Praise for Kim Kardashian’s Skims ignores her family’s relationship with body augmentation

Kim Kardashian’s much talked about shapewear brand, Skims, made headlines in September for its most recent campaign featuring her sister Kourtney Kardashian and close friend, Megan Fox.

The two appear in a intimate embrace, wearing nothing but underwear. Cosmopolitan wrote that the pair “look so good […] wow,” with industry heavyweights like Nylon and InStyle adding to this praise. Important questions surrounding these images and their implications for viewers however are missing from mainstream conversations.

Also missing from conversation is the Kardashians’ now infamous relationship to body augmentation, beauty ideals and the pressures these ideals often cause. This should raise some concern, especially from a brand devoted to dressing, shaping and changing the body.

Promises made to women

Valued well above US$1 billion, Skims is now among the most successful and quickly growing shapewear brands. Even amid COVID-19, Skims experienced an uptick in sales. So, what explains this tremendous growth?

Kim’s brand(s), much like that of her sister, Kylie’s, thrive off promises made to women. Namely, promises that the purchase of their products can produce a figure and face closer in shape and size to the Kardashians. Skims’ images and online advertisements communicate as much, drawing viewers’ attention to an (increasingly) narrow waist and full hips like those Kim Kardashian first made famous.

Of course, these promises aren’t real, from lip kits that failed to produce Kylie’s perfect pout, to vitamin supplements, teas and waist trainers that couldn’t quite “snatch” a Kardashian-like silhouette. Yet, media continue to levy praise and admiration, as if these promises shouldn’t warrant some suspicion.

Understanding the beauty ideal

In my work as a researcher studying appearance and attractiveness, as well as their representation and reception across media platforms, I take questions related to beauty, its various pressures (and privileges) seriously.

I look to images and advertisements, as well as videos and online trends, to better understand how beauty has come to shape our mediascape, and what this means for everyday viewers including and especially young people who consume and engage with digital content.

Throughout, I observe a quintessentially Kardashian ideal, with an increasingly large number of social media users postured in ways that reproduce the sisters’ figures and faces. Consider, for example, online makeup tutorials and outfit shots dedicated to the sisters’ likenesses. Kim’s own beauty tutorial has generated more than 15 million (and counting) views online, with everyday consumers tuning in to see just how to achieve the Kardashian look. Contour sticks and face powders — they are told — are all that is needed to sculpt, highlight and lift the face.

The popularity of these images and videos reflects Kim and her sisters’ respective influence within the world of beauty, even as they continue to deny their role in its pressures.

In my ongoing work on appearance, with sociologists Shyon Baumann and Josée Johnston, young people often explain that the Kardashians define what it means to be beautiful today. Drawing our attention to the sisters’ full lips, round hips and tapered waistlines, they remind us just how important (and impossible) the Kardashian ideal has become (thin, but curvaceous, full, but flat in all the right places).

One step forward and two steps back

To her credit, Kim’s work with Skims represents a step forward in she and her sisters’ enviable empire of brands, and their relationship to beauty. The brand has a focus on more diverse bodies in many (if not most) of its images and advertisements online, and shapewear in a range of sizes and skin tones, Skims is far more inclusive than some of its industry competitors. In fact, consumers can shop up to sizes 4X and 5X across most product categories to find, in the brand’s own words, “a solution for every body” (emphasis added).

But with this step forward, Kim has taken two steps back. As the brand’s messaging (however subtle) so often suggests, women ought to rein in their figures and discipline their bodies if they are to be made beautiful, sculpted and “solved” — she is suggesting that womens’ bodies are necessarily flawed, and in need of correction.

Though messages like this are not new in the world of beauty and fashion brands, their demands and attendant pressures from contouring the face to binding the belly, have never been more persistent or damaging than they are today.

As philosopher Heather Widdows, points out in her work on beauty, Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal, we have, as never before, a “duty” to perfect our appearance or at the very least, try. And this duty, as Kim and her sisters well know, can be packaged for purchase.

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