“Is Skinny Back?” Popular Media’s Obsession With Women’s Bodies

Illustration by Diane Kim

Lola Heymann

Staff Writer 

This year, we witnessed many trends from the early 2000s coming back into fashion, such as low-rise jeans, platform sandals, tiny crop tops, and baguette bags. Another trend that seems to be coming back from that era concerns more than just clothes: the ideal figure for women seems to be moving back to favoring the “skinny look.”

Many girls on TikTok are using audio of supermodel Bella Hadid (“My name, my name is Bella Hadid”) while showing off their skinny figure or, taking a darker turn, posting the audio in combination with encouraging unhealthy eating behaviors such as restricting calories or skipping meals. This is a startling regression from rising popular food-related TikTok videos that focus more on wellness and eating more healthily. While Hadid may not be directly involved in these TikToks, the popularity of her figure and its inspiration for disordered eating seems to reflect the larger trend in American society of moving away from the curvy ideal, a popular trend for women’s bodies in the last years, and into a skinny driven beauty standard.

Another indicator that would hint at skinny being considered the most desirable body type for women again is the fact that the Kardashians, being the influencers that they are, have begun to remove some of the implants that have given them their iconic curvy figures in the past. For years, their unnaturally hourglass-shaped bodies took the media platforms by storm and shaped public perception of how women’s bodies should look. Curvy became the epitomized body type: big breasts, a slim waist, strong thighs, and, perhaps most important of all, a huge behind. 

In this curvy wake, thousands of workout videos uploaded on YouTube or TikTok offered girls and women the perception of the possibility to move closer to that ideal, regardless of the fact that the Kardashians achieved this ideal through immense amounts of money and surgery, rather than hard work at the gym. 

While these workout videos still exist, they are recently being joined by quite a lot of videos advertising a different image: “how to get slimmer legs in 10 days,” “get a Victoria’s Secret body in 10 minutes a day,” “fat loss cardio workout,” and more. These are titles you can now find more frequently when it comes to workout suggestions. Videos of how to build a more defined curvy figure seem to be superseded again by workouts helping you to get slimmer. 

The truth is, the ideal of feminine beauty changes constantly, and while these changes did not just start in recent years (body standards spanning back to representations of Greek goddesses), social media within the 21st century has acted as a billboard that advertises body types with their fluidity. 

We can look back over body ideals from the past 20 to 30 years to see and understand this fluidity and its projection. In the supermodel era of the 1990s, being slim and waif-like was the most significant. Kate Moss, the young it-girl of the era, was the epitome of the “waif” (a young, very thin, large-eyed model). A rather troubling trend in the 90s was looking “heroin chic” — being emaciated like a drug addict suddenly became a desirable thing for women. In the 2000s, this was less extreme, and having a lean body with big breasts, a toned stomach, and long legs was the ideal of beauty — think Kate Upton. Finally, in the 2010s, curvy but toned figures became popular again, as perpetuated by the Kardashians and many fashion brands moved to hire curvy models to show off their clothes. Now it seems like we are slowly regressing into the era prior, once again emphasizing skinny as the ideal. However, has it ever really left?

While in the U.S., curvy was certainly the main trend in the past couple of years, the same cannot be said for other parts of the world. In Northeast Asia, looking as young and slim as possible has always seemed to be the ideal female body type, and many parts of Europe are similar in never having embraced the curvy trend. In Eastern Europe, especially in Russia, people have never moved away from the early 2000s ideal of a flat stomach, big boobs, and long, skinny legs. In France and Italy, too, women have never really stopped trying to be as skinny as possible. Take a look at the Brandy Melville store door in Paris that recently went viral for its ridiculously narrow entry, making it unable for overweight persons to enter the store and sending a message about what they expect of their customers. Therefore, while we in America ask ourselves if skinny is back as the ideal of feminine beauty, from a global perspective, it has always been there.

We have assessed the changing body trends over the years, but now we need to ask what actually causes them. For ages, women were told by society to make themselves smaller or to modify their bodies in some way to be viewed as beautiful, hot, sexy, and desirable. Women’s bodies are seen as a commodity —there is an entire industry benefiting from our insecurities and the desire to fit into beauty standards. Plastic surgery (surely the most drastic measure), magazines advertising certain workouts and diets, or harmful diet products on the market that promise easy ways to get slimmer (and mess up your body in the process) — all of these harmful practices have invaded women’s daily lives. 

Meanwhile for men beauty standards and unhealthy methods that come with them are arguably not nearly as drastic or unattainable. While there seem to be common standards for muscularity and gym attendance, the expectations placed on their body image seem a lot less restrictive. 

So who decides to hold women to such unachievable standards that do not exist in the same way for men? Who is this “society“ telling women how they should look? It would be too easy to say that beauty standards are shaped by what men find attractive, even though that certainly plays into them. It is also not simply the fashion industry or the film industry or beauty contests, even though they also play into the standards. Unfortunately, it is, in many cases, women themselves, oftentimes stemming from their own unaddressed insecurities about their own bodies. From that, social media takes these internalized insecurities and makes them widespread and comparable for all online. This occurs through the dangerous perpetuation of impossible beauty standards through algorithms on Instagram, YouTube, or — mainly — TikTok, which will keep suggesting more of the same content to young girls that encourages changing their bodies to fit impossible standards.

The Kardashians promote diet products and unnatural bodies to young, impressionable girls and those girls will internalize this fabricated idea of beauty. Often, there is also a generational trauma, where women can internalize the idea of fitting into a beauty standard so much so that they pass this desire on to their daughters (Yolanda Hadid is a famous example of this). In cases like this, children will have to do a lot of reflection and self-examination to free themselves of this kind of thinking. 

The ever-changing ideal of feminine beauty is like the horizon, constantly receding from reach — no single ordinary woman could ever, throughout her lifetime, fit all the different beauty standards imposed throughout the decades. Yet they keep trying with each new generation of social beauty standards, leading to eating disorders, exhaustive workouts, and a deep sense of insecurity and inadequacy. The only way to break free from these harmful behaviors is not to ask whether “skinny“ is back as the ideal of feminine beauty, but rather why we should care. 

A lot of progress has been made within the last decade when it comes to the diversity of body types in media, fashion, and advertising, and we need to keep this progress going. Curvy or skinny, hourglass or waif-like, big boobs, small boobs, big *ss, no *ss, small waist, toned legs, flat stomach, skinny legs, or thick thighs. It is time to abandon the idea of looking at women’s body types like clothing trends that come and go with changing times. It’s nice to see vintage trends from the ’90s and 2000s coming back into fashion, but the strict ideas imposed on women of what their bodies should ideally look like is a concept that needs to stay in the past.