What Does The Revival of 90s Fashion Mean for 2020s Body Image?

In a Culture Gripped with 90s Nostalgia, Where Does the 90s ‘Ideal Body’ Fit In With Modern Beauty Standards and the Rise of Body Positivity?


CW: This article discusses topics of body image and eating disorders which could be distressing to some readers.


90s Fashion is Making a Return


The 2020s are seeing a return to 90s fashion trends, from crop tops and spaghetti straps to miniskirts and slip dresses.


For many, this is fueled by nostalgia, but for those of us too young to remember the 90s, the attraction to this style comes from an imagined fantasy of the time, created by music, television, and photographs of the era. Media plays a big role in this trend, from modern shows like Euphoria celebrating the style and culture of the 90s, to the continued popularity of 90s classics like Friends and Clueless inspiring modern takes on the styles worn by their characters.


Additionally, the denouncing of fast fashion and disposable culture has led to a rise in thrifting. Vintage items are being worn on red carpets, and Love Island moved away from fast fashion to promote sustainability in 2022. The rise of vintage speaks to the desire for individuality, with unique pieces replacing the mass produced fast fashion items.


As well as the iconic fashion, the 90s also have a more harmful legacy: ‘heroin chic’. This trend wasn’t about drugs, but about glamourising the aesthetic of drug addiction. Extremely thin bodies, sunken eyes with dark circles, and pale skin were the beauty standard not only for models, but for all women.

This trend was harmful for body image, particularly that of young girls, with articles that influenced teenage girls to develop bulimia in attempts to get the waif-like bodies presented as the standard of beauty.


Because of this trend, images featuring 90s fashion often depict the clothes on size zero supermodels, meaning the style and the ideal body are undeniably connected. When the aspirational images of beautiful, ‘in’ clothes all feature stick-thin, androgynous models, it sets an expectation of the types of bodies that can wear them.


The 2020s 'Ideal Body'


Backlash against the 90s ideal body and the harm its influence did to women saw a shift in culture, and heroin chic was soon out of fashion.


However, this doesn’t mean that the notion of an ‘ideal body’ no longer exists. Now, instead of thinness, the beauty standard is curves - a big bum, big boobs, but still a slim waist. This body has been influenced by celebrities like the Kardashians, who are strongly associated with their figures.


While this beauty standard seems more attainable than the ideal body of the 90s, it’s not necessarily the case. There’s still the expectation of the thin ‘snatched’ waist, while at the same time promoting ‘thick’ bodies. It isn’t as obvious that this new ideal body is unattainable, since we don’t look at hourglass figures as unhealthy in the same way we view the 1990s supermodel body as unhealthy.


Much like the 90s size zero ideal, this new ‘thick’ ideal body is also unattainable for many of us. While many celebrities have been open about the procedures they’ve had, others insist that their bodies are natural. Whether or not this is the case, celebrities have access to personal trainers, makeup artists, and in some cases, plastic surgeons; resources that many of us don’t have.


90s Fashion and 2020s Body Positivity


In more recent years, body positive movements have rejected the idea of size zero models, advocating for accurate representation of the bodies of fashion consumers. There is a desire to see diversity in the bodies walking the runway. In fact, many of the early champions of body positivity were inspired by their own experience of negative body image during the 90s ‘heroin chic’ trend. The body positive movement promotes loving your current body, rather than trying to change it to fit societal expectations. While the body positive movement initially began by encouraging acceptance of bigger bodies, it’s important to remember the other side. Between the modern, curvy ideal body, and the denouncement of heroin chic, it’s easy to fall into the trap that thin = bad.


It isn’t the nature of the ideal body that’s harmful - there’s nothing wrong with being thin or being curvy. The problem lies in the concept of the ideal body. Much like fashion trends, the so-called ‘ideal body’ is always changing and evolving. What was once desired becomes frowned upon and a new ideal body comes into favour. Ultimately, the ideal body is just that - an ideal. It doesn’t reflect the average body, and it also shouldn’t be seen as a standard. In fact, it’s often an unattainable target, whether it requires extreme diets, cosmetic procedures, or hours in the gym.


In a culture where fashion trends are experiencing increasingly shorter life cycles, the desired body type to fit these trends also changes rapidly. A return to 90s fashion increases the depiction of the 90s ideal body, but the body positive movement reminds us that we don’t have to fit into the impossible beauty standards.