Women have been subjected to ever-changing beauty ideals throughout the ages, from impossibly tiny waists to big breasts, but there’s one particularly damaging decade which set the tone for today’s unrealistic image standards - the '90s. This period in fashion is often held up as a golden time for the industry - the decade of grunge, Calvin Klein and the slip dress - but it was also the start of a deeply unhealthy beauty standard, the ramifications of which we're still experiencing today. Just as concerning, is the evolution of how we’re subliminally fed these damaging principals.
Unlike the '90s, where we digested content largely from magazines, billboards and the television, the early '00s saw the introduction of social media. Now, there’s a much larger captive audience, with an estimated 3.6 billion people using these platforms; one billion of which are on Instagram - with 7 per cent of its users aged between just 13 and 17. The messages shared by the fashion world have never reached bigger audiences than they have today, for better or worse.
I grew up in the '90s when 'Heroin Chic' was something to aspire to; we were consistently fed images of underweight models and the weekly magazines were awash with articles on how to be a size zero. I read about bulimia in one particular magazine and decided that was how I was going to achieve this unrealistic goal - I was just 13 years old.
Younger generations can’t understand why millennials are so vocal about body positivity on social media, why we’re angry at celebrities for promoting bogus appetite-suppressing injections; why we’re tiring of famous faces edited beyond recognition; and why we’re speaking out about face-altering filters. It’s because we’ve already experienced the long-lasting effects of a warped sense of normality - and we can see the car crash that’s coming.
Some of us felt first-hand what that crash felt like. Desperately wanting to look like the women in the magazines that I obsessively read from cover-to-cover, I took measures into my own hands - not realising that these measures would take me on an agonising 12-year journey, with lifelong repercussions. The Heroin Chic trend wasn’t actually about drugs for many of us, it was the 'thin' ideal that we were hooked on and the then-media happily facilitated it.
While fashion has always championed unrealistic standards, even since the late 19th century with its restrictive, painful corsets, the '90s was arguably first to go big on the thin waif ideal. Today, there is currently a resurgence in “strong not skinny” - which originated in the '80s with the rise of home workout DVDs and Lycra-clad stars like Olivia Newton-John - but the thin ideal is still at the heart of it.
Kate Moss, then in her teens, was turned into a poster girl for Heroin Chic - with grungy, undeniably cool images by Corinne Day and Davide Sorrenti gracing the pages of every notable fashion magazine. She was catapulted to fame for her modelling prowess, but also for her wild social life and relationships with renowned rock stars; she had the life that every young woman wanted.
Although the pervasive waif-like body image naturally led to unhealthy means of achieving said body (some models reportedly ate tissue paper to fend off hunger), the decade also glamourised drugs and smoking. It was seen as cool for young people to do cocaine in club bathrooms and chain smoke; nobody cared about the damage it would do, because the generation's skinny, fabulous idols were doing it.
Davide Sorrenti, who alongside Corinne Day created the trend, died of a narcotics overdose in 1997, ending the look's popularity across the industry. Speaking after his death, President Clinton said: “You do not need to glamourise addiction to sell clothes. The glorification of heroin is not creative, it’s destructive. It’s not beautiful; it’s ugly. And this is not about art; it’s about life and death. And glorifying death is not good for any society.”
In 2007, Isabelle Caro, a French model, allowed her 4.2 stone body to be photographed nude for an Italian eating disorder awareness campaign. The images were displayed on billboards on the eve of Milan Fashion Week and while they were immediately banned, they went viral online, sending shockwaves throughout the industry and no doubt spurring change, which led to the banning of size zero models on the catwalk. Caro died in 2010 aged just 28.
Fast forward to present day, and our perilous love affair with beauty has led us to battling fillers, filters and FaceTune with the rise of the Kardashians and surgically enhanced reality stars. The look to have now isn’t waif-like, it’s a tiny waist, big bum, big boobs, a cut-glass jawline, a small nose, big lips, lifted brows and doll-like smooth skin. What we’re seeing today is an evolution of the dangerous beauty standards that were introduced in the '90s. The ideal might look different, but it’s no more achievable – and the emphasis is still thinness.
In the past few years, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in celebrities with cookie-cutter appearances, most claiming to be natural - leading to young people wondering why they don’t look the same. Platforms like SnapChat and Instagram have taken this one step further, allowing damaging filters onto their platforms, which give users an instant nose job and lip fillers.
Of girls aged between 11 and 21, 34 per cent won’t post a photo without a filter; the statistic for women is said to be much higher, and plastic surgeons throughout the UK and US have spoken of a rise in “selfie surgery”. There is no legal age limit for dermal fillers in the UK and the industry is largely unregulated, meaning anyone can legally provide injectable treatments - and sometimes with devastating results.
The only way to put on the brakes on a multi-billion-pound industry that has long capitalised on and created a lack of self-esteem among consumers is to implement regulations relating to filters, adverts and highly edited photos. Just as with magazines, platforms like Instagram should have a duty of care and so should its biggest users.
Dr Luke Evans MP recently put forward a Bill for celebrities to declare heavily edited photos, as he believes the trend is fuelling a mental health crisis. I do too, and if not now, it certainly will. The '90s and Heroin Chic set the tone for the body issues we currently face, leaving many of those that fell victim with eating disorders and long-standing damage to their self-esteem. Let’s not make the same mistakes twice.
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