unattainable and dangerously unhealthy body type are still there,” she says.
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“Unless we want another generation of women growing up with the hang-ups that I did, we’ve got to finally start doing better for our daughters.”
- Listen to Mentally Yours on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Audio Boom. For info on Girls Out Loud, visit Girlsoutloud.org.uk.
- Contact Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, on 0808 801 0677 or Beateatingdisorders.org.uk.
- *Names have been changed
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