Keeping up with the Kardashians’ “slim-thick” body ideal comes at a high cost.
A recent study conducted by Toronto’s York University found that looking at imagery of women who fit the “slim-thick” ideal – flat stomach, toned thighs, impossibly thin waist and a large derrière – causes more body dissatisfaction among young women than looking at images of women who are thin.
The study name-checks both Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner, arguably the two most popular sisters with over 327 million followers and 362 million followers, respectively. Of course, the entire family have been known to digitally alter their pics (and, some have alleged, pics of their kids) and many suspect they’ve gone under the knife, something the sisters have largely denied.
Popular apps like Facetune, which allow users to make their waistlines even smaller while enlarging their backsides, only exacerbate young girls’ insecurities, the researchers of the study said.
It’s routine to digitally alter photos, they write, “thus making the thin ideal even thinner and less attainable for the average woman.”
Wendy Oliver-Pyatt, a psychiatrist who specialises in treating eating disorders and the co-founder and CEO of Within Health, isn’t affiliated with the study, but she knows full well how damaging it can be for young girls to fixate on Facetuned selfies and bikini pics.
In fact, it’s why she recommends clients curate their social media feeds to omit Influencers and Instagram accounts that bring them down.
“Whether it is extreme thinness, extreme athleticism, or extreme ‘slim-thick,’ the psychic absorption of these images into our minds as standards by which we should measure ourselves contaminates our perception,” she explains. “It can impact our self-esteem and sense of self-worth.”
For baby millennials and older Gen Zs who were in grade school when “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” debuted in 2007, it’s been hard not to compare their bodies to the famous sisters and their Kardashian-lite influencers – though some fans (and naturally, haters) are on to the women.
On Kardashian fan boards like the r/KUWTK subreddit, fans vigorously debate how the sisters bought their glow-up and browbeat the reality stars for not being transparent about their work.
Wafa K. Numan, a 22-year-old who lives in the Bay Area in California, says it “burns her soul” to hear the Kardashians claim they haven’t had anything done.
“We have these white women go from skinny, normal-looking body types ... to a complete 180 change,” she says. “From face to body, these women lack the accountability that comes in the public eye.”
“We aren’t stupid,” Numan adds. “I’d respect them more if they came out openly to say exactly what they got done. And yes, they do owe it to us; they’ve pushed these body types on us.”
Obviously, is not just the Kardashians who are sporting these unattainable, otherworldly bubble-butted bodies. Women who look almost exactly like them are everywhere on social media. And if you’re young and impressionable, the preponderance of these images can get to you.
Lucero, a 25-year-old who lives in Atlanta, Georgia, says seeing “beautiful models with a thin waist, no stretch marks and a bubble butt” on her Instagram feed negatively impacted her as a preteen and teen.
“I think growing up hearing boys my age constantly talk and obsess over the Kardashians and their bodies did affect the way I viewed myself and my body type,” she says. (So did the fact that all the boys she knew at school followed the same women and “liked” all their photos.)
“In a way the Kardashians have set the bar high, to the point where a regular man wants his partner to have this perfect figure, no stretch marks and a flawless face simply because they like these women.”
Now, she might call what she felt body dysmorphia – a mental health disorder in which you dwell on one or more perceived flaws in your appearance, even when there’s no flaw to speak of – but then, she didn’t have the language to think about.
“I’d tell myself when I got older and had enough money I’d get a BBL,” says Lucero, who asked to use her first name only for this story.
A BBL, the shorthand for Brazilian butt lift, is a procedure where excess fat is removed from one area of the body and injected into the buttocks. In spite of their many plastic surgery denials, some of the KarJenners – namely Khloe Kardashian, Kylie and Kim – have been subject to BBL rumours. (If you’re really keeping up with the Kardashians, you know the latest tea is that fans suspect they may have reversed the work, based on recent photos.)
When Lucero turned 24 last year, she finally got her BBL at a cosmetic surgery clinic in Miami.
“I wanted more hips, a bigger butt and no more rolls,” she says.
Lucero says surgery itself cost $6,500 (£5,333), but the price was closer to $9,000 (£7,380) when you factor in transportation supplies and massages. (Most doctors recommend lymphatic massages within the first two or three days after most body contouring procedures, including BBLs, liposuction and tummy tucks).
Plus, because she was far from home, she also had to go to a post-op recovery home in Miami. That cost her $1,500 (£1,231).
Lucero admits that plastic surgery can be addictive.
“Lke anything else, it gets addicting because even after only one procedure you’re not completely where you want to be physically,” she says. “You start to notice other things you’re not happy with. I eventually booked a breast augmentation and dimpleplasty for later this year in 2022.”
Lucero has no regrets about her procedures. But the way she describes it, keeping up with the KarJenner’s body ideals sounds downright exhausting.
“This newfound insecurity took over. Heading into my 20s, I had the same body type as a younger Kylie but I waited and waited, but my hips never developed like hers did.”
Brandy Nitti, a 28-year-old trans social media influencer from New York, admits that the Kardashian aesthetic ideal played a part in how she wanted to look when she transitioned.
Maybe not explicitly – Nitti didn’t bring a photo of one of the sisters into her surgeon’s office – but given how ubiquitous looks like theirs are on Instagram, she might as well have. (Ever notice how every influencer on Instagram seems to have poreless, dewy skin; high cheekbones; come-hither, upturned eyes; cartoonish lashes and a tiny nose? That’s “Instagram Face.”)
Especially as a trans woman, it made a certain sense to default to what’s considered “perfect” and hyper femme if you’re going under the knife.
“I have had a lot of body image issues being a transgender woman in a social media career,” Nitti tells me. “Transgender women are pressured by society to fix everything that maybe considered masculine, when in reality there are plenty of cisgender women who have very similar features to our original features.”
Nitti had breast augmentation in 2018, though obviously her surgery had much more to do with gender dysphoria than looking reality star-perfect.
“Still, now I have noticed that I want them bigger and that has definitely been created by this unrealistic beauty standard that social media and influencers like them have set,” she says.
In a meta twist, even actual Kardashians feel bad about themselves when compared to the Kardashians. Remember last year when Khloe went to great lengths to wipe an unedited bikini picture of herself off the internet? (No matter that she looked beautiful and her figure was still enviable without the Photoshop treatment.)
As BuzzFeed News’ Ade Onibada wrote at the time, “The reality is that Khloé is in a body-conscious, hypercritical prison that is partially of her own making, and with every decision to edit, filter, airbrush, Facetune, distort, and divorce herself from her actual image, she further fortifies this prison.”
Should the KarJenners speak up about their suspected surgeries?
Dana, a 24-year-old travel blogger from Australia, hasn’t had any plastic surgery like the Kardashians (“I’m 5’2”, a BBL would look unforgiving on me!”) but she has fallen prey to a Kardashian-endorsed waist trainer and lip injections.
As I’ve written before, the Kardashians have made a fortune promoting and producing products that not-so-subtly suggest to women that there’s much about our bodies that needs atoning for: the aforementioned waist trainers, appetite suppressant lollipops, FitTea (a cute thing to call a laxative), Flat Tummy shakes, diet pills, lip plumping gloss, Spanx for pregnant ladies.
When she was younger, Dana, who’s close in age to Kylie Jenner, tried to overline her lips with makeup like the Kylie Cosmetics mogul claimed she did. (It wasn’t until 2016 that Jenner admitted she’d had filler, but she swears she’s had no plastic surgery. “I’m terrified! I would never,” she told Paper magazine that year.)
“I was scooped up in the King Kylie era and it went straight over my head that her lips weren’t natural,” she explains. “What can I say?”
Dana even tried the “Kylie lip challenge,” a short-lived 2015 internet trend where young tweens and teens would place their lips into a shot glass to create suction that would swell up their lips to approximate Kylie’s pout.
At 21, Dana was wise to Juvéderm and Restylane lip fillers and sick of Facetuning her pout, so she went to a medspa to get the procedure done.
“Then this newfound insecurity took over,” she says. “Heading into my 20s, I had the same body type as a younger Kylie, but I waited and waited, but my hips never developed like hers did.”
If you believe the Kardashians’ many plastic surgery refutations, you believe they’re just genetically blessed like that.
Earlier this summer, for instance, Kim got eyes across the internet when she claimed she’d never had plastic surgery, or even fillers, in an interview with Allure.
“I’ve never had eyelash extensions,” she told the magazine. “I’ve never done anything ... I’ve never filled my cheeks. I’ve never filled my lips. My eyebrows are real ... I’m 41. I always want to look appropriate.” (Of course, a month prior she told the New York Times that she was all about looking youthful, and that she’d consider eating poop if it meant she could stay looking young.)
In other words, Kim achieved that body by “getting [her] ass up and working” in the gym (sometimes multiple times a day) and rigorous, frankly disordered-sounding dieting. Lest we forget, she also recently made headlines for boasting of how she lost 16 pounds in just three weeks to squeeze into Marilyn Monroe’s iconic “naked dress” for the Met Gala.
As a fan, Dana feels conflicted about the KarJenners’ (or anyone’s) need to be transparent about their cosmetic surgery.
“I do believe these things are private and I don’t think we’re entitled to the invasive detailing of anyone’s surgeries or procedures,” she says.
Of course, the Kardashians are profiting off those denials; telling women they, too, can look like a human Bratz doll by buying products from Skkn by Kim or Kylie Cosmetics and going to the gym is disingenuous and profitable.
“I do think that saying you haven’t had something done, when you have, to sell products is ethically wrong,” Dana says. “There is no way of me knowing if they have had any procedures, but it’s such a slap in the face hearing all the dieting and work they do to look slim-thick amongst BBL rumours. Is this not just a repeat of the 2000s diet culture?”
Numan, who’s Afghan American, also mentioned how maddening it is to see the sisters co-opt features traditionally associated with women of colour. (Google “Blackfishing” or “cultural appropriation examples” and the image page is full of pics of Kim in Fulani braids and various sisters looking several shades darker than they were to begin with.)
“Kylie said she only had lip filler but she went from looking like a white girl to looking more ethnic than us ethnic people!” she says.
It might even be hard for the Kardashians to keep up with the Kardashians, and some people sympathise with that.
Beauty trends dip in and out; the slim-thick ideal ushered in by the Kardashians and their Instagram ilk has been idealised for at least a decade, but there’s been plenty of trends pieces lately suggesting that skinny might come back in fashion.
“Y2K fashion trends are coming back – and so is their inherent fatphobia,” an In The Know article said.
“Being THICK is out and SKINNY is back in!” scarily titled YouTube videos proclaim.
It sure seems like the Kardashians are trying to keep up. As mentioned earlier, fans are already speculating that they’ve forgone their alleged BBLs. And Kim told the Today show last month that she’s now lost 21 pounds overall since her Met Gala dieting.
Slim-thick or just plain slim, it’s hard to conform to rigid beauty ideals. In spite of all their criticisms, fans and anti-fans alike say they sympathise with the Kardashians; after all, it can’t be easy to have every last pore and imperfection analysed on Instagram accounts like @celebface.
As Khloe’s unedited bikini pic saga proved, the reality stars are both purveyors of unrealistic body ideals and architects of their own unhappiness.
As sad as that may be, it makes their fans feel strangely less alone.
If anything, Amber, a 24-year-old from Georgia, says the KarJenners have actually made her feel better about her body.
“I’m healthy but a little overweight, and honestly, the Kardashian/Jenners have made me feel better about my body,” says Amber, a 24-year-old from Georgia. “If the KJs, with all their money, time, and resources aren’t pleased with how they look, it shows that everyone has insecurities.”
Others I spoke to, like Sina, a 23-year-old from Germany, feel sympathy but only up to a point. As that demoralising study from York University proves, it’s hard to overstate the negative impact the KarJenners have had on a generation of young girl’s self-esteem.
“I understand the pressure they’re under; they too are ‘victims’ of the fake body images they created with surgeries, filters and Photoshop,” she says. “Still, by denying it and create this unattainable beauty standard only make more young girls and women more insecure.”