Not Even the Kardashians Can Keep Up With Their Unrealistic Beauty Standards

9 minute read

Over the last decade and a half, no family has dominated the conversation around beauty ideals quite like the Kardashian and Jenner family. From their exaggerated curves to their noticeably plumped lips, the women’s faces and bodies—and the debate that swirls around them—have become some of the sisters’ biggest assets, helping to keep them in the spotlight and offering an image around which they’ve built lucrative product brands.

For years, the fascination surrounding the Kardashian and Jenners’ appearances has been fueled by the sisters’ coyness. While some have admitted to using Botox or fillers, they’ve largely avoided discussing whether they’ve surgically modified their bodies (with a few exceptions)—which is why viewers of the family’s Hulu series The Kardashians were shocked by Kylie Jenner’s frank admission in the July 27 season finale that she had a breast augmentation when she was 19 years old. 

Read More: The Kardashians Is One Big Marketing Opportunity for the Family’s Brands

The sisters have long been criticized for perpetuating unrealistic standards through choices like using Photoshop and filters to alter their images on social media, promoting diet products, and speaking proudly about crash dieting. At the same time, one of the most insidious aspects of their influence on women’s body image is the way in which they’ve suggested that their looks have been achieved through hard work and genetics alone, rather than cosmetic surgery, says Jessi Kneeland, the author of Body Neutral: A Revolutionary Guide to Overcoming Body Image Issues

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“They’re selling a fantasy,” Kneeland says.

Jenner’s comments about her breast augmentation in the season 3 finale were stunningly candid. The fact that she spoke about it all feels revelatory, and it’s tempting to believe that her openness could represent the start of a new era of accountability for the Kardashians. But experts say that the transparency of this single moment on TV rings hollow in light of the years of damage already done to women’s conception of what is beautiful and ideal. 

How the family has influenced body image and beauty standards 

It’s telling that the very first episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians in 2007 opened with a family conversation about Kim Kardashian’s butt; Kris Jenner famously referred to her daughter as having “junk in the trunk.” Their banter foreshadowed the many ways the family would put their bodies at the center of their focus—and the public’s attention. Speculation over dramatic changes to their faces and bodies over the years, from butt implants to boob jobs to more recent weight loss, has consistently fueled media coverage. The women themselves have encouraged it, with Kim posing nude for an “internet-breaking” Paper magazine cover shoot and the sisters frequently sharing revealing images that emphasize their bodies on social media. They’ve spun the obsession with their figures into successful brands, from Kim’s Skims shapewear line and Khloé’s Good American denim brand to Kylie’s lip kits and Kourtney’s Lemme supplements, all of which sell the dream of looking and feeling like a Kardashian.

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For some women, the desire to emulate the family’s aesthetics has led to more drastic, permanent changes: in the years since the family’s rise to fame, cosmetic surgery has become more common than ever, and there’s an obvious parallel between the Kardashian sisters’ most talked-about features and the procedures that have gained in popularity. In 2016, after Kylie said she got lip filler, the American Society for Plastic Surgeons reported a sharp increase in lip procedures. A 2018 study by the same organization found that butt-enhancing procedures had increased by 256% since 2000, despite the fairly serious risks of surgery (the Brazilian Butt Lift, or BBL, has the highest mortality rate of any cosmetic procedure).

Kylie Jenner says she regrets her breast augmentation

This season of The Kardashians included two instances in which the sisters discussed their looks and their influence on beauty standards. First, in the penultimate episode, which dropped on July 20, Kylie led a conversation with Khloé and Kourtney about the pressures they feel to look a certain way. Khloé admitted that the public scrutiny that has come with being on TV, as well as criticism from their mother, who she once overheard telling someone that Khloé needed a nose job, and more general societal expectations, motivated her to surgically change her nose. Kylie expressed a desire to correct a misconception that she made changes to her face because she was “insecure,” saying that she has always been confident and that her choice to get dermal fillers came from a place of loving herself.

She acknowledged how their choices have an impact on other people: “I just feel like we have a huge influence," Kylie said in the episode. "What are we doing with our power? I just see so many young girls on the internet now fully editing [photos of themselves]. I went through that stage too, and I feel like I'm in a better place, but other people can instill insecurities in you."

Read More: Why Body Neutrality Works Better Than Body Positivity

Kylie returned to the topic in the season finale during a conversation with her friend Anastasia Karanikolaou, confessing that she had her breasts augmented as a teenager and that she wishes she “had never gotten them done to begin with.” She also shared that she hopes her daughter won’t make surgical changes to her body. 

“I would be heartbroken if she wanted to get her body done at 19,” Kylie said of her 5-year-old daughter Stormi. “I wish I could be her and just do it all differently because I wouldn’t touch anything.”

What the Kardashians’ recent comments mean for the future 

While these comments from Kylie and her sisters mark a notable shift toward openness, Meredith Jones, a professor of gender studies at Brunel University and the author of Skintight: An Anatomy of Cosmetic Surgery, urges consumers of Kardashian media to recognize the moment in which this shift has come. First, talking about cosmetic procedures is no longer taboo in the way it once was: TikTok is rife with videos of people walking viewers through their body modifications. Second, the sisters have begun losing weight, adhering to a newer “trend” toward thinness which has coincided with the popularization of using drugs like Ozempic to trim down. In this context, Kylie denouncing her breast augmentation is fairly predictable and safe. Jones, who has hosted “Kimposiums”—academic forums devoted to the Kardashians—sees the conversations the sisters had on the show as not so much an acknowledgment of how they’ve perpetuated unrealistic beauty standards but instead an attempt to keep up with the times and set the narrative for adapting to a new beauty “trend.” 

“The Kardashians have always said that they're mirrors for us,” Jones says. “They're kind of the quintessential performers of our beauty culture.”

MJ Corey, a writer and researcher who theorizes about the Kardashians on social media under the handle @kardashian_kolloquium, describes the sisters’ bodies as a “narrative device.” “Their bodies titillate and provoke and have become really representative for people,” Corey says. “They lean into it, so when they began losing weight and their butts began shrinking, they knew it would incite a discourse—and it did.”

Read More: Ozempic Exposed the Cracks in the Body Positivity Movement

For Kneeland, the Kardashian and Jenner family’s small move toward transparency is a step in the right direction, regardless of their motivations. But Kneeland argues that these fleeting conversations don’t address the real problems the family has created when it comes to other people’s self-image.

“The big limitation is that we've already seen all the images,” Kneeland says. “It's better than nothing—it's better than never saying it—but you can't go back and rewire millions of women's brains from how you’ve impacted them over the years.”

Kneeland points out that one of the biggest real-life consequences of the Kardashian and Jenners’ lack of transparency in the past was the fantasy that their appearances could be attained if you exercised, used the right supplements, or wore the right products. By not disclosing whether or not they’d had surgical work done, the sisters left conversations of privilege, resources, and risks out of the equation.

Read More: Keeping Up with the Kardashians Is Ending. But Their Exploitation of Black Women’s Aesthetics Continues

“A BBL is not cheap, and people go to a lot of trouble to get them,” Jones adds. She makes the point that the sisters’ recent weight loss underscores a particular type of privilege: sporting  larger butts, something that has historically caused women of color and particularly Black women to be othered, brought the sisters positive attention. But now that the look is more accessible and popular in the mainstream, it has become less fashionable, and the Kardashians have the means and ability to change their bodies. 

“I think about the distress that a lot of people must be feeling at the moment, basically finding out that that body modification [like this] is no longer acceptable, will no longer be considered beautiful,” Jones says. “It must be quite devastating.” 

Jones also warns viewers against believing that Kylie’s denouncement of her breast augmentation means the family will now be a force for body acceptance: “I can't imagine listening to someone who's achieved this pinnacle of mainstream beauty through cosmetic surgery and hearing her say, ‘I regret having had it, but here I am getting all of these benefits from looking like this.’ It doesn't wash right.”

For Corey, the meaning of all this is simple. The family’s new narrative around beauty hearkens back to what they’ve always excelled at: putting themselves at the center of a cultural moment. “For them to finally name it and acknowledge that they do have an impact on body image—they’re just saying what we’ve already known for a long time,” Corey says. “It may have an impact on viewers, but most likely, it'll just generate more conversation about them.”

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