Heroin chic is back, but it’s been around for a lot longer than you’d think

Thin-worship ideals from the early 2000s have begun resurfacing. However, is there more to this phenomenon than meets the eye? 

In November 2022, a New York Post article set the internet ablaze with talk of heroin chic returning. For many women over 27, heroin chic pulls forth memories of sketchy diets, standing in the mirror to practice your ‘indifferent’ look, and a general sense of pervasive inadequacy. Heroin chic created a culture where the most embarrassing thing you could do was care about things, especially yourself. Your health, studies, and future; only losers drinking the normie-Kool aid buy into such fantasies, mom.

It wasn’t even really about being thin; it was about looking sick. The pale, emaciated body with glazed-over sunken eyes became the goal. In fact, many women (myself included) have only just started accepting their 60kg+ weight as actually normal. Hence, for many of us, the idea that we would need to start aiming for size zero again has rejuvenated a deep-seated anger that we felt for having to do it all those years ago.


However, you might be as surprised as I was to learn that the 90s were not the first time we tried to get the sick look.Interestingly, it seems that human beings tend to glamourise intense thinness following a period of collective, well, sickness.

18th-century ‘consumptive chic’
In Consumptive Chic: A History of Beauty, Fashion and Disease (2017), Carolyn A. Day highlights how during the tuberculosis epidemic of the late 18th and early 19th century, cultural perceptions of the disease known as consumption became interwoven with contemporary ideals of beauty. For example, people would come to regard TB’s devasting consequences – weight loss, feelings of weakness, and the ghostly paleness that brought out one’s veins and cheeks – as beautiful. As Charlotte Brontë put it in 1849: “consumption, I am aware, is a flattering malady.”

These cultural connotations became so ingrained that many women started using makeup to make their skin look paler and wore dresses that made them look thinner. Over time, these positive associations waned, as the disease became more associated withthe poorer classes, but for the first 50 years of its plight, it was chic to look sick.

20th-centuryheroin chic’
Just under 200 years later, we saw the same thing happen due to the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s and early 90s. The term ‘heroin chic’ was coined after the death of American supermodel Gia Carangi, who died at 26 years of age due to AIDScomplications brought on by intravenous heroin use.

Heroin chic was characterised by pale skin, dark circles under your eyes and emaciated features – all of which are associated with heroin abuse and, as injecting heroin with unclean needles was increasingly a risk factor for the virus, the AIDS epidemic. It is noteworthy to mention that, much like with TB, privilege and wealth did play a role in this cultural tide, as more and more celebrities glamorised heroin abuse and, thus, heroin chic.

Why would we want to look sick after a pandemic?
It is poignant that there is talk of the pale, emancipated look making a comeback after yet-another deadly pandemic in the 21stcentury. One could argue that it is an unconscious attempt to regain control over our bodies and lives. For example, one of our most significant evolutionary assets is our ability to predict future events, which makes us crave certainty. When something like a pandemic occurs, it reminds us of the futility inherent in our illusion of control. We are put back in touch with helplessness, and it is normal to try and do what we can to regain a sense of control, and thus comfort, over that fact. Idolising sickness could therefore be a way of trying to take the ‘sting’ out of these harsh realities.

Elaborating on this further, in Instincts and its Vicissitudes (1915), Freud argues that our ‘drives’ have two primary forms, active and passive, which are correlated to his notion of a life drive (Eros) and a death drive (Thanatos). The life drive was associated with activity, while the death drive was associated with passivity. Freud believed that people experience conflict between these two instincts and that this conflict manifests in various ways. As such, it could be argued that our ‘active’ side is rendered effectively useless during a pandemic. Instead, our ability to be passive, expressing itself in forms such as staying home and following the rules, is integral to our survival. Sexual intercourse – which one could argue is an expression of the life drive, was also inherently tied up with the AIDS epidemic, so a passive response could be seen as ‘keeping you safer’. As such, it could be speculated that a pale, emancipated look – such a quintessential image of death – emerges when passivity takes the reigns. In a sense, it is an active response to a passive position.

However, I cannot help but feel a heavy sadness at how the female body continues to function as a tool of signification, used and manipulated to express something beyond itself. Once again, millions of women will potentially need to navigate a ‘heal these wounds for me but make it chic’ epoch.

Written by Molly Fitz