The Hunger Game: Jameela Jamil on Hollywood's 'Heroin Chic' Revival
by Jameela Jamil
08 November 2022
I am mortified to announce that the recent revival of ’90s fashion trends has brought back with it ’90s eating disorder culture. It feels as though every time we resurface these old trends, it’s like melting a glacier and unearthing some frozen mammal carrying a prehistoric plague that can now re-infect the current population. We are on a bullet train back to hell if we don’t pay attention and act fast this time.
Twenty-something years ago, the media coined the term “Heroin Chic” to describe and glorify (mostly) women who were painfully thin and sickly looking, as if they were nearly dying of a drug addiction. Within weeks this term had entered mainstream vernacular, went widely unchallenged, and was used without a hint of reservation or irony.
According to headlines just last week, highlighting images of newly bone-thin celebrities, the media is trying to bring this peak clusterfuckery back. In spite of all of the progress we’ve made in feminism, the media still thinks of women’s body shapes as trends and disposable billboards to advertise their desires and fleeting standards. Men are not handed a dossier every decade of the new body and bone structure they must attain at speed. There is an increasing pressure for muscular builds, but we are still deeply dedicated to the affectionately named “dad-bod” of which there is no affectionate female equivalent.
I violently reject this. We must all violently reject this. We can’t let this industry, or its famous operatives, manipulate us all back there again. I was there the first time around. I know how this ends. We all know too much this time. We have the data, the research and the tireless work of activists who have over the decades explained the explicit dangers to us. We owe it to the next generation to stop it in its tracks, because, if we don't, this time the blood is on our hands.
“Heroin Chic” had my generation in a chokehold. Most of us still haven’t fully recovered. I barely made it out alive, myself. Many of us were teenagers at the time, crying in front of our mirrors, sipping our cup-a-soup diets, longing for our hip bones to jut out of our low-rise jeans and for our carved ribs and clavicles to remain on constant display. We were starving ourselves, over-exercising, throwing up our food, hunching our shoulders and using dark eyeshadow under our eyes to make us look further sunken and weak. We wanted to look fragile, broken and sick. We saw concern from others as the highest compliment, as anorexia fast became a hyper-normalized, competitive social sport. Women openly shared starvation techniques, even famous ones in huge fashion publications, where they were applauded and envied for their discipline and capacity to starve themselves into submission.
That’s the key word here: “Submission.” Trends like this are a test in obedience, like a competition. Who is going to obey at any cost to their health or happiness? Who will make the biggest sacrifice? Who will do it fastest? Who will do it without complaining? Who will smile through it and encourage others to join? It’s never been about beauty, it was always about control. How far can they push us? How afraid are we of scorn and shame? And most importantly, how will women have the energy to fight for their equality if they’re exhausted, hungry, weak and permanently distracted?
I was fully immersed in this culture until my mid-twenties. I really thought it would make me happy — that it would set me free and empower me. I took every product, tried every method and dared to preach the gospel to others, thinking I was helping them. It consumed my every waking minute. I was so distracted by the constantly moving goal posts of the fashion/beauty media that I never stopped to realize I was miserable. Since my teens, I had been in a constant state of panic and self-hatred. I missed everything. I had no joy, no sex drive, no energy, no real fun, no sleep, no meals without guilt, no days without punishment. My vital organs weren’t working, my relationships were suffering, my work was falling apart, my hair was falling out and I was properly losing my mind. All that to fit into tiny dresses for an hour before I was so tired and weak at the party that I had to go home. Alone. I cannot stress to you enough how much it isn’t worth it.
What alarms me most this time is that, as with any new war, the technology advances and so the capacity for damage increases. For the past year, many of us in the industry have heard troubling whispers of the latest weight loss method taking hold of Hollywood, as we watch our peers drop weight at light speed. Weight loss by injection is now all the rage. Medication for serious conditions like diabetes with a side effect of extreme weight loss is being given to people with perfect health who just want to be thin, fast. But weight loss isn’t the only by-product: I have watched people deal with horrific chronic diarrhea, vomiting, lasting digestive troubles, and issues with their spleens, thyroids, kidneys and gallbladders.
Also, not to be a child, but farting is a big side effect. Constant, putrid farts. All these glamorous people uncontrollably farting into their couture and low-rise jeans. And all of this horror for what? With the considerable damage to the metabolism, the weight comes back on, and then some, when you stop the meds. Because our bodies are not designed for speedy methods of weight loss. They will always fight back and the suffering will always outlast your waistline, unless you die from it all first.
I didn’t raise the alarm when the rumors started, hoping it would go away, but we are seeing a huge wave of articles in publications like Variety or Newsweek pop up about these injections now, as the multi-billion-dollar predatory diet industry is attempting to fast-track FDA approval for this medicine being prescribed for weight loss. We are already seeing huge global shortages of these medications for people who actually need them for their serious health conditions, because wealthy people who want to be thin are able to get hold of them first. We are not just sacrificing our own health — are we prepared to endanger others now, too?
We’ve been here before, with all big weight loss scams: Atkins, SlimFast shakes, the lemon water with chili powder. (Remember that fresh hell?) It’s only a matter of time before advertising for this new quick-fix method becomes mainstream and celebrities suffering with their own body image issues take a paycheck to jump on the bandwagon and promote it to their followers with a discount code.
We trust our favorite influencers and role models online, so we take them at their word when they say something is safe. Take for example the explosion of “detox” and diet drinks/supplements that were secretly just laxatives. No influencer or celebrity wrote about the significant side effects of those products. Influencers and celebrities aren’t going to admit the unglamorous side effects they are dealing with. It’s maddening to be on the inside of this industry and just watch it happen time and time again, with no real consequences for the diet industry or its shills.
We deserve better than this dystopia. We have more important things to do and think about. We deserve peace and fun and food and joy. Our bodies are under enough attack as it is, do we need to also hurt ourselves? For what? For who? Why?
When are we going to realize nobody can tell us what the new trend for our own damn bodies is? We have the power, we are the market. The media, the fashion industry, the celebrities, they all answer to us. We gave them what they have and we can take it all away whenever we want. They don’t get to tell us what to do or what to buy anymore. We’re in control. They don’t get to starve us anymore, we can starve them and see how they like it. We can bring entire institutions to their knees and force their hand to stop harming us with their products and damning rhetoric.
Let us fight this together and sink toxic diet culture once and for all. We were doing so well. This is a pointed precision strike against all the progress we’ve been making with diversity and inclusion. Don’t let the decades-long work of activism go to waste.
I am begging you on behalf of my 11-year-old self and all the 11-year-olds watching and learning from us right now. We cannot go back.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Parsons