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Illustration of six different women in various scenes and poses. Amanda Northrop/Vox

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The past, present, and future of body image in America

Millennials grew up hating their bodies. Does Gen Z have to be the same?

Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

For Isheyla Elena Ariza, the body-shaming started in middle school.

At her predominantly white school in California, “I was a part of a small minority group of Latinos, and a lot of us looked different,” Ariza told Vox. “We weren’t petite, you know, didn’t have blonde, straight hair.”

Ariza was bullied again and again over her curly hair, her skin tone, and her weight. “I’d get called ‘elephant,’” she said. One year, “there was a rumor that went around that I was pregnant, but I was just chunky.”

Soon Ariza started skipping meals and taking diet pills. Sometimes she’d go days without eating. “I was so focused on how heavy I was, and I wanted to change that because I wanted to be like other girls,” she said.

Ariza is 21 now, solidly part of Generation Z, a group that’s supposedly growing up in a better environment for body image than generations past. Today’s teenagers and 20-somethings can follow influencers and writers like Gabi Gregg and Aubrey Gordon who dismantle fatphobia and show what it’s like to be confident and joyful at a variety of sizes. Popular brands like American Eagle offer sizes 24 and beyond, advertised by models and activists like Saaneah Jamison. Once a radical movement, the term “body positivity” is now mainstream, espoused by celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Jameela Jamil. With a little curation, you can fill up your Instagram feed with messages of self-love and health at every size.

But as Ariza’s experience makes abundantly clear, bullying over weight and appearance is far from a thing of the past. In some ways, it might be worse now: The sheer number of images young people have to deal with every day has multiplied a thousandfold, and those images are often manipulated with Photoshop or filters that create a homogeneous appearance that’s unattainable for many people. “They manipulate your features to become Eurocentricized,” Reanna A. Shanti Bhagwandeen, a freshman at Bates College, told Vox. “It gets rid of, I guess, me.”

Meanwhile, many young people today say the term “body positivity” has been coopted by thin, white, or light-skinned celebrities and influencers — the same people whose looks have been held up as the beauty ideal for generations. What’s more, some of those influencers celebrate features once stereotypically associated with Black women, like full lips, even as Black women themselves remain discriminated against for their appearance.

Given all this, perhaps it’s no wonder that Instagram apparently makes body image issues worse for one in three teen girls, according to Facebook’s internal research. Or that eating disorders, far from disappearing with the advent of body positivity discourse, are actually on the rise.

Indeed, the history of body image and appearance culture in America over the past 40 years can feel like an endless dance: two steps forward, two steps back, with little progress in any direction. Where once beauty standards were enforced by a handful of magazines and consumer brands, that enforcement has now been outsourced to individual users of Instagram and TikTok, who have more than filled the void of “aspirational” images that require extensive body modification to achieve. And those who have always profited from people’s insecurities about their bodies — namely, the weight loss and cosmetic surgery industries — are making more money than ever.

Breaking that cycle is easier said than done. But young people and educators say what’s needed most at this particular stage in the body image wars are guides to help people navigate the torrent of information they now get about their appearance. Teens and kids especially need regular education about “social media and what healthy relationships look like, and what body image means,” Pascale Saintonge Austin, who oversees the Just Ask Me peer education program at the New York nonprofit Children’s Aid, told Vox. “There just needs to be more of a conversation with our young people.”

Fatphobia in America has a long history that’s inextricably tied to racism

Debates about body image in America go back long before today’s millennial versus Gen Z divide. Indeed, the ideal of thinness first came to this country through the European slave trade, according to Sabrina Strings, a sociology professor at the University of California Irvine and author of Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. Beginning in the 18th century, Europeans were looking for ways to draw distinctions between themselves and the people around the world they had enslaved and colonized. They could no longer rely on skin color alone, since generations of rape by colonists had led to a wide continuum of skin tones among people that European powers still wanted to control. So they started talking about weight.

The cover image of Sabrina Strings’s book is a 19th-century illustration by Sebastien Coeure that depicts Saartjie Baartman. Baartman was an enslaved woman whose physique was displayed in exhibitions in England and France.
NYU Press

Europeans, primarily the French and English, began making the racist and pseudoscientific claim that “Europeans have a great deal of self-control,” which gave them the right to manage not just themselves but others, Strings told Vox. By the same token, they claimed that Black people couldn’t control their appetites, loved food, and tended to be heavier. “This began the whole idea that Black people, as a race, were prone to what was considered a low form of corpulence that should be avoided,” Strings said.

These ideas took root in the US in the early 19th century and sparked a movement to “push for thinness as evidence of racial propriety, and also Christian propriety,” at a time when white Protestant Americans were responding to increased immigration from places like Ireland with anxiety and xenophobia, Strings said. The racialized ideal of thinness faced pushback from its inception — “we can start to see some people questioning these ideas even as they’re being promoted,” Strings said. However, the coordinated movements toward body acceptance and against fatphobia that are better known today didn’t begin until the 1960s and ’70s.

In 1969, Bill Fabrey and Llewelyn Louderback founded the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) in response to weight discrimination their wives had faced. In the 1970s, two members of the group, Judy Freespirit and Sarah Fishman, created the more radical Fat Underground, inspired by feminist and queer activism. Black writers and activists were also linking weight discrimination and racism, as Briana Dominici notes at Zenerations. “I’m a woman,” welfare activist Johnnie Tillmon wrote in 1972. “I’m a Black woman. I’m a poor woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a middle-aged woman. In this country, if you’re any one of those things you count less as a human being.”

Despite such bold statements of the problem, the racial politics of fatphobia got less attention than the connections between gender discrimination and misogyny, Strings said. And overall, American culture was slow to change.

The 1980s and ’90s were “an age of monoculture,” Marisa Meltzer, author of This Is Big: How the Founder of Weight Watchers Changed the World — and Me, told Vox. In that pre-social media era, beauty “was dictated kind of top-down by mega-conglomerates” that would anoint celebrities from Cindy Crawford to Christy Turlington to Gwyneth Paltrow as the ideal du jour. “It was always aspirational, and it would always be people who were unbelievably perfect,” Meltzer said. And perfect, in those days, meant thin.

Back row from left, models Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Lauren Hutton, and Beverly Johnson; front row from left, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell in 1993.
Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

It was the age of Jenny Craig, the weight loss empire founded in 1983. It was the age of Oprah’s famous wagon moment, when the host wheeled out 67 pounds of animal fat to represent her recent weight loss (she later said she’d lost the weight by eschewing all solid food for four months). It was the age when what passed for body diversity was putting a model who was maybe a size 4 instead of a size 0 on the cover of Seventeen magazine, as Anne Helen Petersen recently recalled — and some readers still wrote in to complain that the model was too fat.

Convincing ordinary people they were too big, too flawed, too something was also a booming business. In the early ’90s, Jenny Craig was bringing in more than $400 million a year, with a big chunk of that channeled right back into advertising. Ads for diet supplements and other weight loss aids — along with ads featuring very thin women selling all manner of products as a path to an impossibly narrow beauty ideal — boosted magazines’ bottom lines as advertising revenue soared during the 1990s.

The monoculture enforced and policed by media and diet companies, of course, didn’t affect everyone in the same ways. Black readers of teen magazines, for example, were more likely to critique teen magazines and less likely to see them as representations of reality, Petersen wrote. At the same time, Black Americans and other Americans of color were affected by the ideal of thinness put forth in such magazines even if they didn’t personally buy into it. The same racist ideology developed to excuse slavery and colonialism has continued to play out in weight discrimination across American history.

“If you are a fat Black person, particularly a fat Black woman, you are more likely to receive worse medical care, you’re more likely to be discriminated against at your job,” Strings said. “There are all these ways in which having more than one identity characteristic that Americans deem to be coarse will put you in a position for facing greater amounts and different forms of oppression.”

In the 2000s, “body positivity” started to go mainstream

Even as these forms of oppression have persisted, movements opposing fatphobia have grown in visibility and strength. In the 2000s, for example, bloggers and writers like Marianne Kirby and Lesley Kinzel helped bring fat acceptance closer to the mainstream, as Evette Dionne notes in her history of the movement. Beginning around 2008, body positivity advocates, many of them women of color, began posting photos, essays, and poetry on Tumblr and Facebook in an effort to “normalize being bigger and being happy, or being bigger and just being comfortable in your skin,” Stephanie Yeboah, a blogger and author of the book Fattily Ever After: A Black Fat Girl’s Guide to Living Life Unapologetically, told Vox earlier this year. The body positivity movement at that time was predominantly led by “larger fat Black women,” and functioned as “a safe space for marginalized bodies to come together and celebrate and normalize ourselves,” Yeboah said.

As activists and writers have been pushing for change, mass culture has been evolving, too. In 2004, Dove launched its now-famous Campaign for Real Beauty, which featured a diverse group of women posing in their underwear. All of the women had hourglass figures, were relatively young, and appeared not to have physical disabilities — still, none was conventionally model-skinny, and a campaign showcasing even somewhat larger bodies was revelatory for the time. “I feel like that would seem really anodyne now,” Meltzer said, but “that, to me, seems like it was a turning point.”

Nothing happened overnight — in 2012, when writer and influencer Gabi Gregg posed in a “fatkini” and wrote about it for xoJane, the image of a size 18 woman proudly modeling swimwear was still unusual enough to go viral. And swimwear options for women Gregg’s size were still few and far between. The winds of change were blowing, however, as companies realized they could make money selling to the millions of American consumers who were being ignored or alienated by ultra-skinny models and restrictive size ranges.

In 2016, Sports Illustrated put its first plus-size model, Ashley Graham, on the cover. In 2019, brands like American Eagle and Anthropologie began expanding their sizing. The rise of direct-to-consumer brands advertising on Instagram also meant a wider array of sizes and a more diverse group of models appearing in customers’ feeds. Meanwhile, whether through TV shows like Girls or even the (then less derogatory) archetype of the girlboss, “third-wave feminist-style thoughts were becoming very mainstream,” Meltzer said.

Ashley Graham was the first plus-size model to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, in 2016.
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated
Lena Dunham gained attention for unapologetically baring her non-model body on Girls.

In the age of putting “The Future Is Female” on T-shirts, it was no longer “aspirational” for brands to embrace a restrictive, skinny-only aesthetic. Instead, projecting at least a veneer of inclusivity became the norm.

“These ideas that were once a little more fringe, or a little more academic, or like things that you had to really explain to people, are now very normal,” Meltzer said: “that clothes should be made for everyone, and that beauty should be for everyone, and that representation is important.”

Indeed, body positivity, once a movement for and by people living in marginalized bodies, has become ubiquitous, a watchword routinely blazoned across Instagram and TikTok by ordinary people and popular influencers alike. On a recent search, #bodypositivity had 15.2 billion views on TikTok and 8.9 million posts on Instagram. With a few clicks, anyone can access memes saying things like “every body is a bikini body” or “work out because you love your body, not because you hate it.” Or you can find TikTok stars showing off their bellies and proclaiming that fat rolls are normal.

We’ve come a long way from the days when a size 4 model on the cover of a magazine could be the subject of controversy. And, in many important ways, we haven’t.

Social media brought an onslaught of information about our bodies and other people’s

Maybe the biggest difference between the media environment today and in the ’80s or ’90s is that there’s just more now, of everything. Growing up, magazines were dominated by super-skinny models, but “you could take a break,” Austin said. “There was no Facebook or anything like that,” and “it’s not like you had Netflix or DVR.”

Today, by contrast, “it’s so much information,” Austin said. That information can include body-positive messages, but it also, increasingly, includes images of people who have had plastic surgery or use filters or Photoshop to look a certain way. “Everything is so enhanced,” Austin said.

That includes non-Black people trying to attain features once stereotypically associated with Black women, such as full lips or a large butt, Austin said. The appropriation of such features is all part of the same racist tradition that gave rise to fatphobia in the US in the first place, Strings, the sociologist, said. “There are many people who are saying disrespectful things about fat people on the internet,” and especially about fat Black women, she said. But “you will also see a lot of these same people trying to get butt injections or lip injections.”

“It’s not just the fear of Black people,” Strings explained. “It’s the fear and desire of Black people that keeps racism going.”

Even those who supposedly embrace a more inclusive ideal also participate in such appropriation. “Body positivity — I’m not quite sure how it sits with me,” Bhagwandeen said. She points to celebrities like Kim Kardashian, who has championed body positivity in the past but who is also “capitalizing off of BIPOC culture, aspects, identities.”

Kim Kardashian with Kanye West at the 2019 Met Gala.
Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Meanwhile, some say the current embrace of body diversity has its limits. As a child, Wendy Marroquin, now a high school junior in Los Angeles, always saw “white, blonde, thin women who didn’t eat much” held up as the ideal, they told Vox in an email. Things have changed, but only a little: “Curves are in now but the slim waist stays.”

“These ‘ideal’ bodies pushed by the media made me feel insecure about my body and at one point I even hated my body, the body that does so much for me,” Marroquin said.

Moreover, many complain that the ideals of body positivity have been watered down to the point where the supposed “movement” is now dominated by relatively thin women who get praise for showing belly rolls when they sit down or other small deviations from the stereotypical ideal, as Vox’s Rebecca Jennings reported earlier this year. “A lot of fat people have rolls 24/7,” said TikToker @sheismarissamatthews. “Contorting your body so that you have rolls when you don’t naturally have them is not helpful, and taking the face of a movement that is not meant for you is also not helpful.”

While social media can provide positive affirmations, it can also just be a distributed version of the old magazine- and TV-driven culture of insufficiency and insecurity. Instead of a few editors and advertising firms driving the image choices, now it’s a larger number of influencers and TikTok stars — and while the details of the preferred aesthetic may change, the pressure to attain it arguably does not.

Nor do the ultimate beneficiaries: The diet industry was booming pre-pandemic and is poised for a rebound, with companies like Noom gaining in popularity. Meanwhile, after a lull when many elective procedures were canceled in 2020, cosmetic surgery is by all accounts roaring back — even with lockdowns, Americans spent more than $9 billion on aesthetic procedures last year. Social media platforms have given rise to their own plastic surgery trends — consider the Brazilian butt lift, which, as Jennings puts it, “attempts to recreate the way we look when our bodies are filtered through the internet.”

Now, just as in the past, constantly seeing images of supposedly ideal bodies can invite comparison and self-judgment, making young people feel worse about themselves. According to internal Facebook research presented in March 2020 and obtained by the Wall Street Journal, “thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.”

Those feelings, in turn, can have real mental health consequences. Among teenagers who had suicidal thoughts, 13 percent of British users and 6 percent of American ones traced those thoughts back to Instagram, the Journal reported. Meanwhile, rates of eating disorders appear to have increased in recent years, despite the rise of body positivity rhetoric. According to one 2019 study, the lifetime prevalence of these disorders went up from 3.5 percent from 2000-2006 to 7.8 percent from 2013-2018. Though many factors are surely at play in this rise, other research has found an association between social media use and concerns about eating.

The images on social media can have a psychological impact beyond eating disorders as well. “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said one slide in the internal Facebook presentation, according to the Journal. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

Despite such concerning findings, it’s important to recognize that social media platforms don’t exist in a vacuum. Indeed, they’re reflecting back and amplifying messages that young people are also getting, just like in generations past, from their family, their peers, and everyone they encounter in a culture built on racist and fatphobic ideas.

Bhagwandeen, for example, started struggling with her self-image when she was a young child after her uncle told her that a famous Bollywood actor would “never like you” because “you’re too dark.” Over the next few years, she began using skin lightening creams and internalizing the idea that “Eurocentric features were better than mine.”

Today, she’s in a better place, embracing her brown skin, curly hair, and “just myself, holistically.” But “it’s still hard for me,” she said.

“I don’t really like looking in the mirror still, or even looking on Instagram and stuff like that,” Bhagwandeen explained. “It’s still in the back of my head that, like, I’m not good enough.”

You can find real body positivity today — but you have to look for it

For Bhagwandeen, what’s helped the most is “surrounding myself with people who look like me,” people who “really reaffirm that I am normal.” If there’s a way through this particular fraught moment in American body image discourse, many say it’s finding a way to cut through the negative messages to find the role models, peers, and resources that can support you and lift you up.

Perhaps more so than in generations past, those resources are out there — they just have to be found amid all the noise. “I thought for a while that I was too fat or too short because all I ever saw everywhere I looked was slim and tall women,” Marroquin recalls. But “I’ve slowly unlearned that through various different representations in the media like Savage X Fenty’s ad models, Lizzo and different women in media just being at peace with their bodies.”

Marroquin has also channeled their experiences into helping other young people. As a volunteer with the nonprofit Peer Health Exchange, they helped design the app selfsea, which provides first-person videos of teens talking about issues including body image, sexuality, mental health, and more. They got involved because they wanted to make sure other young people got to see representations not just of all body types but of all genders, “because at times the body positivity movement is more directed to women-identifying folks but fails to shed light on male-identifying and nonbinary folks or even intersex folks,” they explained. “We as young people need to see people from the whole spectrum so our future generations don’t develop an unhealthy relationship with their bodies.”

Guests attend the Savage X Fenty Show Vol.3 on September 25, 2021.
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images For Amazon Studios
Lizzo in October 2021 in Los Angeles.
JOCE/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

For some, getting involved with education and advocacy can lead to healing. Ariza, now a senior at California State University Dominguez Hills, struggled with food and body image issues until she joined Peer Health Exchange in college and started sharing her feelings about her body with other volunteers. They encouraged her to seek therapy, and she was able to find a therapist through the group’s website. Today, “I really have developed and changed my perspective on myself, especially with my body,” Ariza says. “I feel more confident and more secure.”

Not all young people have access to something like Peer Health Exchange, however. That’s why many advocate for lessons on body image and social media to be part of regular public education, much the way health class is (or used to be). “It needs to be integrated into schools, into after-school programs,” Austin of Just Ask Me said. Unfortunately, health services and after-school programs have seen cuts in New York City and around the country in recent years, especially as the pandemic led to budget shortfalls.

That’s especially shortsighted because such programs “raised young people’s self-esteem, gave them a sense of community,” Austin said. “If all of that is being cut, what options are we giving our kids besides phones?”

Then there’s the question of what’s on the phones. In the wake of revelations about Instagram’s impact on young people, Congress has shown an appetite for increased regulation of social media platforms. Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee who helped bring the company’s internal research to light, has suggested a number of reforms, including increasing congressional oversight, greater scrutiny into Facebook’s algorithms, and increasing the minimum age for users from 13 to 17.

It’s too soon to tell whether such reforms will pass or whether they’ll have a meaningful impact on the kinds of messages young people get about their bodies. But in the meantime, young people themselves are navigating the confusing sea of contemporary body image discourse, offering guidance and inspiration for others along the way.

Ariza’s advice is to “unfollow accounts that make you feel like you need to compare yourself or you need to change,” she said. “Follow people who are going to influence you to go on a 30-minute walk or read a new book or go visit this exhibit.”

For Marroquin, too, avoiding comparison is key. “I’ve started to accept my body more and have tried not to compare myself to other people,” they said. “I really like to remind myself that my body has done nothing wrong.”


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