Models on a catwalk
Is the fashion industry really in its new, body-positive era? Or has the conversation shifted back to skinniness? - Image credits: Unsplash

After a short period of positive progression within the fashion and modelling industries, we have swiftly returned to the skinny idolisation and ubiquitous diet culture of the 1990s and early 2000s. This was the era of fad diets, baby tees, Paris Hilton and Kate Moss, low-rise jeans, “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”, and the ‘heroin chic’ aesthetic.

While fashion’s obsession with skinny never truly disappeared, it is shocking to see aspirational images of excessive thinness resurface in popular media. The current situation is fuelled partly by the re-emergence of Y2K, the ultra-mini Miu Miu skirt, and Kim Kardashian’s appearance at the 2022 Met Gala.

This pervasive focus on thinness and diet culture had numerous negative consequences, especially for young women. Many people developed eating disorders as they tried to achieve the thin body ideal, while others experienced low self-esteem and body dissatisfaction. The fashion industry was particularly complicit in promoting this idealised body type as designers created clothes that only fit skinny models. 

Zahra Qadri, model and influencer, recalls the effect the ultrathin trend had on her in the 2000s: “I was a chubby kid, so I had a lot of issues with my body growing up because of 2000s fashion and the general idea around the concept of being slim. I thought most things didn’t fit me well enough, as most clothing was designed with smaller bodies in mind, quite different from my South Asian body type.” She said, “Most adverts back in the day featured models that all looked the same; fair, blonde, slim, blue eyes – being a woman of colour who is not petite at all, the fashion industry did not have the best impact on me.”

During the most recent fashion month, it was evident that designers had abandoned their pledges to feature more plus-size models, instead showcasing only one token curvy model or none at all. Plus-size models were noticeably absent from the runways in New York, London, Milan, and Paris. This comes at a time when over-the-counter injectables such as Ozempic have been extensively publicised as Hollywood’s best-kept weight-loss secret.

For all the progress made regarding inclusivity in high fashion, with models like Ashley Graham and Jill Kortleve gracing magazine covers and catwalks, there are signs that things may be relapsing. At Paris fashion week, Bella Hadid flaunted her tiny form on the runway as a Coperni dress was spray-painted over her body. Days later, waifish girls marched down the runway at the Miu Miu spring 2023 show in Milan, some wearing the “micro-mini” skirt for which the brand has recently gained notoriety, while nepo-babies like Kaia Gerber and Lila Moss increasingly echoed the 90s with both their model mothers and incredibly slim forms. Meanwhile, Kim Kardashian, famously known for her curvy figure, bragged about dropping 16kg two weeks before the met gala to fit into Marilyn Monroe’s iconic dress that she wore to President JFK’s birthday.

A size inclusivity report conducted by Vogue Business found that 95.6% of all looks presented for Fall-Winter 2023 were in size US 0-4. Similarly, according to InStyle’s survey of the size ranges of every brand on last season’s global Fashion Week schedule, of the 327 industry-approved designers on the calendar, only 9% offer clothing in a size 20 or above. Fendi, Michael Kors, and Louis Vuitton were among the many high-profile designer labels that stopped using plus-size models and reverted to casting ‘sample-size’ or slim figures.

On social media, the hashtag #thinspo has been banned on Instagram and TikTok and now refers users to resources for mental health and eating disorders. However, similar hashtags like #fitspo, #whatieatinaday, and #bodychec are still making the rounds. A recent study indicated that TikTok encourages a “toxic” diet culture and “glorifies” severe weight loss. In addition, it shows that eating disorders, particularly among adolescent females, surged during the pandemic.

Yamini Ulaganathan on the ramp for Chicago Fashion Bar week
“If being plus-sized is acceptable, why is being skinny questioned?”- Yamini Ulaganathan. Picture credits: Tammy Yang

Chicago-based model Yamini Ulaganathan, in contrast, gave her take on this conversation from a skinny girl’s perspective. Expressing her struggles in the fashion industry and how people discredit her for her slender frame, she said: “People go the other extreme and shame runway models for being skinny and call them anorexic. Nobody ever talks about that. People assume we get it easy, but the reality is that models work very hard and spend hours working out to stay in shape. She adds, “If being plus-sized is acceptable, why is being skinny questioned?”

Body image trends find their way into our lives through various channels, including social media, advertising, and pop culture. We frequently lose sight of the fact that our reality is diverse and can only sometimes seem the way we perceive it. Models of all sizes should be represented equally. Shaming a company for using slender models on the runway may seem like a fight for a greater cause, but does that mean skinny models should no longer be accepted?

Ultimately, no one deserves to be shamed because of their body type, whether it’s one that’s idealised by society or not. Body shaming is unacceptable in any form, and pitting different body types against each other won’t help end it. Instead, we need to eliminate the oppression of bodies, regardless of their appearance, to put an end to body shaming.