Once upon a time, a fatal disease triggered a fashion revolution. As trends come and go, the desire to be thin has never seemed to wane. Why? Since the epidemic of tuberculosis in 19th century Europe, the aspiration of slenderness in Western culture perpetually swelled into something bigger and has never gone away. In fact, it comes around again and again, only taking on different forms. People, notably those young in years, become more self-destructive under the influence of this so-called “trend.” In this essay, I investigate why our societal expectations for thinness run rampant though Western cultures, and reveal how these trends stem from plague and pestilence. I will examine the history of this trend, and how it has moved through successive generations, delve into Christine Harold’s “Tracking Heroin Chic,” and analyze the self-destructive subculture of today’s teens on the blogging site Tumblr, thus explaining what exactly is wrong when weakness is made to look fashionable.
While tuberculosis was often romanticized in its time, sufferers were not in their most glamorous. They were rotting from within, withering away to nothing, and sadly, the physical appearance caused by the disease was soon to be considered a fashion statement amongst the elite and artists of Europe. Because many famous poets and artists died of this illness, it became a tragic and starry-eyed death– the mere fact that it was called “consumption” made it all the more stylistic. Claiming one was “consumed” was much more dramatic and poetic than explaining they were coughing up blood and deteriorating by the minute. Does it not seem absolutely insane that the look of the disease was deemed stylish? Why would healthy, robust people want to look ill? And while it would be wishful thinking to believe this trend would somehow disappear into history, we can easily see it rampage through Western society and affect various generations to come.
Throughout history, in many different cultures and environments, it was attractive to be plump. In the early 17th century Europe, Peter Paul Ruben’s famous paintings made “plus-sized” women the starring role. These women were well fed, which meant they were wealthy and could afford more than enough food to keep them voluptuous. The poor were thin and scrawny, thus undesirable. It was a class issue, and in many areas of the world this model still reins popular. But alas, in Western society, Rubenesque style women are not what mainstream beauty celebrates today. After the tuberculosis-induced appearance fad, the desire for slenderness began to snowball and became a reoccurring craze.
To see how the sickly look of tuberculosis continued on in Western fashion, let us fast forward to the 1990s. The newest trend in beauty and body was for models to be at an extreme point of thinness once again. The look, called “heroin chic,” was a desired style - to appear as if one were on heroin. The pale, skinny, hollow look that heroin gives to human beings suddenly became a sought-after appearance, which not only created a fad in the look itself, but cultivated the popularity of the drug culture among the youth. Nan Goldin, a fashion photographer of the 90s, is deemed “the mother of heroin chic.” She would capture images of young men and women looking starved, beaten, and drug induced, crawling the floors of bathrooms and motels in rocker-grunge clothing. In the documentary on her life, “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” she explains how she took photos of people in order to preserve them, because everyone she knew kept dying.
Another famous fashion photographer of the heroin chic movement was Davide Sorrenti. He was a major player in this culture, and tragically died from a heroin overdose. After his death, President Bill Clinton made a speech about the catastrophic trend striking the nation, and how the glamorization of drugs in fashion needed to end, stating, “the glorification of heroin is not creative, it’s destructive; it’s not beautiful, it is ugly. And this is not about art; it’s about life and death. And glorifying death is not good for any society” (Harold, Tracking Heroin Chic p. 65). This quote is incredibly representative of what is wrong with a society that celebrates being ultra-thin. The reckless and edgy images from artists like Goldin and Sorrenti glamorize the same kind of look induced by tuberculosis, proving a fashion trend to be highly detrimental.
Today social media sites are flooded with pictures of stick thin legs, protruding hipbones, carved out collarbones, visible rib cages… the list goes on and on. Models have become so thin they are dying. Several years ago the fashion houses responded to this trend saying they wouldn’t hire the ultra-thin models. But just look at any issue of Vogue and you can see that isn’t being followed through on. The runways are filled with walking skeletons.
In recent years, we have the harmful fad of the much sought after “thigh gap.” For those who do not know what a thigh gap is, it is when one is standing and his or her inner thighs do not touch (image example below). This look has become the epitome of the “perfect body.” People repost and comment on images of thigh gaps with notes like “goals,” or “one day I will be this skinny,” and even “I hate my fat body,” and it gets worse. Although the group mainly involved in this trend is teenage girls, this damaging fad can be seen affecting people of all ages and genders all over the world. Self hate and body discrimination can truly affect anyone, especially with the right tools. It is easy for people to think young women are the only ones who covet thinness, but that is simply not the case. Millions of people have access to the Internet now, and it is easy to search for and find diets, workouts, and pictures of super models.
Tumblr, a social media blogging website created in 2007, has become one of the main sources for the spread of the “thigh gap” trend. It is a site where people can feed off of horrible body shaming images and posts, and where they have the opportunity to devote entire blogs to their desire to be thin. Kate Moss, arguably one of the world’s most celebrated supermodels is infamously quoted saying, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” in a 2009 interview with fashion magazine WWD. These harsh words encapsulate what this select group of Tumblr users promote. Moss has become an icon in the world of fashion, and her body type is one of the most highly regarded for super models, ultimately influencing an entire group of people who look up to her.
In efforts to see the kinds of harmful posts being put up online, I took to Tumblr to try and find some “thinspiration” (as they are so called) blogs. I typed “thigh gap” into the search box and what came up surprised me. Tumblr withholds immediate search results, first posting a message from the staff stating the following: “Everything okay? If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, NEDA is here to help: call 1-800-931-2237 or chat with them online. If you are experiencing any other type of crisis, consider talking confidentially with volunteer trained in crisis intervention at www.imalive.org, or anonymously with a trained active listener from 7 Cups of Tea (an online therapy site). And, if you could use some inspiration and comfort in your dashboard, go ahead and follow NEDA on Tumblr.” It then gives you an option to go back to your Tumblr dashboard, or, in small print under the warning, it links the user to “Show search results.” I was very stunned by this. It makes sense for Tumblr to take action and put up warnings for searches such as “suicide,” “anorexia,” or things along those terms, but this just proves how extreme the “thigh gap” trend has gone. This is proof that the trend of the thigh gap has become just as harmful as the trends of heroin chic and tuberculosis were. It may not be killing people in the same ways, but it is affecting society overall in a negative and harmful way.
People die from anorexia and bulimia, as well as suicides from the pressures to be skinny. Elle Homes, a girl from the United Kingdom living in China, killed herself over her severe desire to be thin. She wrote songs that revealed the pain she felt to try to be perfect, and was self-harming before her death. She was bulimic, making herself sick in attempts to be like the girls she filled her blog with. And she was only 15. Another teen, Laura Willmott, died from cardiac arrest after a five-year-long battle with anorexia. There are young people all over the world that have access to pro-eating disorder and pro-anorexia sites, and overall are adversely influenced and motivated by them.
Unfortunately, something very ugly grew out of a tragic disease in the 19th century, and since then has absorbed the mindset of a sector of people, causing harm to our society as a whole for decades. As history repeats itself time and time again, we can only move forward in fashion by promoting healthy images for people to look up to. The issue with severe slenderness is that the audience that sees images of models and fashion icons look up to those people in their pursuit of beauty and overall perfection. The “goals” of many affected individuals are impossible feats, and public spheres like the Internet and magazines are full of images that could have horrible effects on some people. Whether it was the romanticized image of tuberculosis and consumption in 19th century Europe, the glorification of drugs in the late 20th century in Western culture, or the worldwide epidemic of eating disorders that we have today, the pursuit of perfection needs to end now. We must teach the up and coming generations that weakness is not something to cherish and strive for. Let us desire healthy bodies, instead of promoting starvation and the use of drugs. Our world is in need of a new fashion statement.
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