If you shop on Depop, grew up in the 90s/00s, or (like me) are incurably online, you’ve probably heard the news: Y2K fashion is back, accompanied by anxiety about what that means for our bodies. In particular, low-rise jeans have become both the icon of 2000s fashion culture and a magnet for our anxieties about its return.
“Low-rise jeans are back. Don’t panic,” urged a recent Vox piece. They’re not alone. The resurgence of low-rise jeans has sparked thinkpieces, tweets, and TikToks critiquing early-aughts fashion’s obsession with thinness. In many of these, low-rise jeans play the villain’s role, the most powerful emblem of that particular moment in American fatphobia.
But all the articles aren’t totally calming me down. These articles have come at that same post-pandemic moment in which I’m preparing to enter public life again, and both have increased my scrutiny of my body. I imagining it moving in public spaces, seen by people besides those I live with. I imagine it in low-rise jeans.
And so, I’ve found myself more committed to daily workouts than I might otherwise have been. Lately TV accompanies almost everything I do, and tonight, as I complete ab wheel reps on my bedroom floor, I’m watching The Sopranos.
In this episode—season three’s “Fortunate Son”—Christopher, Tony Soprano’s protégé, becomes a “made man” and quickly discovers that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Pacing around his bedroom, he laments his bad luck to his fiancée Adriana. The camera cuts to Adriana, who, like me, is on the bedroom floor, doing reps on an ab wheel.
Adriana is an early-aughts style icon. She rocks pleather minidresses, deep-V crop tops, relentlessly loud animal print, and, of course, low-rise pants, exemplifying the tacky, bedazzled fashion that would fit right in on a Y2K style Pinterest board. As Kat George for Bustle describes, Adriana is “like an Italian, bad Britney Spears.”
I rewound the scene that briefly shows Adriana’s ab wheel, fascinated, not because it called to mind public obsessions with celebrities’ bodies—nor because the resonance between the ab wheel on my screen and the ab wheel beside me made me feel that I, too, could be a bad, Italian Britney Spears. Instead, the scene articulated something else: the mundane work that goes into surveilling and disciplining our bodies.
This scene is about two minutes long; the shot of Adriana’s workout lasts only a few seconds. You could, literally, blink and miss it. But this moment compels me because of how it makes the work involved in maintaining an “ideal body” explicit as a casual, unremarkable part of everyday experiences.
Discourse around “ideal bodies” often centers celebrities, and depictions of body disciplining are often prescriptive (Weight Watchers ads), aestheticized (Kate Moss, “heroin chic”), and/or fetishized (Britney doing 750-1000 crunches a day). Anne Helen Petersen, in her Substack post “The Millennial Vernacular of Fatphobia,” catalogues examples of the “vernacular of deprivation, control, and aspirational containment.” Most operate in the register of public discipline, in terms of both strict adherence to the demand for an “ideal body” and the punishments reserved for those who cannot or will not do so.
Adriana and her ab wheel catch my attention because this depiction of discipline is not prescriptive, aestheticized, or fetishized, but rather occurs in the register of the ordinary, making apparent the quotidian work that embodying “hot girl-ness” requires, however briefly. While exercise can be both meaningful and social, ab wheels are neither. They thrive on the myth of “spot reduction,” a term for workouts that isolate one “deficient” or “excessive” body part, targeting it for “muscle growth” or “fat loss.” Like other ab-focused commodities that rose in popularity in the 90s (largely due to an influx of infomercials), ab wheels promise not joyful, freeing movement, but a way to hew our bodies toward an ideal.
This glimpse of Adriana’s workout exposes body discipline’s imbrication in the rhythms of everyday life. It’s easy to miss precisely because rigorous discipline of bodies has become entwined with how we move and live in the world, in public and in private.
The Sopranos’ third season premiere, “Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood,” offers a more public example of Adriana working out. In this episode, FBI agents surveilling the Sopranos trail Carmela Soprano and Adriana to a tennis lesson. From their car, the agents ogle Adriana, in a shot framed to force viewers to look through the agent’s binoculars—making us self-conscious of our surveillance of her body.
The shot tilts up and down Adriana’s body, focusing first on her midsection. In contrast to the privacy of using an ab wheel while arguing with Christopher, in public Adriana’s body is surveilled by the state. Connecting this moment of explicit surveillance to her workout in “Fortunate Son” reveals a link between the public and the private. Private walls don’t keep out the disciplining gaze of thinness.
That gaze gets in because we bring it with us. We anticipate its power and administer it towards our own bodies, in the “private” spaces of our homes and the “self-controlled” space of social media. Who hasn’t curated a workspace, meal, or outfit specifically for the camera’s gaze? Who hasn’t looked at their own Instagram, staring at images of their own body, imagining how it looks to an outside observer? Surveillance and self-surveillance have become woven into the fabric of everyday life—as though there are men with binoculars everywhere.
These two distinct images of Adriana’s body link the mundane maintenance of our bodies with the unequal gaze of surveillance. The disciplining of our bodies manifests both in collective conversations about celebrities’ bodies—from Jessica Simpson’s mom jeans to Khloé Kardashian’s weight loss—and also in the mundane, semi-private actions of counting calories, body-checking, or targeted ab workouts. But ultimately, both modes of body policing have the same function: they consume our energy and time. What is lost to our surveillance of our own and others’ bodies is how we could have lived otherwise.
Recent years have brought renewed interest in and feminist reappraisals of 90s/00s cultural touchpoints, from portrayals of Tonya Harding and Monica Lewinsky to #FreeBritney to the Paris Hilton-adjacent aesthetics of BimboTok. Fashion, of course, is cyclical too—it’s no surprise that low-rise jeans are back. But their link to fashion’s pervasive fatphobia also disrupts narratives of linear feminist progress, which suggest that we’ve progressed beyond the sexist dynamics of our past. Low-rise jeans represent a certain level of public body policing, but just because these discourses have become arguably less overt doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared.
We fear the return of low-rise jeans because we fear the circus of fatphobia and body disciplining that they represent. But that few-second shot of Adriana and her ab wheel crystallizes that the disciplining and surveillance of Y2K fashion culture never went away, and were never only or even primarily public: like The Sopranos, that pressure is still streaming. Body discipline certainly occurs at the level of the bombastic, the excessive, the public; but also, for most of us, it occurs at the level of the banal, the unremarkable—the Saturday evening in, arguing with our partners or watching TV.
Olivia Stowell is a PhD student in Communication & Media at the University of Michigan, where her research focuses on race, embodiment, and temporality in contemporary television and pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @oliviastowell, where she tweets polls about food, pictures of dogs, and hot takes about TV.