Whatever Happened To Size Zero?
Though the term might have fallen out of the lexicon, it seems that the specter of size zero never really left.
Warning: This article contains mentions of diet culture and body image struggles.
When Samantha Leach was researching The Elissas, a fascinating and heartbreaking chronicle of the lives of three women who entered the so-called “troubled teen industry” in the early 2000s, one of the major themes she returned to again and again was teen body image. As any millennial woman who came of age during the time period will tell you, you can’t talk about the 2000s without talking about extreme diet culture. Whether it was Kate Moss declaring that “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” or the tabloids publishing brutal “before and after” celebrity transformations week after week, or the diet industry finding new and inventive ways to package 100-calorie cookie crisps, there was no escaping the idea that it was crucial to be as thin as possible.
“In the 2000s our teen years lined up with a mass weight loss among Hollywood’s ingenues,” Leach writes in The Elissas. Everyone, it seemed, sported “boho-chic” styles showing off their spindly arms and newly defined clavicles. Leach recalls sitting on a flight around this time, where she flipped through a magazine “until I landed on a collage of starlets, Hilary Duff, Mandy Moore, Mischa, Lindsay, Nicole, all with their weights listed beneath them. At first I felt comforted to see numbers that had appeared on my scale at home, low 130s. Others were in the mid-120s. Then I looked farther down. Those were before numbers. None were above 112 pounds.”
One number, especially, reigned supreme during this time period: size zero. Every celebrity, it seemed, wore one — or was one — making the vast majority of teen girls feel woefully far away from this almost mythical ideal. (For context, the average women’s clothing size in the early 2000s was 14; that data point has since been adjusted to 16-18.)
“I don’t remember the time where I first longed for [size zero] or heard of it because it just felt like the air we breathed in at the time.”
In talking with Leach about The Elissas, I was surprised to learn that “size zero,” as a concept, is a relatively recent invention — designer Nicole Miller, then a favorite for upper-middle-class semi-formal dresses, started using it in 2000, and others quickly followed. The idea soon became “inescapable,” says Leach, who’s a contributing editor for Bustle. “I don’t remember the time where I first longed for it or heard of it because it just felt like the air we breathed in at the time.”
She recalled watching an episode of Desperate Housewives in high school in which Eva Longoria’s character was bemoaning the fact that she had gained a little weight after a breakup and was no longer a double zero — something Leach didn’t even know was possible. The goal, it seemed, was to be roughly the size of a clothes hanger; Grazia magazine declared in 2006 that it was “the summer of size double zero.”
Of course, every decade has its own body ideal, and in the 2010s, size zero morphed into size-whatever-the-Kardashians-were: that “slim-thick,” filtered look that came to dominate both reality TV and Instagram. With the rise of the body positivity movement and the backlash against rail-thin models in the fashion industry, proudly proclaiming one’s size-zero status fell decidedly out of fashion. In 2010, Calvin Klein declared it was discontinuing size 0-2 in favor of size 2-4. Francisco Costa, the creative director at the time, said, “My customer is a real woman. She’s not 14 years old, she’s not 16 years old. So what I’m trying to do is cast models who are a little bit closer to reality.”
“I’ve been asked a lot about how to help the next generation of girls. Should we not let them watch the shows that harmed my sense of body image, like The O.C., or newer ones, like Euphoria?”
But millennials have been cautioning for a couple years now that size zero is inching its way back into the public consciousness, just like those low-rise jeans we all promised never to buy or wear again. Kim Kardashian dropped 16 pounds in three weeks to look like Marilyn Monroe on the Met Gala red carpet last year, a feat that spawned a wave of tabloid headlines eerily reminiscent of the old Nicole Richie days. The women of The Real Housewives, who until recently were open about undergoing Brazilian butt lifts to enhance their curves, are now proclaiming their allegiance to Ozempic. And despite Gen Z’s general embrace of body positivity, many of today’s young ingenues are just as thin as their early-2000s predecessors.
At this month’s Paraiso Miami Beach Swim Week, a four-day event showcasing designers’ new bikinis and full-coverage suits, the runway was lacking in plus-size models. “It was honestly disheartening,” plus-size model Ella Halikas told Bustle. “I’m excited to be able to help pave the way for other curve models, but I shouldn’t be the biggest one on the runway, as a size 14. I just feel like we’re going backwards.”
Will today’s teens have it any easier than millennials who came of age in the early 2000s? Likely not: Recent studies show teen girls feel more pressure than ever from social media, resulting in record levels of anxiety and depression. Though the term fell out of the lexicon for a few years, it seems that the specter of size zero never really left.
“I’ve been asked a lot about how to help the next generation of girls. Should we not let them watch the shows that harmed my sense of body image, like The O.C., or newer ones, like Euphoria?” says Leach. “But from my research, I think it all just comes back to communication. Sharing that while yes, size zero or whatever it will be called at the time does exist, it doesn’t need to rule your life.”
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text 741741, or chat online with a helpline volunteer here.