The Kardashian Beauty Industrial Complex: How Did We Get Here, And How Do We Get Away?

Kylie Jenner attends the Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas in May. Tinseltown/Shutterstock.com

How do we talk about modern culture without talking about the Kardashians? The task is infuriatingly impossible, given the completeness of the family’s saturation of the news cycle. Below every headline about a national disaster, international relations, war, disease, the state of economies, there’s a story about the Kardashians.

And even if you don’t want to, you’re always keeping up with the Kardashians.

Their stronghold on culture only ever divides, and multiplies. You can try to ignore them, but they’ll take over the billboard you see each day on your way to work. They’ll be the face on nearly every magazine you see while waiting in the checkout line at the supermarket.

Whether you believe them to be new gods or false idols, there they are, always. And now that they’re poised to conquer the beauty industry entirely, we have to ask ourselves, how did we get here, what does it mean, and how do we opt out?

The Kardashian empire is Romanesque in its sprawling command of disparate territories. They conquered pornography with Kim’s sex tape, reality television with Keeping Up With The Kardashians, celebrity with their mere existence, mobile app technology with Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, and even infiltrated music via Kim’s relationship with Kanye West and her regular appearances in his videos and songs.

Their stronghold on fashion has been building too, beginning with the introduction of their own fashion line and stores, Dash, in 2006. Since then, Kim has led them in the fashion stakes by become a fashion icon herself, gracing front rows at Fashion Week, securing a coveted U.S. Vogue cover in 2014, appearing in ads for fashion houses like Balmain and most recently releasing a high-end fashion/photography book with Kanye and Juergen Teller.

It only takes a moment of browsing high street stores to see exactly how pervasive Kim’s influence on fashion is, as her style is mimicked in the design of clinging dresses, asymmetrical hems, leather jackets and teetering lace-up heels in popular retail chains like Topshop, Asos, H&M, Forever21 and Zara.

The filter down effect of Kardashianfication has now reached the family’s fledgling members, the two youngest Jenner sisters, Kendall and Kylie, the former of whom is now a high fashion runway and print model and has graced the world’s most illustrious runways for historic fashion houses from Chanel to Givenchy. The sisters have a clothing range with PacSun, another with Topshop and have just launched a site where fans can shop their wardrobes.

The Kardashian/Jenner clan virtually owns fashion; the alternative would be difficult to argue convincingly. But celebrity has always had a bearing on style. Whether it’s the obsession with gigantic sunglasses championed by Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton in the mid 00s or the boho trend popularized by Sienna Miller and Kate Moss in the 00s, celebrity has always correlated with fashion, especially in the social media/digital tabloid era of the past decade wherein we watch those we idolize dress and undress in real time.

So it’s not just the Kardashian’s stronghold on style that’s concerning, because celebrity will always bear fashion trends as its fruit. It’s that they’ve now breached the illusory walls of “beauty” and have managed to at once diversify and homogenize what beauty means to the masses.

Seventeen-year-old Kylie Jenner recently announced the launch of a beauty site for young women and girls, which (watching Keeping Up With The Kardashians makes clear) ruthless momager Kris has been pushing for some time. It’s important to note that to this end that when we were first introduced to the Kardashians as beauty icons, it was a revolutionary idea.

We had been so absorbed in the waifs of the 90s, the narrow-hipped but abdominally sculptured bodies of the early 00s with the infamous “thigh gap” as central to that ideal that when the Kardashians shot to prominence what was popularized as beautiful was challenged in a very real way.

The Kardashian women, for starters, are of Armenian descent. In a culture where beauty and undiluted whiteness have historically been inseparable bedfellows, their ethnicity was something new for the mainstream to digest (even though they are, still, essentially white).

Moreover, their bodies were different. Their thighs touched, their bottoms were large and their breasts ample. They were women unashamed to show us the pain they went through to achieve perfection: the diets, constant workouts and accoutrements of slimming. They still are those women. They’re the everywoman, but with millions of dollars to spend on their faces, chefs and personal trainers.

Kim Kardashian attends the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in February. Helga Esteb/Shutterstock.com

Kim Kardashian attends the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in February. Helga Esteb/Shutterstock.com

The thing about the Kardashians, for better or worse, is that they did change the notion of beauty in the mainstream sense. They put bodies and faces on the front of magazines that we, at the time, were unaccustomed to seeing. They said, “Yes, we look perfect, but really, we are these imperfect, deeply flawed, insecure women who go to unrealistic means to achieve a certain aesthetic.”

At the time, that was revolutionary and important. But we’ve been keeping up with the Kardashians for the best part of a decade now, and it’s no longer new or groundbreaking. It’s the exact opposite.

Like every other idealized female body exalted by the media and beauty industries, the Kardashians have evolved into just another unattainable stereotype of feminine beauty. Once we deemed the thinness of Kate Moss-era models absurd and sought greener pastures, we found the Kardashian women, and in them, a reprieve from the starved image of the female bodies we coveted.

But now that the Kardashian body has become a commodity, we’re dealing with the same problem. The lengths the women go to—from plastic surgery to the cinching of their waists with elaborate corsetry to achieve impossible proportions between their curves—is just the same as the glamorization of chain smoking and thinness that came before them. The problem is that idealized beauty is idealized beauty, no matter what shape or size.

We see these women, in the media and in their reality program, striving always to achieve their perfect notion of beauty. While they’re self-aware enough to concede that their beauty is a full-time job, they’re still chasing an extreme ideal designed to make the actual everywoman feel inadequate, and in turn, pressured to consume. Because after all, the Kardashians are just another industry. And with Kylie, the youngest Jenner/Kardashian, idolized by teens and young women globally, officially entering the beauty game, we’ve got a serious problem.

Because what happens when you start broadcasting this notion of ideal beauty not only to women in general but to girls who are already mired in the myriad insecurities that come with adolescence? What happens when the young woman broadcasting that message is herself consumed with her own insecurities? And where do you draw the line between commercial enterprise and the purposeful exploitation of insecurity for personal gain?

What the Kardashians and the beauty industry at large fail to account for is realism. We trick ourselves into believing that “different” is “real,” and allow ourselves to be swept up in trend-based beauty because it strikes us (for a time) as out of the ordinary. The Kardashian women are different, but that “different” isn’t the type you see walking down the street. This type doesn’t have cellulite, it doesn’t have acne, and it doesn’t have flyaway hairs. It doesn’t have any of the things that are so banal, so regular, and so everyday that we’ve managed to deem them disgusting.

But these things are the reality of our bodies, and without them the Kardashian ideal, like every beauty ideal before theirs, has dehumanized beauty by perfecting it. The Kardashians might represent a formerly unconventional version of beauty, but they’re the perfect version of that unconvention.

The Kardashian Beauty Industrial Complex is akin to a dictatorship, and like all dictatorships, designed to keep them in control and profiting without exception. It becomes even more toxic and insidious as they begin to indoctrinate women early.

It’s evident in Kylie herself—a teenager who grew up with sisters so impossibly beautiful and so consumed in maintaining and intensifying that beauty that mimicking that becomes of paramount importance and creates a hole of insecurity so deep it’s impossible to fill. So Kylie has her lips injected, swaps out her weave on a weekly basis, obsesses over her body and the gym and applies makeup excessively. Is this the future we envisage for a generation of young women? Is this really what we’re still teaching?

The future for women doesn’t lie in the contouring of their cheeks. It lies in reclaiming the image of woman and embracing the dynamism of personality and intellect. This doesn’t mean abandoning the beauty industry altogether, because there’s no shame in a love of lipstick. Beauty becomes problematic when we reduce women to this being their number one priority, and when we allow an oligarchy of reality stars to oppress us with an image of beauty that is entirely unattainable.

Kat George is a New York-based writer covering pop culture, fashion and beauty.