Historically, the fashion industry has taken a lot of blame for its deliberate romanticization of people’s physical appearance and lifestyle even though they appear to be suffering from debilitating substance use disorders. Stylists and photographers have filled magazines with the same beauty ideal – strung-out, languid, underweight – defining a new cool called heroin chic. While images that glamorize the aesthetics of heroin addiction have fallen out of favor in fashion photography, we still see narratives throughout the mass media that echo this idea.
Addiction is prevalent in the entertainment industry. Popular music is saturated with references to substance abuse of all kinds and is many people’s first point of reference for various forms of addiction.
The relationship between musicians, genres, or songs and actual drug abuse is kind of muddy. Much of the music on the radio is so universal that it would be difficult to set appropriate controls for most people exposed to these references from an early age. However, it’s clear that certain music does at least promote drug use.
Wrap and hip hop music, in particular, get a lot of attention for this. One famous study showed that 47% of songs in this genre mention alcohol and that there is a distinguishable relationship between young people’s listening to rap and drinking malt liquor.
Other forms of music encourage drug addiction in other ways. Many forms of folk and punk music repeatedly glamorize heavy drinking and alcohol abuse, and while electronic dance music doesn’t promote addiction through its lyrics, MDMA use is rampant on the rave scene.
Film and TV
There’s much to be said about portrayals of substance abuse in film and TV – movies that glamourize drugs and alcohol have always been very popular. Even motion pictures such as the Hollywood great Requiem for a Dream can’t show the dark underbelly of addiction without hinting at a notion of romance.
Meanwhile, images of a swaggering antihero or relatable tortured geniuses plagued with tobacco, alcohol, or drug addiction are so familiar across many genres that we view it as par for the course.
However, bringing drug use into the popular narrative has its upside too. As high-budget productions dip more and more into mature content, it loses its shock value, but it also opens new avenues of discussion in visual media about the harsh realities of substance abuse in user’s lives.
Popular personas such as Bojack or many of the cast of characters in Breaking Bad don’t glamorize addiction so much as illustrate its dangers – this can only be a good thing in the long run.
The Elephant in the Room: Social Media
Can you point to anything in 2021 with more norm-setting power than social media? First, there is the power of unregulated advertising of addiction. Think of native or banner ads on social media feeds selling the latest in vape devices or liquid. Far beyond that, the content that our peers, celebrities, and other high-profile individuals publish is deeply influential to the way we think about what is normal, acceptable, aesthetic, or desirable.
Choose any platform, and you’ll find countless user-generated posts, photos, and videos published that either explicitly or implicitly promote substance use – images and quips referencing the party last weekend, bottles, or carefully framed snaps of paraphernalia. Posting content that merely hints at addictive behavior conveniently detours around community guidelines while adding a layer of cool artistry and young people listen to this intently.
This has real effects. It is probably not surprising that there have been studies since the era of MySpace linking alcohol and other substance use to young people’s social media activity. When you consider that using social media itself is potentially addictive, the picture looks even bleaker.
What Can I Do?
While there are trends, nothing mentioned here can predict someone in your life experimenting with drug use with any degree of accuracy. It is important to stay wary of the new heroin chic, but not many people want to (or can) drop all media.
Ultimately, the best thing you can do is approach what you view with a critical eye; look for this kind of messaging and encourage family members to do the same. And, if you ever see signs of addiction in a loved one, know that help is available.