This topic deserves its own thesis, dissertation, textbook — but I’ll keep it high-level(ish) for now.
For those who aren’t keeping up with Khloé Kardashian, here’s the short version of the latest “scandal”: An unedited photo of Kardashian in a bikini surfaced on social media. She looked incredibly “fit,” but the image wasn’t angled or filtered or edited or well-lit in the way we’ve come to expect from her. She attempted to have it removed from the Internet. Backlash ensued.
Kardashian did an Instagram Live video last night (April 7) to prove that her very thin yet very curvy body “isn’t Photoshopped.” She posted a short essay about beauty standards, the media, and why she presents herself the way she does. You can read it here.
“It’s almost unbearable trying to live up to the impossible standards that the public have all set for me,” she wrote, noting that her reaction to the “unflattering” photo was essentially a trauma response to being called “the fat sister” and “the ugly sister” for years. She explained, “This is an example of how I’ve been conditioned to feel.” Kardashian justified her use of filters and editing by saying, “My body, my image and how I choose to look and what I want to share is my choice. For those who feel the constant pressure of not ever feeling perfect enough, I want you to know that I see you and I understand.”
It’s a beautiful sentiment. She’s not wrong. Yes, she’s been conditioned by beauty standards. Yes, it’s her choice to aesthetically alter her face and body. But… through that choice, Kardashian offloads the “constant pressure” she feels onto the rest of the world. It’s a “hurt people hurt people” kind of thing.
The general public is (understandably) having none of it. I’ve seen reactions to Kardashian’s response ranging from, “The irony is, she’s putting pressure on other women to adhere to beauty standards” to “Girl, you’re a hypocrite.”
The thing is…
This situation is not ironic. This situation is exactly how beauty standards are designed to work! And if Kardashian is a hypocrite, anyone who’s similarly crumbled under the pressure of societal beauty standards and altered their appearance because of it is a hypocrite, too. Her reaction triggers us because it is us.
We are all Khloé Kardashian.
Yes, Kardashian is a very public figure, but she’s also a great example of how we are all harmed by beauty standards and how we all inflict harm by adhering to those beauty standards.
It may be helpful to think of beauty culture like an MLM (Multi-Level Marketing company): Beauty standards (the product) are produced by the powers that be: patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, colonialism. They’re then distributed by high-level executives: Corporations, brands, editors, influencers, dermatologists, aestheticians, reporters, celebrities. Individuals buy into these beauty standards and, in turn, “sell” those standards to their communities, creating a “downline.” The standards are now everywhere, as ubiquitous as a pair of LuLaRoe leggings.
In other words, society/culture conditions us into conforming to beauty standards. When we conform, we become the conditioners, compounding the conditioning for those within our personal spheres of influence. That conditioning radiates outward from us as individuals, through our private and personal networks, and into social networks, organizations, the general public, and finally, the culture. It comes full circle.
So yes, the toxicity starts at the top — but when that “Hey, hun!” shows up in your Facebook messages and fills you with rage, you’re more than willing to recognize the role of the individual, right?
Hun… we have to exit the downline.
When we participate in toxic beauty culture, we perpetuate toxic beauty culture. We make it harder for our fellow human beings to opt out. We ensure that future generations will have to deal with this shit, too.
Another metaphor for you: Compare beauty standards to climate change. Corporations are responsible for the overwhelming majority of global emissions fueling climate change… and consumer demand ultimately forces corporate policy. The fact that corporations bear the brunt of the responsibility doesn’t absolve the individuals from action. Per that viral “The Office” meme, we realize that corporate responsibility and individual action are not mutually exclusive, right? We know that we need both to make change? (Individual action = being a conscious consumer, sure, but more importantly: being involved politically, electing officials who will enact legislation to regulate corporations, supporting grassroots movements, addressing issues on a local level, etcetera — there’s so much to explore here besides “buy better” but that’s a different article entirely.)
It’s the same with beauty standards.
Yes, we need brands to stop marketing these standards. We need an overhaul of the media. We need to bring psychology and therapy into the beauty industry — because in my experience, it’s run by a lot of people in a lot of pain, who truly believe that helping consumers better adhere to beauty standards is the best way to heal the hurt that beauty standards cause. We need a version of “non-toxic” beauty to address the toxic effects of beauty culture: anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia, disordered eating, low self-esteem, self-harm, suicide. We need so much at the higher levels.
But we also need to hold ourselves accountable, recognize our own responsibility, and — if and when we have the mental and emotional capacity to do so — opt out of beauty standards on an individual level. We need to stop buying the products. We need to stop booking the procedures. We need to stop clicking the links. We need to stop promoting the diets. We need to stop using the filters. We need to stop editing the photos. We need to give the industry incentive to change.
Divesting from beauty culture isn’t easy. It isn’t a “drop everything right now!” kind of thing, either. The emotional trauma caused by beauty culture is very real, and we need to be gentle and patient with ourselves. If we aren’t able to leave the house without foundation, or post a picture without a filter, or eat the goddamn cookie without worrying about our weight, we need to give ourselves grace.
De-conditioning is a process. It’s hard. It’s time-consuming. It’s almost impossible (at least, it feels that way).
But let me remind you: So is the Sisyphean task of conforming to Western beauty standards, which are — by design and definition — impossible to meet. What if we took all the time, money, and effort we invest in beauty culture and used it to divest from beauty culture, instead?
Alas, I have to insert a big ol’ Kardashian “but” here. As a result of beauty standards being passed down from systems of racial, political, economic, and gender-based oppression, it’s important to acknowledge that they still oppress us in all the same ways. “Conforming to beauty standards confers a certain set of privileges: better treatment, better jobs, better pay,” as I wrote in my last HelloGiggles column. “It can feel empowering because it offers literal power.”
This is a function of a system that wants to keep you consuming and consumed by beauty standards. This also complicates things.
Because there are distinct social and economic advantages to adhering to certain beauty standards, deciding to stop adhering to all beauty standards can have social and economic consequences; particularly for women of color, trans women, and non-binary folks. Since Western beauty standards are founded on patriarchy, the gender binary, and white supremacy, cis white women typically face fewer consequences when they stop participating. Fellow cis white women: That means we have to double down on the work of dismantling Western beauty standards; we have to use our privilege to lose our privilege.
I am achingly aware that this is an incomplete analysis of beauty culture. This conversation demands nuance and intersectionality and so, so much more time. Please don’t assume that this article is my “final word,” or that it covers everything, or that it represents all of my thoughts and research on the subject. (You can read more on of my thoughts/research on this here and here.) Consider it an introduction, a conversation to have with yourself and your community, a collection of thought-starters:
Like Khloé Kardashian, we are being conditioned and we are the conditioners.
Like Khloé Kardashian, we feel the pressure and we apply the pressure.
Like Khloé Kardashian, our choices are our own and our choices have consequences for the collective.
Like Khloé Kardashian, when we participate, we perpetuate.