Will twee’s revival bring back toxic body image?

The movement that gave us 500 Days of Summer and ukulele YouTube covers aplenty, twee fashion is back. But for some, its revival is bringing back memories of the toxic body image ideals that were originally associated with the movement.

The viral discourse around the twee aesthetic’s comeback has taken TikTok, Instagram and Zooey Deschanel, the queen of twee, by storm. While some are discussing the Peter Pan collar to oversized Ganni collar to clowncore pipeline, others are asking questions much less arbitrary in comparison: can the twee style reemerge without its association of toxic body image and thinness?

The thought of body shapes ebbing and flowing in and out of fashion, being thought of as disposable and perpetually interchangeable, is a nausea-inducing reality. Over the years, heroin chic, the hourglass figure, the thigh gap and the BBL boom have all shaped our relationship with body image, and now, with the comeback of twee, people are worried its waify figure archetype will come back to the fore.

The twee style is characterised by cute, quirky and sweet elements that reference Japanese subculture lolita and 1960s mod. Juxtaposing hipster and indie, common style elements of twee include high-waisted circle skirts, collared button-up shirts, chunky knit cardigans, patterned tights, thick-rimmed glasses, knee-high socks and Mary Janes with a red lip to top it off. Alexa Chung, Rookie Mag’s Tavi Gevinson and Zooey Deschanel helped popularise twee in the late 2000s, with the aesthetic peaking around 2014. Its popularity also ran parallel to the first wave of fashion and personal style blogs and, of course, Tumblr, which birthed countless trends that dominated mainstream fashion, for better or worse.

Harmful body image ideals can be traced back to the early 2000s, when you couldn’t flip through a gossip magazine without seeing paparazzi photos of celebrities in bikinis at unflattering angles”

On TikTok, where nuanced discourse goes to die, twee’s revival has been met with harsh criticism. Many are concerned that its resurgence will inherently bring back the body image trends that accompanied its original wave, such as the thigh gap, eating disorder-centred communities and pro-ana/mia (pro-anorexia or pro-bulimia) forums that not only glorified but also glamorised eating disorders and celebrated emaciated bodies from the late 2000s. Back then, there was little regulation around what content was allowed online; censorship and community guidelines were loose at best, but typically nonexistent.

However, with most trend revivals, it’s quite rare for culture to copy and paste every element of the original moment” into a modern context. For example, over the last few years, Y2K and McBling styles have been the leading macrotrends, but that doesn’t necessarily mean people are trading in their iPhones for beepers or reviving mall rat culture. Many cultural elements that were normal and accepted during the original Y2K movement have burnt out in relevancy. When the trend cycle inevitably moves on and begins to reference styles from the late 2000s, like indie sleaze and twee, that doesn’t mean MySpace will suddenly become the go-to social media app, nor that imagery of harmful behaviour will be glamorised with glitter filters and inspirational” Kate Moss quotes à la peak Tumblr.

The association with trends and dangerous body image themes seem to be rooted in age for many, depending on what stage in life you were at during specific trend cycles. For most millennials, harmful body image ideals can be traced back to the early 2000s, when you couldn’t flip through a gossip magazine without seeing paparazzi photos of celebrities in bikinis at unflattering angles, cellulite on full display, with articles speculating on if they’re pregnant or just normal people in swimsuits. When having a flat stomach to compliment bikini tops and low rise jeans was the hottest and most unattainable accessory. When it was completely acceptable to hear reality TV stars gabbing about how they’re skipping their next meal because they dared to have breakfast before a night out. When fashion industry professionals made up arbitrary rules about age limits for wearing a mini skirt, or which silhouettes and colour combinations to avoid in order to look smaller. It was bad. It was traumatic. It left many, to this day, imprinted with fictional rules” on what to avoid. The power of these rules was so pervasive they essentially erased vertical stripes from mainstream fashion.

For younger Gen Z, twee’s association with negative body ideals comes from Tumblr and the pro-ana/mia communities it nurtured. Tumblr’s tolerance for glamorising eating disorders peaked in tandem with the peak of twee, creating a strong association between the two.

Instead of harping on about how terrible trends once were, we need more calls to action on how to make them more inclusive”

But declarations that paint twee as inherently fatphobic and problematic seem rooted in these deeply personal anecdotes and discredit the plus-sized people who helped popularise twee in the first place. Some of the first plus-sized fashion social media stars got their start during the rise of fashion blogs, while sporting the twee aesthetic. This is quite ironic because most of the current criticism surrounding twee centres the thin archetypes, instead of celebrating and uplifting the plus-sized pioneers who arguably started the trend in the first place.

It’s difficult to pinpoint if twee is inherently fatphobic or if it’s merely an association. Let’s be clear: associations are incredibly valid, but they just may not be a universal truth. What seems to be a universal truth can actually be boiled down to one question: despite personal associations, style identities or era, has skinny always been in” and will we ever move the needle?

Instead of harping on about how terrible trends once were, we need more calls to action on how to make them more inclusive. The fashion space has a hell of a long way to go, but there have been major strides over the last two decades for body inclusivity, in addition to representation on the runway, on your social media feed and in mainstream media. Yet while it’s true that we have seen increased representation in fashion since the rise and fall of twee, the industry still needs to do better.

It’s a wonderful step, but it’s simply not enough to show a handful of plus-sized models walking in a biannual show. Two months of the year is not enough to make a meaningful and genuine difference. Fashion brands need to show us how their clothing looks on different body types and skin tones, both on the catwalk and on the landing pages of their e‑commerce sites. The plus-sized market is valued at $24 billion, yet both mainstream and luxury fashion have hardly scratched the surface and given this market what they want and deserve. The truth is, if designers can’t make clothes for larger bodies, they probably aren’t making good clothes at all.

So does the twee aesthetic inherently push a negative body image? Not necessarily. This is a deeper issue that spans every pocket of the fashion industry. It needs to change.

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