A person at their laptop eating cereal, illustration by Helen Frost
Illustration: Helen Frost

The Cult of Thinness Is Making a Depressing Comeback

For those of us who remember Slim Fast, Weight Watchers and “thigh gaps”, pop culture's return to aspirational skinniness is more than jarring.
Lauren O'Neill
London, GB
illustrated by Helen Frost

Content warning: Discussion of disordered eating, diet culture and weight loss.

First, you would hand over your fiver, which was the price you paid for each session. Then you would go to sign in, which is where you collected the paper sheet which had your weekly weight listed on it. Then came the moment to step onto the scales, in front of everyone else gathered between the cold, beige walls of the church hall or community centre. 


You would wait all week for this moment: the warm glory of a few pounds off, or the tight-lipped, pitying smiles that accompanied the crushing disappointment of weight put back on. When you reached your goal weight, you would receive a special keychain, as an emblem of your “achievement”. 

This, as 33-year-old textile designer Lottie des’Ascoyne, from Kent, remembers it, was the weekly routine of the Weight Watchers meetings she attended as a teenager in 2005. “I was 14 or 15 when I started,” des’Ascoyne recalls. “There wasn’t a meeting near to where I lived at the time so I used to stay the night with my friend so we could go together. The meetings were sold on the idea of solidarity and support, but there was always something pretty vulnerable about it and people would be listening to see what your weight loss or gain would be.”

Like countless others her age, des’Ascoyne is part of a generation of women whose relationship to food, weight and self-esteem was impacted by the pervasive diet culture of the 2000s and early 2010s. This was the era of Slim Fast meals, “syns” and “points”, and Special K advising you to “drop a jeans size” by replacing two meals a day with a bowl of cereal. It was the era of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, of whale tails and “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” and of Kate Moss and Alexa Chung being photographed with wellies and “thigh gaps” at Glastonbury.


In some ways, society has come a long way since then, as the mainstreaming of fourth-wave feminism resulted in a re-examination of the broken attitudes towards women’s bodies. In the 2010s, we saw effective campaigns against extreme thinness on runways and magazine airbrushing, often sparked by young, internet-literate feminists (Tumblr was a particular hotbed for this type of activity). Change followed somewhat – we began seeing more images of non-skinny body types in the media, at least. In recent months, however, the old preoccupation with thinness has started to creep back into prominence.

Kim and Khloe Kardashian, once (not unproblematically, of course) seen as emblematic of fashion’s acceptance of a non-size zero body type, have flaunted their new, tiny frames; Margot Robbie appeared on a recent cover of Vanity Fair in an outfit highlighting her visible rib cage. In shops, too, the 2000s are back, with abs-highlighting, low-rise silhouettes making their return. And, where the industry itself is concerned, Hannah Tindle, fashion features director for ES magazine, tells me: “When I’m at fashion week I see young women on the runways cast for some of the biggest shows and they look no different to the way models did [in the mid-2000s].”


So, after a period of what felt like progress – on the surface at least – thin, it would seem, is back in. But for those of us who remember how that harmful pervasiveness affected our lives and senses of self growing up, this is a strange, confusing and frequently upsetting phenomenon. Having since lived through the “empowerment” era with all its sticky pros and cons, many of us are asking a very simple question: Aren’t we supposed to have moved on? 

Though many thinkpieces over the last month or so have lamented this clear shift back to skinny, realistically this aesthetic has never actually been “out”, as Tindle explains. “I often read about how people who have lost significant amounts of weight get treated differently, and are received in a more positive light, even by total strangers, than they did when they were a bigger size,” she says. “I think that sadly speaks to a pervasive cultural obsession with thinness – no matter what spin the media puts on it.”

Indeed, over the last decade, as feminism and identity politics have been mainstreamed (and inevitably commercialised), “representation” has become a sticking plaster over more structural problems. One of the positive upshots of this where body types are concerned, though, is that skinny bodies are no longer the only ones we see in so-called aspirational industries (like modelling, influencing, acting, and music), and this acceptance – while going nowhere near far enough in terms of racial diversity, fat liberation or the de-centring of able bodies – has filtered down into culture at large.


But Tindle is correct to observe that thinness remains the default: It is ultimately what we see most of in the media. Weight loss is still viewed as a bizarre moral good that people “should” aim for. Weight Watchers, for example, still very much exists, with people filing into those chilly, blank meeting rooms to this day, though it has rebranded simply to “WW”, in what is a very on-the-nose representation of the way diet culture has changed in recent years – from a brash fact of life in Britain, propped up by women’s media, to something that now instead hides in plain sight. 

 A model walks the runway during the Miu Miu Womenswear Spring/Summer 2022 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on October 05, 2021 in Paris, France. (Photo by Estrop/Getty Images)

A model wearing the Spring/Summer 2022 Miu Miu mini skirt. Photo: Estrop/Getty Images

While society’s love affair with thinness never disappeared, it is certainly jarring to see aspirational images of extreme skinniness emerging once again in popular media. Ione Gamble, author of the recent feminist essay collection Poor Little Sick Girls, and editor-in-chief of Polyester zine, a fashion and culture publication that emphasises bodies not traditionally centred by the mainstream media, tells me that the current situation is fuelled in part by “the Y2K reemergence, with the Miu Miu skirt, and all these hot ticket items which are these clothes that traditionally have only been worn by skinny people.” 


“A lot of the body positivity stuff we’ve seen over the last five years has been all lip service in terms of size inclusivity on the runways, high street and fashion editorial,” she continues.

“It was such a conversation that it felt like there was a groundswell of movement even if that wasn’t very concrete. Now that rhetoric has shifted back to skinniness. Fashion isn’t even pretending to care about people that aren’t skinny anymore, they’re just like, ‘OK, well that’s over now, we can just go back.’”

What happens in fashion, however, always filters down onto the high street and into people’s daily lives, and many millennial women are all too cognisant of what things were like when skinniness was brazenly placed on a cultural pedestal. Lizzie Sheridan, 28, a special school teacher from Solihull, remembers this era well. She also started Weight Watchers aged 14, having already tried the GI diet and Special K diet as a younger teenager. At university, she “began to buy books of ridiculous diets, like the Dukan diet”. Now, she reflects, “these diets couldn’t be stuck to, as I wasn’t fuelling my body properly”.

Elisabetta Cordetta, a 35-year-old interior designer who now lives in London, tells me that growing up in Italy, “I remember my teacher having Slim Fast as a substitute for lunch in class, telling us she needed to lose weight and that 50 percent of us needed to do the same.”

Gamble recalls girls at school bringing in pieces of steak for their lunch because that was what the Atkins diet allowed; Tindle was model scouted in a Topshop store around the age of 13, and of the experience, says that “looking at it now, it’s kind of terrifying that I was scouted when my body hadn’t even fully developed. That was the body type they were looking out for”.


The impact of this particular time in culture, when weight loss was such an omnipresent topic, still has repercussions today. “I’m really sad that I struggled for so long to accept myself for who I am,” Sheridan tells me. “I enjoy eating food and I find it difficult to lose weight. I have a really bad relationship with food and I think that is because of my yo-yo dieting. I privately eat because I’m ashamed if I want something ‘naughty’ or eat more than my friends – diet culture has taught me I should be eating less.” 

For des’Ascoyne, the pervasiveness of thinness in the 2000s feels like a rule she has been living by since she was 11. “The media can change its idea of what’s attractive at will but you can’t change the side-effects of growing up and developing in that climate,” she says. “I think that really it traumatised me in a way I didn’t really think about until recently when the media started highlighting thin again.”

All of this begs the question: Why, if this time is remembered as so painful, would it ever re-emerge? There are, ultimately, many reasons – the cyclical nature of trends, the Y2K fashion redux and culture’s continued fetishisation of youth are three of them, but there’s also an important sociopolitical element. It seems to be based around a rejection of liberal feminism – and by extension, the body positivity movement that it has co-opted – and its failures: namely, its dilution of feminist politics down to marketing campaigns and slogans on t-shirts made by exploited workers, and the “representation” narratives peddled as an answer to everything. 


Fashion’s two-footed return to skinniness, then, as Gamble puts it, can be seen as “a pushback at body positivity which can be viewed through the same lens as how commercialised feminism has become, as a symptom of this liberal mindset towards social issues that don’t change things, which is absolutely true – but a lot of people’s reaction to that is ‘OK, let’s do the opposite, let’s be edgy, let’s be skinny, let’s not be this soft watered-down version of these politics.”

In 2022, however, we have to learn from the mistakes of the past. There are certainly ways to avoid replicating the culture that millennial women lived through in our formative years for a new generation. In her own life, for example, Sheridan has found that seeking out content on TikTok which shows “love for bodies of all shapes and sizes” has helped her begin “to overcome my hate for my body. The algorithm gives me videos about how diet culture has made us think badly about food.” This, she says, has helped her to build a more “positive relationship” with food and eating.

For Gamble, there is also a political response. “If you think body positivity is over-commercialised and embarrassing, then make it more radical and unpalatable,” she says, pointing particularly to the “rich history of fat liberation politics and movements”.

That said, the cult of thinness is protected by some very impenetrable walls – especially within the fashion industry.  “It’s worth noting that thinness is often equated with aspirational wealth and status,” says Tindle. “The fashion industry is a business; it wants to sell things to wealthy people.”

Gamble agrees: “It’s so deeply ingrained, and there’s so much of fashion that is laced with classism and misogyny and desire that keeps upper-class, skinny white people at the top. To allow that to break would be to allow them to reduce their power.”

Consumers, however, have power too, and as millennials age, they are also beginning to assume positions of influence in industries – like fashion – that impact mainstream culture. And as the people who lived through the skinniness-next-to-godliness culture of the 2000s – the Adios tablets, the endless images of washboard abs, the immiserating fad diets – we can simply refuse to accept it, and seek out alternatives, whether that means manipulating our social media algorithms, or putting our money where our mouths are.  

Gamble sketches out this possible future best: “The only way we’re really going to see it is if we start propelling the publications, models and designers that have operated from a place of inclusion of body types from day one,” she says. “You can’t build a new house on rotten foundations.”