Toxic expectations of thinness plagued the early 2000s. So, given that Gen Z champions inclusivity, why is the Y2K aesthetic trending?
In the early 2000s, I dreamed of being thin. I browsed through issues of CosmoGirl and J-14, longing for a flat stomach like the pop stars they played so often. I didn’t look like them; in fact, I’d never be anything like them: I was a bullied fat kid who wore football shorts and Gap hoodies to school, while the popular girls rocked platform slippers and jeweled tank tops. But it was more than closet jealousy. I studied LiveJournal blogs that taught girls like me how to be slim. I’ve been on a diet. I hid my body and blamed it for keeping me from the life I wanted. I thought thinness was my ticket to being liked, accepted and wanted by the world around me.
Since then, I’ve come to appreciate and even love my body as it is, thanks to body-positive influencers, healthy relationships, and lots of therapy. So when I saw miniskirts, low jeans and tube tops strolling the fall 2022 runways at Miu Miu, Versace and Diesel, my brain shorted out. Desperate to pretend this was a bad dream, I took to social media to dig in style. A quick search for “Y2K” on TikTok turned up videos – mostly featuring ultra-thin white women – with more than seven billion views. It was all over Pinterest, too: Searches in Canada for “Y2K-inspired outfit” and “early 2000s style” were up 20 and 23 times the number, respectively, since last year. I thought back to that teenage girl who hated herself and wondered, “Didn’t we all learn our lesson the first time?”
“Nothing tastes as good as feeling lean”
The Y2K aesthetic of the 2000s was one of complete abandon – an embrace of the future with a touch of retro past. Suggestive Juicy Couture sweatsuits, extremely low denim and barely there bandana tops were scattered throughout every issue of Fashion. You only have to watch the red carpet queens of the 2002 MTV VMAs to get a picture: Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.
Back then, these trends were a colorful, fun, and garish response to the more conservative style of the last millennium, riding on the coat of ’90s heroin chic, an aesthetic that introduced us to Kate Moss and the “waif” body type. . And while that decade at least favored wider designs, in the 2000s the silhouette got alarmingly slimmer. It was less about fashion and more about celebrating thin bodies. In fact, the body used to be the fashion.
“Y2K style is largely based on thinness,” says Gianluca Russo, columnist and author of The Power of Plus: Inside Fashion’s Size-Inclusivity Revolution. “But it went beyond clothing. Models’ bodies inevitably became an asset in nailing Y2K style. The message was clear: this is not for plus-sized bodies.” In a 2009 interview about her role in the fashion world, Moss acknowledged her dedication to the look with the statement, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”
And many apparently agreed with her. In the United States alone, hospitalizations for eating disorders increased 21 percent among women of all age groups between 1999 and 2009. And many of these people are still suffering today, as editor Lucy Huber noted in a tweet last year: “If Gen Z wonders why every millennial woman has an eating disorder, it’s because back in the 2000s it was normal to have an eating disorder. one teenage girl was, ‘If you think you’re hungry, you’re actually thirsty, so just drink water and you’ll be fine.’”
But after a toxic 10-year spell, when women like me were taught that our self-esteem depends on our dress size, the tide started to slowly turn.
Is Gen Z to blame?
Born out of the Fat Rights Movement of the late 1960s, the body positivity movement emerged in small parts of the internet in the early 2000s, but became mainstream with the advent of Instagram in 2010. Fat people began to be visible through hashtags like #OOTD (outfit of the day), #effyourbeautystandards and #honoryourcurves. And then Sonya Renee Taylor’s spoken word video of her multi-hyphenated poem “The Body Is Not an Apology” went viral, sparking an international movement and a groundbreaking book, both of the same name.
The movement also made its way to TikTok, with the hashtag #bodypositive garnering 6.1 billion views and others like #plussizefashion full of curvy people trying on clothes. When I log into the platform, my algorithm feeds me all these videos. But it’s mostly only millennials I see creating this content, while Gen Z—the generation known for its fight for diversity, LGBTQIA2S+ rights, and ethical consumerism—plays with the Y2K aesthetic. Is body positivity somehow skipping a generation? And if so, why?
Well, according to Russo, there are a number of things to keep in mind, including the fashion cycle: We’ve come into the 2000s, of course, because it’s the decade that comes after the ’80s and ’90s, which have been trending for the past few years. years. We should also remember that low-waisted jeans are new to Gen-Zers; they were either not born yet or too young to enjoy the trend the first time.
And for many, Russo adds, it’s about nostalgia — which was especially prevalent during the pandemic, a dark and hard time that made the boldness and clarity of the Y2K aesthetic appealing. During the same dark time, many of us were dealing with weight gain, something that is completely normal, but has nevertheless affected our ability to access mainstream fashion.
It’s not necessarily that Gen Z doesn’t care about size inclusivity. After all, the medium-sized movement — which promotes representation for people wearing sizes 10 to 16 — was born on TikTok. Simply put, other factors just take precedence, and that’s a problem.
Self-esteem in a digital age
“If you don’t see people who look like you wearing these fashions, then there seems to be an implicit message that maybe you shouldn’t wear them,” says registered psychologist Kristin M. von Ranson. “It’s hard for young people to learn to see things with a critical eye when the food culture and the thin ideal pervades everything.” Von Ranson has helped with the Dove Self-Esteem Project to shed light on the issues Gen-Zers face when it comes to body image and social media. A recent survey found that more than half of girls surveyed say idealized beauty content on social media makes them feel worse about themselves. Eating disorders are also on the rise again, with the number of anorexia diagnoses in Canadian patients ages nine to 18 growing 60 percent over pre-pandemic numbers. Similar numbers were seen in the United States.
Big brands aren’t helping either, with many partaking in curve-washing — a marketing tactic that uses different sizes to sell products on social media without actually providing their consumers with adequate sizing options, making it seem like size inclusiveness has moved beyond it actually has.
Where do we go from here?
Gen-Zers are new to the conversation about size and inclusivity and in the early stages of developing their own body image. “It’s still young adults and teens navigating through various harmful messages around body image,” Russo says. “We can’t expect them to fight until they really understand what the fight is about.” This may be true, but Gen-Zers have the upper hand when it comes to spreading the word. They dictate what goes viral, and that’s the tool that will do most of the work.
The vibe is changing, though, and Gen-Zers (with the help of their older millennials) are proving that it’s possible to take the fun parts of the Y2K aesthetic and leave the bad behind. Plus-size fashion influencers like Tiaynna McClyde, Jessica Torres, Karina Gomez, and Jessica Blair are retaking and ushering in a new and comprehensive take on the 2000s aesthetic.
It’s still hard for me to fathom this updated version of a time so fraught with an obsession with being thin and when desired, cool and dignified meant building a case against the body I was given – especially when body norms that haven’t changed much except the speed at which they shift. But maybe this trend, which is rearing its head again in a time of acceptance of more body size, will give people like me a chance to rethink it. I won’t be buying a Miu Miu micro-mini anytime soon, but baggy low-rise jeans? Maybe I’ll get behind that, if only to make the younger version of myself feel seen.
This article first appeared in MODEs October issue. Read more here.