Last week The New York Times ”Style” section reported that legs — “exposed legs, smooth and coltish” — are “tak[ing] their turn” as the body’s trendiest part. To the casual reader, it might seem strange that something as universally desirable as shapely legs could be having a moment. On the other hand, what took them so long? Hominids went bipedal, what, 4 million years ago? But to focus on such details would be to lose sight of the singular joys of the body trend story, a staple of the Times Style section.
Media critics have long delighted in dissecting the Times’ so-called “bogus trend story,” like The Great Unwashed, House Parties with Bartenders (“It’s My Sh-Bam”), and The Momshell. The body trend piece makes these tightrope walks of anecdotal journalism look simple. It doesn’t look at trends in body types; that would be too easy. Rather, the body trend story seamlessly folds individual parts of the human body — standard issue and inescapable though they are — into the familiar cycle of fashion trending. Hemlines up, hemlines down, eyebrows in, eyebrows out.
As with certain silhouettes or accessories, when the celebrity, commercial, and cultural stars of the Zeitgeist align (Angelina Jolie at the Oscars, ballet barre classes, the Olympics), the Times divines that a body part is on- or off- trend.
Often, the body trend story reports that a historically undesirable trait has become fashionable, such as gap teeth and snaggleteeth. More often, it reveals which body parts are fashionably undesirable, like hand veins, cleavage creases, or enlarged male breasts (gynecomastia, a medical disorder).
Men have not been spared the vagaries of Times body trends. Once promised washboard abs were here to stay, soon they were expected to be “chicken-chested” waifs. Just two years later, fashion asked for square-jawed paragons of masculinity. In 2009, paparazzi photos of Matthew McConaughey, a Nivea ad campaign and the movie Bruno, created a perfect storm of male chest hair depilation.
Sometimes the runway dictates trends in body parts, as when a focus on accessories drew eyes to the cuticles or when Christopher Bailey tried to make hips cool (good luck). Other times, presidential politics drive body politics. An obsession with arms among gym-goers was attributed to Michelle Obama aspiration, and pot bellies were chalked up to the hipsterish rejection of the President’s beach body.
Like human Mr. Potato Head dolls, body parts can be plucked out from underneath our scrutiny and replaced by another. In the arsenal of feminine wiles, eyelashes have been crowned “the new breasts.” Facial rosacea has topped thigh cellulite as the chief dermatological foe.
Considered as an oeuvre, the body trend stories’ will to treat the body like the fashion that hangs off it can seem a little self-loathing or anorexic, not to mention exhausting. Like when the clavicle, which can’t be hidden by tent dresses or improved by plastic surgery, was named the most fashionable index of female thinness in 2007. It helps to remember that — unlike leather pants or fur coats — one can’t make the unfashionable error of getting rid of your limbs right before they come back in style.