In the years since “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” premiered on E! back in October 2007, its impact on our culture has been undeniable.
Over the course of 19 seasons, the show has influenced everything from the reality TV landscape to the rise of Instagram to our popular lexicon. Yet as the series comes to an end (the 20th and final season begins Thursday), we’re only just beginning to understand how the show has changed the way we think about female bodies — for better and for worse.
Over the years, the Kardashian-Jenners have both embodied and encouraged a highly specific physical aesthetic.
Over the years, the Kardashians and Jenners have both embodied and encouraged a highly specific physical aesthetic, dubbed “Instagram face” by the New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino. If you spend any significant time on social media, you likely know the look — lips filled with filler, arched eyebrows and high, plump cheekbones. Every member of the Kardashian clan boasts these attributes, in addition to countless influencers and celebrities (Addison Rae, Amelia Hamlin, James Charles) who’ve followed in their wake. The Kardashian appearance also entails ambiguously ethnic, highly tanned skin (sometimes questionably so), typically long dark hair, large breasts, a teeny-tiny waist and a sizable butt. Altogether, the look is instantly recognizable, next to impossible to replicate naturally and very, very popular.
Because it’s not just famous folks who’ve used the Kardashians as their physical inspirations. We can’t know exactly how many people have altered their bodies to look like a Kardashian, using everything from controversial laxative “detox teas” and waist trainers to makeup and dieting, but TikTok’s “For You” page highlights teens and adults sporting a jarringly similar array of features.
Young people changing up their looks, even to emulate a favorite celebrity, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Nor is it new; fans have been inspired by their favorite stars’ appearances for as long as Hollywood has existed, from Josephine Baker’s dark lips to Cara Delevingne’s bold eyebrows. But there’s something that feels more ubiquitous about the current trends — at least online. You can’t go on Instagram or TikTok without being inundated with images of the “ideal” look, alongside ads for surgeons and info on fillers.
These constant reminders promote unrealistic expectations that can undermine confidence, particularly for teens already insecure about their appearances. As Sarah Buglass, then a psychology researcher at Nottingham Trent University, told the New York Post in 2017, “Seeing such highly curated images validated online, by being ‘liked’ and commented on favorably by many others, gives an indication that the beauty ideals displayed are normal and socially desirable.”
In actuality, these looks, especially those exhibited by the Kardashian and Jenner women, are decidedly not normal; they’re what a handful of superstars who have unlimited access to glam squads and personal trainers have chosen to achieve. But with millions of Kylie Jenner’s followers buying her makeup in the hopes of replicating her lips and Kim Kardashian frequently spouting the supposed benefits of corsets and detoxes, the line between celebrity and fan, fiction and reality, can feel dangerously blurry.
Even for adults who’ve long been aware of the potentially destructive effects of false advertising, the desire to emulate the aesthetic of the Kardashians, or other stars like Cardi B and Amber Rose, is strong. From 2010 to 2016, there was a nearly 40 percent surge in the number of noninvasive procedures done on 20- to 29-year-olds, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. And while the Kardashians surely aren’t the only reason for the rise, we can assume they played a part. As Vice pointed out, some cosmetic surgeons even advertise a “Kylie Jenner package.” Whether that result is actually achieved isn’t guaranteed, but for plenty of people, the possibility is enough.
Adults with sound minds and money to spend are free to change up their appearances however they want, of course. But the psychological creep of “Instagram face” and other impossible body types can be brutal. This is especially true for anyone already suffering or recovering from an eating disorder, as many critics have pointed out. “She isn’t actively trying to harm you,” actress and activist (and outspoken Kardashian critic) Jameela Jamil wrote in response to a 2020 video of Kim Kardashian wearing a corset. “She’s doing to others what her idols did to her, in making her think a tiny waist is the key to femininity and sex appeal.”
Like us, the Kardashians and Jenners are allowed to look however they want and show off their bodies on social media. They are not obligated to promote body positivity or appear "average"; if anything, their celebrity status and livelihoods require them do the opposite. Celebrity culture is unrelenting, and it thrives on constant, often mean-spirited media coverage. Take what happened when a makeup-less Kylie Jenner was caught by paparazzi last spring; the photos went viral, with critics poking fun at her more casual appearance. Three later, new “candid” photos showing Jenner in full glam appeared, rumored to be staged by the star herself.
The Kardashians didn’t create these sky-high beauty standards, but they did help popularize and perfect them. Beloved by some, hated by others, the family is nearly impossible to avoid. And while “KUWTK” may be ending, their influence certainly isn’t. From their upcoming Hulu projects to their ever-expanding beauty empires, the family will continue to stay in our lives — as will their long-lasting impact on how we view them, each other and ourselves.