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The Millennial Vernacular of Fatphobia

The vernacular of deprivation, control, and aspirational containment that pervaded the pop culture of the ‘90s and 2000s.

Culture Study

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Twenty eight years ago, I was sitting on the dusty rose carpeting of my childhood bedroom, staring at the cover of the latest issue Seventeen. This particular issue isn’t available on eBay, and only certain articles from inside have been digitized, so I can’t tell you the exact wording of the Editor’s Note, but others have a similar memory of its contents: look at this non-model on the cover, which I interpreted as look at this non-ideal body on the cover.

If this body was non-ideal, I remember thinking, then what was mine? I had just turned twelve years old, and was about to finish sixth grade. I was starting junior high in the Fall. Somehow both bodysuits and massive, baggy flannels were popular. My body, like a lot of other girls at that age, was beginning to rearrange itself. I felt so alienated from it, so unmoored from any sort of solid sense of self.

a Seventeen Magazine cover from the 90s

Three months later, I read the Letters to the Editor (which, miraculously, have been digitized), which framed the cover model “as a body you can relate to.” The first letter, written from a dorm at Wheaton College, expressed “relief”; the second thanked Seventeen for putting someone “who forgets to do their step aerobics from time to time,” and the third argued that if you’re going to put someone in a bikini on the cover, “she ought to have a better figure.”

Again, the message I received — and why the original cover and the letters to the editor remain fixed in my brain — was that this body was somehow “normal” (and thus desirable/obtainable) but also undesirable (insufficiently controlled, not for public display, un-ideal).

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Reading these letters now, it’s striking that they were all authored by groups of girls and/or women — suggesting that they came together, talked about the cover, came to a consensus, and decided to submit their feedback. But it’s also striking that Seventeen chose these three letters as the ones, out of hundreds, maybe even thousands, to highlight. They represent the two postures that pervaded the pop culture of the ‘90s and 2000s: you should let go of old fashioned ideas of beauty and femininity, embracing your own understanding of what liberation and power looks like….while also conforming to new, often equally constrictive standards of girl and womanhood.

Of course, these two postures are in direct opposition. But most ideologies are contradictory in some way — and dependent on pop culture, from the Seventeen letter section to actual celebrity images, to reconcile the contradictions and prop up the ideology as a whole. In the ‘90s, feminist theorists immediately called bullshit on this practice, which they referred to as a “postfeminism” (I cannot tell you how many pieces of feminist scholarship from the early ‘90s I have read on the postfeminist quagmire that is Pretty Woman) but that didn’t stop it from becoming the backdrop of Gen-X’s early adulthood and millennials’ childhoods.

In “The Making and Unmaking of Body Problems in Seventeen Magazine, 1992-2003,” design scholars Leslie Winfield Ballentine and Jennifer Paff Ogle point to the ways in which teen magazines work as illustrating texts — filling in the “contours and colors” — for readers trying to figure to what it means to be a young woman. At the time of their research, Seventeen was “reaching” a whopping 87% of American girls between the ages of 12 and 19.

“Reaching” is different than “reading” or “agreeing with,” but what the magazine communicated, in concert with similarly voiced texts, like YM and Teen, mattered. (At least to white teens: Lisa Duke’s illuminating work found that while white adolescent readers viewed the magazines as sites of “reality,” Black readers primarily used the magazines as opportunities for critique).

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In their analysis, Ballentine and Ogle delineated two types of body-related articles. The clear majority were concerned with the “making” of body problems, but they were often accompanied by articles “unmaking” those same problems. In other words: there was an abundance of articles introducing something that the reader should be worried about (cellulite, wrinkles, blemishes, acne, “flabby” areas, stretch marks, “unwanted” hair, body odor) and how to address it in order to achieve the “ideal” body….but also, often in the same issue, there were articles instructing the reader to let go of others’ ideas about what beauty or perfection might look like. (See the cover of that June 1993 Seventeen: “You are so beautiful / Celebrate your heritage, celebrate yourself)

As any past or present reader of these magazines knows, the framing of imperfections and their reparation is rarely as simple as “your legs are hideous, here’s how to make them not hideous.” It’s more like this passage, from 1993:

“Get killer legs with the following exercises that stretch and elongate your leg muscles. Do them with smooth, fluid motions; tight, jerky moves will give you bulkiness you probably don’t want.”

Or this 1998 advice column response to a reader to “work [her] butt off” after voicing concern about its size:

“Lively cardiovascular activities (running with a friend, jumping rope while listening to music, or going in-line skating) for 30 minutes three times a week combined with targeted butt exercises . . . and you’ll definitely see quick results”

Or this 1996 confessional from a high school student after returning from “fat camp” having lost 30 pounds:

“I finally managed to flirt — and have guys flirt back. My confidence grows every day, and now, a couple of years later, the hot girl I knew I was (but nobody else could see) is more and more evident.”

As in so many other instructional texts, the body becomes a project in need of constant maintenance in order to achieve its ideal, attractive form, which is slender (but not too skinny), petite, toned but not muscular. Over the course of the ‘90s, that (woman’s) ideal was gradually refined until reaching peak form in the video for “I’m a Slave 4 U.”

There is no accounting for genetics, for race, for abilities, for access to time and capital, for even the existence of actual diverse body shapes. The ideal shifts slightly from decade to decade, but it never disappears; if anything, the sheer number of products and programs available to help it arrive in its ideal state proliferate. And if you can’t arrive at the ideal body, it’s not because your existing physical form cannot achieve it. It’s an implicit or explicit failure of will.

I have the skills to disassemble and analyze these images now, but at the time, I was just trying to drink from the cultural firehose of MTV and Seventeen and My So-Called Life. I didn’t have the internet. Sassy wasn’t on my radar, neither was Riot Grrl. There was no Tumblr, no Rookie. I had a Top 40 station and a mom with feminist inclinations but not a lot of feminist language. I had a fairly conservative youth group and because I wasn’t good at basketball or volleyball, the only other organized activity available to me was cheerleading.

As for alternative visions of femininity, I had Lois Lowry books and Go Ask Alice. I had the Delia*s catalog and the Victoria’s Secret catalog and “The Cube” at the local Bon Marché. I was middle class, my home situation was never precarious, and I was largely unchallenged in school — which is another way of saying that I had a lot of mental energy to dedicate to thinking about the ways I failed to fit in to the narrow understanding of what a teen girl should be and look and act like in Lewiston, Idaho in the 1990s.

Which also means I was incredibly susceptible to the understanding of what the ideal should be, and eager for any and all advice on how to achieve it.

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I like to think of phrases like the one above — along with images like the Seventeen cover above — as a vernacular of deprivation, control, and aspirational containment. It’s the language we used to discipline our own bodies and others, and then normalize and standardize that discipline. For Younger Gen-X and Millennials, it includes, but is by no means limited, to:

  • Britney’s stomach and the discourse around it (1000 crunches a day)

  • The ubiquitous mentions of the Sweet Valley Twins’ size (6)

  • TLC in silk pajamas for the “Creep” video

  • Jessica Simpson’s “fat” jeans

  • Celery as a “calorie negative food”

  • Janet Jackson’s abs in “That’s The Way Love Goes

  • The figuration of certain foods as non-fat and thus “safely” consumable (jelly beans, SnackWells, olestra chips)

  • “Heroin chic” but specifically Kate Moss saying that “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”

  • The reign of terror of low-slung jeans

  • The “going out top” whose platonic form was a handkerchief tied around your boobs

  • The phrases “muffin top” and “whale tale” and “thigh gap”

  • Ally McBeal, full stop

  • The Olson Twins, full stop

  • Kate Winslet as “chubby,” Brittany Murphy in Clueless as “fat,” Hilary Duff as “chubby,” one of the cheerleaders in Bring It On as fat, America Ferrera as “brave,” Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada as fat, Gisele as “curvy,” Alicia Silverstone as “Fatgirl”

  • Tyra Banks as “Thigh-Ra Banks”

  • The entire fucking discourse around Bridget Jones’ supposedly undesirable body

  • The Rachel Zoe aesthetic

  • The Abercrombie aesthetic

  • DJ Tanner eating ice “popsicles” on Full House

  • The “Fat Monica” plotline on Friends

  • The pervasive idea that bananas will make you gain weight

  • Reporting on stars’ diet secrets, including but not limited to soaking cotton balls in orange juice and swallowing them to make you “feel” hungry

  • “A shake for breakfast, a shake for lunch, and then a sensible dinner!” aka Slimfast, whose advertisements were everywhere

  • Maya Hornbacher’s Wasted as instructional text

  • Miranda pouring dish soap on the cake she put in the garbage on SATC

  • “Diverse body types” articles where “diversity” was a shorter girl with a size-C cup boobs

  • Messaging from our own mothers, grandmothers, and elders that stigmatized fat, normalized hunger and deprivation, and praised the skinniest (and often least healthy) versions of ourselves

  • Gwyneth Paltrow’s 1999 Oscar dress

  • The hegemony of the strapless J.Crew bridesmaid dress of the late ‘00s

  • The obsessive documentation and degradation of Britney’s pregnant and postpartum body

  • Valorization of the “cute” pregnancy / Pregnant Kim Kardashian as shamu

jessica simpson performing on a stage

If you were teaching a class on millennial fatphobia, this would be on the front page of the syllabus.  Photo by Logan Fazio / Getty Images

I’m starting to get into more recent territory here and could go on for some time, but I wanted to cover foundational, formative language. (Please, feel free to add your own memories in the comments). To be clear, I’m in no way suggesting that young Gen-X/millennials are the first to internalize this sort of destructive body messaging. And I know there are different ideals and messages that have disciplined and damaged men and their relationships to their bodies.

But instead of shouting “BUT TWIGGY!” and “My grandmother survived on saltines and cigarettes!” I think it’s useful to return to the formation of the tweet referenced above: “If any Gen Z are wondering why every millennial woman has an eating disorder…” The author is trying to elucidate a norm (the desire to discipline and contain your body) that, over the course the last twenty years, has become slightly less of a norm. Her tweet, like this post, is a way to explain ourselves, but also to make the mechanics of the ideology not just visible but detectable — if in slightly different form — in their own lives.

It’s one thing, after all, when you hear that your grandparents did something — that feels old-fashioned, foreign, and distant. It’s quite another when it’s the primary practice of people just five, ten, fifteen years ago — when the ideology is still thick in the air. Fat activism and the body positivity movement has done so much, and in a relatively short amount of time, to shift the conversations we have about our bodies. But there’s so much work still to be done. I spent a lot of time thinking about this exquisite Sarah Miller essay:

Suddenly, about a decade ago, when I started to notice that fat women were a) calling themselves fat, with pride, and b) walking down the streets of our nation’s great cities nonchalantly wearing tight or revealing clothing with a general air of, “yeah I will wear this and I will wear whatever I want, and I am hot, too, I will be hot forever, long after you have all died,” I thought to myself, Oh my God WHAT? The solution is not … the diet?

I started seeing fat, beautiful models and actresses in catalogs, and on television shows. I would like to have seen more, but I was pleased to see them at all. I was and remain in awe of their confident beauty. I feel tenderness for them as well, for what they endured, and still endure, to achieve it. I sometimes choke up with love for them, and for the idea of how I could have lived if I had allowed myself to just weigh what I weighed.

That last sentence is a sentence of mourning. There is deep and abiding sadness here, the sort that so much of us are processing (or, you know, refusing to process, and submitting to their continued quiet torture) everyday.

As someone still doing this work with myself every day, what I crave — and where Virginia Sole-Smith, Sabrina Strings, Aubrey Gordon, and Michael Hobbes are already leading the way — is something more akin to a deep excavation, a social genealogy and cultural archaeology, of these ideas: where they come from, how they gain salience and thrive, how they adapt and acquire new names (hello, intermittent fasting, I see you!)

Why, for instance, did Bridget Jones need a particular sort of body to make its narrative work? Why does it feel so revelatory and familiar and deeply sad to hear Taylor Swift talk about the gray area of disordered eating? What made it so easy to fall in love with the postfeminist dystopia? What ideas are passed down through our families, and how do we even begin to reject them?

We can’t unlearn noxious, fat-phobic ideas if we can’t even begin to remember where and how we learned and normalized them. We can’t stop the cycle of passing them down to future generations in slightly camouflaged form if we can’t even identify their presence in our own. And we can’t unravel these ideologies without acknowledging the deep, often unrecognized trauma they have inflicted.

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When millennial women shudder at the prospect of the return of the low-slung jean, we are not being old, or boring, or basic. It’s not about the fucking jeans AS JEANS, and I wish people could actually understand that. It was about the jeans on our bodies. We are attempting to reject a cultural moment that made so many of us feel undesirable, incomplete, and alienated from whatever fragile confidence we’d managed to accumulate. We are trying to avoid reinflicting that on ourselves, but more importantly, on the next generation.

The jeans will come back. They already have. I know this. Whatever the style of fashion that made you feel inadequate and unfixable, it will likely come back too. You might have the strength to refuse to allow it — and the ideal body it imagines, — to have power over you. Some young people are acquiring more of this strength every day, facilitated by TikTok and Billie Eilish and other forms of internet communication I probably don’t even know about. Many are learning a vocabulary of resistance and analysis that I simply didn’t have access to, at least not until late into college.

But twenty years from now, will Gen-Zers be excavating their own relationship to TikTok’s beauty norms and midriff fetishization, to Kendall and Kylie Jenner, to Peloton and pandemic-induced eating habits, to the faux empowerment of the “Build a B*tch” video and their moms’ and grandmothers’ fitness and “wellness” routines? I mean, yes, certainly. But we could also start having those conversations now. Because as Sarah Miller puts it, “I’m pretty sure we haven’t “arrived” anywhere. And why would we have? The material conditions of being a woman have not been altered in any dramatic way, and seem to be getting worse, for everyone.”

As I’ve said before in reference to my relationship to work and burnout, I am trying to and failing and getting slightly better and backsliding all the time. The same is true with my relationship to fatphobia. That doesn’t mean the work is bullshit. It also doesn’t mean I’m “succeeding” at it, or that I don’t periodically think, like Miller, that it’s too late for us.

It just means the work is hard — but that it does gets easier, however incrementally and imperceptibly, when you don’t feel like you’re doing it alone.

Follow Anne Helen Petersen on Twitter here, and Instagram here.

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This post originally appeared on Culture Study and was published May 19, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

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