"Heroin Chic": How Racism Created the Thin Ideal
Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Is it just me or are waistlines on women's jeans getting really low these days? I also saw a lot more bucket hats around this summer and those velour tracksuits, they're back too. 2022 fashion is really feeling kind of Y2K. It's not just clothing trends. Recent headline declared, "Bye-bye booty, heroin chic is back." Excuse me, heroin chic.
Sabrina Strings: It refers quite simply to the thin ideal. My name is Sabrina Strings. I am a chancellor's fellow and associate professor of sociology at the University of California Irvine.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I sat down with Professor Strings to find out what's behind this sudden declaration that ultra-thin is back in.
Sabrina Strings: This term heroin chic was popular in the 1990s because it was a time period in which the ultra-skinny ideal was making it's so-called return after the 1960s, where we had Twiggy and then there was a brief moment of slightly more voluptuous women in the '70s and '80s, but the '90s was the firm stamp of going back to being so thin it could look like you were addicted to heroin.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For real? Who gets to say what's in and what's out? What do we mean when we say something is in or out of fashion as a body type?
Sabrina Strings: Largely, what people are doing is looking at trends that might be cropping up for a limited amount of time in which women can be slightly thicker. You can have a little bit more weight on your thighs, a little bit more weight in the backside, the chest, but you dare not carry weight in your waist. One of the main things to keep in mind about this trend is that thinness has never not been in fashion in the United States going back to its founding. When people talk about, "Oh, curvaceousness is in," they're not in any way capable of suggesting that thin has ever been out because it is not.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Two decades ago, some researchers were suggesting that ideals of thinness only had a negative effect on white adolescents because young Latinas and Black girls felt less pressure to conform to social norms about body size, but your work really questions that, right?
Sabrina Strings: This is absolutely right. When we look at the history of the thin ideal, it began in Western Europe as a way of adjudicating who should be a top or racial hierarchy, one that they themselves had just constructed. You might not be surprised to realize that as they were trying to identify, "Who has the right to command control over the entire globe and colonization? We think it should be Europeans."
How do we know that Europeans should have the right to control others? Well, their argument was, "Well, we have the most control over ourselves. We have control over our sensuous appetites. We don't overeat and we don't have too much sex. That's why," this is their argument, that they believe that they had fewer venereal diseases and it's also why they were more thin. This is how thinness became part and parcel of what it meant to be a white person just at the time in which whiteness was being articulated in the Western world.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Wait, wait, wait. You got to pause for a second. First of all, that was deep, but also, I'm realizing that what you're talking about here, when you're talking about an era of imperial expansion, are you telling me heroin chic was in in the 18th century?
Sabrina Strings: That's exactly what I'm saying. Obviously, they wouldn't have called it heroin chic the way that we call it today, but of course, when we're even looking back at the 1950s, what we consider thick, Marilyn Monroe would've been considered thick. She wouldn't have called herself that. It's like we have new terms to describe an old phenomenon, and absolutely the thin ideal started in the 18th century.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When we come back, Professor Strings is going to take us all the way back to the 18th century. It's The Takeaway. [silence] It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and I'm still with Professor Sabrina Strings, who's talking with us about the ultra-thin beauty standards in contemporary fashion and media. These ideals may be on trend, but they have a long history.
Sabrina Strings: At the dawn of the slave trade, actually, when a lot of the colonists, this was around about the 15th century, were heading to various parts of Africa, they were actually very impressed with African women's figures. They were so excited because this was a time in which voluptuousness was also in in Western Europe. Over time, as they were trying to provide new and different rationales for slavery, they started to build up the qualities and characteristics that they claimed were associated with whiteness. Part of what they were arguing is that, "White people, we have an inherent sense of rationality and self-control that people of color lack, especially those folks in Africa."
They took a body type that they once valorized and then they claimed, "This is evidence of inferiority," because when a person is voluptuous, we think that they are overeating. Now, we today, of course, know that your body size and how much you eat and how much you exercise, there's no direct link between those things. A person like Lizzo, who is vegan and works her ass off for her shows could still be a fat person.
Obviously, she's also still a beautiful person, but she's never going to be thin, and that's completely fine. The point is there is this misconception that is rooted actually in colonial politics that suggests that if you are a thin person, it's because you have discipline and self-control. If you are fat, you are out of control. The argument was that Black people are more likely to be fat and therefore undisciplined.
There's one person, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and she made that exact claim. She was an English aristocrat in the 18th century and she wrote a book that became popular in the US in the 19th century, in which she talked about the importance of upholding a particular racial bodily standard. She was extremely [unintelligible 00:06:31]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is there any connection between this ultra-thin model ideal of a body reemerging at the same time that the capacity to control our bodies through access to abortion has fallen?
Sabrina Strings: I think that that's absolutely the case. When we think about women having bodily autonomy, we often think about questions of reproductive justice and we often assume that we're moving in one direction to women having more and more bodily autonomy. That's not at all the case, just like it's not the case with concerns of fat liberation.
Throughout American history, what we've seen is that white men overwhelmingly have been working to identify what kind of woman they want to be able to see out in the world. Part of the argument, especially in the early parts of the 20th century in this country was that we want to make sure that the white women that we are looking at are the kinds of white women that we want to see.
We want to encourage white women in particular to have the right type of body for their racial identity, not for nothing, there were plenty of white women who were all too happy to oblige because they too wanted to prove their racial superiority. There's a clear connection between white men being in positions of power and authority telling women, "Hey, we want you to look a particular way, and also, we want your bodies to serve as a particular instrument for our own reproduction," such that women are constantly having to try to mold themselves in order to fit the demands of a cis white heteropatriarchy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering if trans women help us to push back against these narratives of how a body is meant to look when it is a woman's body or if there is so much social, as many trans women talk about, pressure to pass, to be clear based on, oftentimes, safety, right?
Sabrina Strings: Oh, yes. You can hear people like Janet Mock talking eloquently about her experience because on the one hand, she is considered beautiful in the mainstream. I think that very few people would contest her beauty, but this is also her entree into the mass society, because in reality, even as beautiful as she is, she constantly gets questions about her genitalia. These questions are intended to interrogate whether or not she is a real woman. There is this expectation that women's bodies conform to a very narrow ideal of what it means to be a woman, and not for nothing, even cis-Black women fall outside of that routinely.
There have been a number of scholars, and I'm thinking about C. Riley Snorton, for example, who have articulated all of the ways in which Black women's bodies are treated as flesh. Our bodies are treated as vailable, as not worthy of reproduction, even as white women are told they must be reproducing. There are all of these ways in which our femininity is removed by the fact that we are not white.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How do we push back? Both individually and collectively, how do you engage in going to the store or buy something fashionable or rearing a daughter, cis or trans daughter, in ways that affirm the realities of one's body?
Sabrina Strings: I'm so glad that you brought up families, because frequently, families are the first place in which we are learning problematic and toxic orientations to our own bodies. I know, and I've listened to so many people like Lindy West talk about this type of issue, which is that frequently in many families, especially in white families, mothers are trying to encourage their daughters to lose weight.
In Jeanette McCarty's recent autobiography that has just been everywhere, one of the things that she reveals is that her mother was anorexic and her mother was so proud when she saw her also developing her anorexia. If we as women can reject the notion that we should be inculcating our daughters with the very same toxic messages that we received as youth, we will be going in a great direction to undoing a lot of this harm because women are, unfortunately, quite frequently perpetuating this harm against other women.
There's another place where I think we need to truly address the harm of fat phobia, and that is within the medical industry. I do a lot of work surrounding the non-reality of body mass index or BMI, and I think we need a lot more people to address the medical field in the toxic way in which they reproduce bad stigma.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's talk a little bit about BMI since you've taken us there. What in the world do you mean that it's not real?
Sabrina Strings: Body mass index started out as something called the Quetelet Index. It was developed in the 19th century by a Belgian statistician. He was not in any way interested in trying to identify the relationship between fat and health. Instead, he just wanted to have a general way of understanding the distribution of weight across the population.
Fast forward to the 1970s in the United States, and one prominent physician, a white man by the man of Ancel Keys, said to himself, "We need a way of figuring out the relationship between fat and health. Let's use body mass index," which is what he was calling it now, but it was the Quetelet Index. He is like, "Okay, this is actually an arbitrary way of measuring the relationship between fat and health, but it's no less arbitrary than the existing industry standard weight tables we've got. We would be the ones having control over the body of mass index biomarkers."
Over time, they were just creating different random categories for what constituted underweight, normal weight, overweight, and obese. We can see over the course of the 1970s through the 1990s, this attempt to identify, again, with very limited science, what constituted a healthy weight. What can explain the fact that they have seen assaults on the very concept of BMI for 15 years at least from places like Nate Silver's blog FiveThirtyEight, from places like NPR, from scholars such as myself and a plethora of other journalists who have pointed out that it cannot differentiate between muscle and fats?
It does not take into consideration bone density, genetics, culture, tradition, none of that. All that it tells you is some phony number that we have to interpret as human beings. We have done that in ways that reify colonial science. BMI is an extraordinarily harmful measure. One other really important thing that people don't often talk about but that absolutely needs to be stated is that there is no such thing as an obesity epidemic if BMI does not exist.
Melissa Harris-Perry: See, I keep thinking the interview's over, but you're going to have to walk me through that one.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Come on. If I watch even 10 minutes of evening news, they're going to tell me how unhealthy Americans are and tell me that there's an obesity epidemic. What do you mean there's not an obesity epidemic?
Sabrina Strings: Obesity is defined as a body mass index of 30 or greater. As we've already discussed, BMI is a completely phony measure of the relationship between weight and health. Without BMI, they have no mechanism of claiming that two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, and one-third are technically, according to them, obese. How would they be able to make these claims without this faulty measure that acts as a drag net for all human beings telling them exactly what they must weigh to be healthy? No, there is no way that they could make the claim that there is a so-called epidemic without relying on a faulty tool rooted in colorblind racism.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sabrina Strings is the chancellor's fellow and associate professor of sociology at the University of California Irvine. She's also author of Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. Professor Strings, thank you for joining us.
Sabrina Strings: It's been my pleasure.
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