Is Heroin Chic Back?
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Ah, the ‘90s, a decade filled with iconic pop-culture: grunge, the early Internet, “Friends,” and, of course, fashion. The era’s strappy heels and slip dresses have made a comeback in recent years, but to praise these bygone trends is to ignore the massive elephant in the room: heroin chic. While the ‘90s were a time of memorable style, styling heroin chic encompassed more than just an outfit—it included the body of the person wearing it.
The body in question was comprised of pale skin, dark, hollow cheeks and eyes, and a skinny physique, features resembling those of a heroin addict. The look was first associated with early ‘80s supermodel Gia Carangi, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1986 after spending the last six years of her life struggling with heroin addiction. Carangi’s drug use in combination with her natural features resulted in her signature tomboyish face and thin figure, which were soon idolized.
With the spread of the grunge movement in the early ‘90s, heroin addiction was brought into the spotlight. Musicians like Kurt Cobain of Nirvana and Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, both of whom struggled with heroin addictions, were leaders of the grunge movement, but with their fame came a cultural awareness of heroin’s prevalence in the Seattle scene. The popularity of grunge music and fashion revived the Gia Carangi look, making heroin chic en vogue once again. At the forefront of this revival were models Jaime King and Kate Moss. When Moss was featured in a 1993 ad-campaign for Calvin Klein, the shadowy, black-and-white ads highlighted Moss’s hollow, thin features, boosting heroin chic’s appeal and promoting being ultra-thin and pale.
Eventually, heroin chic fell out of fashion following photographer Davide Sorrenti’s heroin overdose in 1997. Sorrenti’s death refuted any claims that heroin chic was nothing more than a style; instead, it was a prevalent and dangerous glamourization of addiction that caused real harm to people. Its dangers were criticized even by President Bill Clinton the same year. Consequently, the death of heroin chic ushered in the 2000s’ emphasis on a healthy, fit look. But, 20 and some odd years later since its demise, the world of fashion is seeing a resurgence of heroin chic following the revival of broader ‘90s and Y2K trends, and its allure is leaking into the fashion and physique ideals of today’s youth. In the past few years, low-rise jeans and micro mini skirts have made their way back into mainstream fashion, evoking an era that idolized a certain build. Model Bella Hadid, whose hollow cheekbones and slim figure are at the core of her appeal, has become the new it-girl. Kim and Khloé Kardashian, famous for their curves, recently flaunted their weight loss, which was significant enough to spark online speculation that they may have had previous plastic surgery implants removed.
Not only is the revival of a dangerous “thin” ideal shocking in and of itself, but its following of the 2010s’ emphasis on inclusivity and body positivity also compounds the strangeness of this resurgence. And, as much as that inclusive fervor remains, the fashion world and certain enclaves of the internet have fully adopted a “thin is in” attitude, actively promoting ultra-thin physiques and even eating disorders. Studies conducted by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and The International Journal of Eating Disorders show that eating disorders are on the rise and that the severity of existing eating disorders has worsened during the pandemic.
Though pro-eating disorder communities existed on the internet throughout the 2000s and 2010s, the advent of Tik Tok has rapidly increased the dissemination of harmful body-checking videos—TikToks with the sole purpose of showing off the creator’s figure—due to its algorithm. While a video may not explicitly impose a beauty standard on its viewers, comments praising the video can subconsciously influence viewers to internalize the notion of an ideal body. In mainstream media, outright promotion of these ideals is uncommon, rarely mentioning heroin chic by name or explicitly encouraging eating disorders, but we are still vulnerable to the implicit idealization of heroin chic because of our perpetual issues with body image as a society.
While the recent resurgence of heroin chic does represent a cultural shift, “thin is in” was never really “out.” The early 2000s healthy look developed as a reaction to the dangers of heroin chic, but this turn-of-the-century health meant skinniness too. Paris Hilton was tan and donned light eyeshadow, but she was also extremely thin. The 2010s’ emphasis on curves did not abandon the thin ideal either—“slim thick” includes “slim” for a reason—as women were expected to have curves, a flat stomach, and a small waist simultaneously. “Thin is in” never left; it only disguised itself, as attempts made to do away with it once and for all were met with criticism. Pop singer Lizzo, who has been a consistent champion of body acceptance, comes to mind, as her Instagram and TikTok posts are consistently met with hate comments, as does actress Jameela Jamil, who has been outspoken about her struggle with an eating disorder and is constantly torn down and criticized for her advocacy.
So, maybe we cannot blame anyone or anything for a heroin chic revival; maybe it is just a more extreme version of a preexisting ideal body. Regardless, heroin chic is dangerous in both its glamorization of addiction and its promotion of diet-culture and eating disorders. A revival of heroin chic within the celebrity and fashion worlds is not only reminiscent of a time in which the people within those worlds struggled with this ideal and with drug addiction, but also of a time in which those ideals made their way into the mainstream, with young women seeking to emulate their fashion inspirations. Whether it falls under the name heroin chic or healthy, the body standards that we impose on women, especially young women, are harmful no matter their era, and the resurgence of these ideals in the mainstream needs to be viewed as the threat to our health that it is.