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The Aesthetic American Dream (Or, What The Kardashian Jenners Taught Me About 'Beauty Work')
Read my latest article for VICE.
Today, a piece I’ve been working on for a few weeks finally when live on VICE: “I Worked My Ass Off for the Kardashian-Jenner Apps. I Couldn’t Afford Gas.” It’s part personal essay, part investigation into the working conditions at the Kardashian Jenner Official Apps and KKW Beauty. You can read the full thing here, but I wanted to share a particularly important (to me) and relevant (to you) excerpt, below.
How could the working conditions at these companies possibly be relevant to you, you ask? Well, from my dual-vantage point as a former employee of the Kardashian-Jenner apps and a woman existing within a post-Kardashian beauty culture, I’ve come to see how the labor politics of the Kardashian-Jenners mirror the beauty politics of the Kardashian-Jenners — and how, through the incredible influence of their beauty politics, their labor politics not only affect their workers, but the wider world.
As someone involved in the image-making process, I knew that the apps sold a beauty ideal that was unrealistic and unattainable, even for the Kardashian-Jenners themselves. Kylie’s app often promoted her $29 Kylie Cosmetics Lip Kits. (Kylie’s lips are famously the product of injectables.) Khloé’s app shared how to use contouring makeup to “get a nose job every single day.” (Khloé has since admitted to having an actual, surgical nose job.) Kim’s app published articles like “How To Facetune Your Face With Makeup.” (During my time there, Whalerock Industries employed a Photoshop artist to airbrush images for the apps.)
The Kardashian-Jenners’ shaping of beauty norms and ideals in the U.S. and beyond is singular. With a 20-season run of Keeping Up with the Kardashiansand a new Hulu show called The Kardashians, the family has been productizing their personal lives since 2007. The social followings they amassed as a result—as of April 2022, 325 million Instagram followers for Kylie, 298 million for Kim, and so on—dwarf those of other major brands and celebrities. (Chanel, Tom Brady, and Reese Witherspoon have, respectively, 49.7 million, 11.8 million, and 27.5 million Instagram followers.) Add to that a rotating cast of famous partners—all choreographed into their television shows and social feeds—and the family has become a ubiquitous presence in Page Six, the pages of Vogue, and the front row at Fashion Week, all of which double as ad space for the sisters’ entrepreneurial projects.
Over the course of their careers, the Kardashian-Jenners have leveraged their financial capital to accumulate beauty capital, and vice versa. They’ve extracted features and techniques from marginalized communities—plump lips, big butts, long acrylics, contoured faces—and grafted them onto their own cis white bodies for profit, while those same communities are cut out of the deal. They’ve Frankensteined an unreal standard of beauty and pushed their audience to “keep up” with them.
This isn’t exactly a novel concept. Beauty standards have long served as tools for advancing capitalist values. Just look at the illogical ideals we chase: hairless bodies, wrinkle-free skin, sunless tans. All require full rejection of the human body via constant product intervention. And beauty standards have always been physical manifestations of systems of oppression. “Beauty isn’t actually what you look like,” writes sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom in Thick: And Other Essays. “Beauty is the preferences that reproduce the existing social order.”
Much like the Kardashian-Jenners’ business standards demand outsized labor from their workers, their beauty standards require outsized aesthetic labor from their followers. Fans who adopt their aesthetic, purchase products from their beauty and clothing lines, and post to their own social media pages act as an army of (unpaid) marketers. The launch for Kylie’s $29 Lip Kit of 15,000 units sold out in minutes.
Beyond makeup, actual body modification is on the rise. The use of cosmetic injectables, like filler and Botox, has grown to record rates over the past decade, with patients regularly referencing images of the Kardashian-Jenner sisters as inspiration. Anthony Youn, a Michigan-based plastic surgeon, noted “a Kardashianization of the younger people, who are especially looking to make similar changes as to what the Kardashians have had done” to the Daily Beast. Kim Kardashian’s infamous ass helped popularize the Brazilian butt lift, or BBL, a controversial procedure that one 2017 study found to have a mortality rate of one in 3,000.
Beauty didn’t feel like self-expression anymore; it felt like a sickness. It felt like a second job—another one I couldn’t afford to keep.
The normalization of cosmetic surgery, illusory makeup, and altered photos raises the baseline standard of beauty for all—a form of aesthetic inflation, if you will. It makes it harder for women and girls to opt out of spending their time, money, and energy on aesthetic labor without facing financial and social consequences.
This work, like all traditional women’s labor—housework and childcare, for example; work that a capitalist society both demands and demeans—is so integrated into the take up of womanhood that it’s hardly thought of as “work.” It’s further divorced from the concept of labor through popular content like the Kardashian-Jenners’, which recategorizes it as fun, self-care, health, or empowerment. And performing beauty can feel empowering, since acquiring beauty capital confers literal power.
But in the same way “girlbossing” empowers the individual “girlboss” but perpetuates the patriarchal values of hustle culture for everyone underneath her—see: the working conditions at the Kardashian-Jenner apps and KKW Beauty—performing beauty to gain power within a culture that rewards women for their looks further perpetuates those patriarchal values.
Studies show that, besides the possible physical harms of surgeries, injectables, and even topical products, the mental health consequences of beauty culture parallel those of capitalism, which can alienate workers from communities and beset them with financial and emotional instability. It contributes to anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, as well as body dysmorphia and disordered eating. Still, we buy into the beauty myth—the idea that embodying an aesthetic ideal will bring success and happiness—for the same reason we buy into the myth of meritocracy: Hope for transformation obscures the reality of harm.
Reality caught up to me after I was diagnosed with dermatitis, a stress-related skin condition that manifested as rough, red skin around my eyes and mouth, in 2015. My self-esteem plummeted. I didn’t think I deserved to be seen. I developed a skin-damaging obsession with skincare and slipped into a deep depression. I couldn’t help but compare myself to the edited images I was uploading to the apps. Knowing the Kardashian-Jenner ideal was physically impossible didn’t stop me from internalizing it.
I eventually left the company because I couldn’t stomach being part of that cycle. Beauty didn’t feel like self-expression anymore; it felt like a sickness. It felt like a second job—another one I couldn’t afford to keep.
Kim Kardashian told Variety that “nobody wants to work these days,” but seven years after stepping away from the apps, I see evidence of work all around me. I see the hours that every over-tanned, overfiltered, Kardashian-inspired influencer funnels into their appearance in the hopes of striking it rich on Instagram. I see the money my own best friends invest into their filler-enhanced lips in the hopes of finally feeling beautiful.
In an aesthetic analog of the American dream, it’s those who are already in power that profit. The rest of us keep running on empty.