Pilates, low-rise jeans and Kardashian weight loss: Is 'skinny' making a comeback?

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What it means to be "beautiful" in popular culture is constantly changing. The purported ideal image of the '20s and '30s was the lean frame of a flapper girl. In the '60s, it was the "blonde bombshell" Marilyn Monroe figure, embracing curves amid the era's sexual revolution. Unsurprisingly, the standards reverted to a slender, supermodel-like physique in the '90s, and with the rise of social media, sexy curves came back into style with surgical butt lifts and strength training to emulate the Kardashians' trademark look.

And now, amid speculation about Kim Kardashian's weight loss and the increasing popularity of Pilates, Y2K low-rise jeans have become commodified to target another limited demographic: skinny women. (USA TODAY reached out to Kardashian's rep about Kardashian's purported weight loss after she said she lost weight for the Met Gala.)

The search for the "perfect body" is endless, but this isn't new. Even in the era of body positivity, female beauty has been framed as a process requiring constant adjustments with the help of cosmetic injections and workout routines, and the burden has been placed on women to fix, groom, nip and tuck their "imperfections."

In today's case, ultra-thinness is not possible for the vast majority of people, and some experts fear the trend will only exacerbate body image dissatisfaction (which, research shows, affects the majority of teen girls). But regardless of what the "look" is, there's one thing body trends have in common: They fizzle as fast as they bubble up.

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"When we treat our bodies as clothing you pick up and put down, it's ignoring the fact that bodies are different from clothes," says UCLA sociology professor Abigail Saguy. For years, Saguy has been researching the cultural framing surrounding body weight, writing "What's Wrong with Fat?" in response to the inconsistent, ever-changing beauty standards.

"You can't just discard and change your body, and you shouldn't want to be trying to do so," she says. "It's quite dangerous when we suggest to women and especially young girls that their bodies should somehow respond to trends or that there's a right way or wrong way to look."

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The problem when we equate 'skinny' with 'healthy'

Not every person or culture prizes the "skinny" look. (Some, like Polynesian communities, value larger bodies as a symbol of health and beauty.) But with enough discipline and restraint, those who weren't naturally born with a lean frame or toned stomach are now made to believe they can – and should – through fitness.

Saguy says workout regimens like Pilates and barre (a routine that fuses ballet, yoga and Pilates) can be "very healthy if they're pursued as a way of gaining balance, centering oneself, becoming stronger and having a strong core." Neither is designed for weight loss (rather, muscle toning), though trends on TikTok portray them as such.

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By using exercise trends as a means to attain a certain look, body image expert Elizabeth Daniels worries young women will normalize calorie counting, diet restriction and over-exercising under the guise of "health." As an associate professor of developmental psychology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, she too often overhears her students complain about the shape and size of their bodies.

"Of course, some people are genetically quite thin, but most are not. And once we keep moving that bar into this realm of impossible, the potential for more people to feel dissatisfied and perhaps engage in restrictive or unhealthy behaviors increases," she says.

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Body shapes and sizes are not trends.

What does it take to be beautiful? Most women, caught in the midst of evolving beauty standards, still don't know the answer.

At its root, these fleeting body trends suggest women should look, speak and dress a certain way to feel accepted. They're always, and intentionally, changing, Saguy says, so they can stay exclusive, and the resulting pressure to conform often leads to the objectification and dehumanization of women by reducing their worth to their bodies.

"It becomes this idea that women should see themselves as objects, as opposed to subjects," Saguy says.

But the reality is that bodies come in all shapes and sizes.

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A diversity in representation is one important step to challenging these ingrained, often unattainable, ideals. Another is celebrating our bodies, not for how they look, but for how they feel.

"Develop a gratitude practice for all of the ways your body serves you every day, whether that's how our strong legs are for allowing us to move from place to place or whatever your body is capable of doing," Daniels says.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kardashian weight loss, pilates: Is the skinny trend coming back?