If you’ve been following pop culture for the past decade, you likely know by now that no one controls their images more closely than the Kardashians. There’s a reason the common saying exists: “The devil works hard, but Kris Jenner works harder.” The momager, by her own account—as documented in her “mem-wah”—runs a tight ship.
Before I continue: What’s most important to understand in the context of the Kardashians is that they are, first and foremost, a brand. A mega-brand, at that. And, like with any brand, image is everything, and must be upheld at all costs. Because if your brand suffers a PR fallout or an image crisis, the revenue consequences can be disastrous. (Just ask Victoria’s Secret.)
That’s why Khloé Kardashian’s recent blunder should be the family’s worst nightmare.
Not because the unedited, unfiltered photo of the third-oldest Kardashian leaked in the first place. She looks great—many Twitter users, in fact, said it was the best photo of her they’ve seen in years. (I just sincerely hope MJ is in a safe place right now.)
No, the blunder is that their reaction to the photo was so incredibly toxic and so obviously embarrassing, and deserves widespread ridicule—as well as a serious reflection on our part regarding to whom we give our attention and money.
As many people know by now, Khloé allegedly had her lawyers and even reportedly her sister Kim (!) reach out personally to Reddit and Twitter users who posted the photo—and tweets left and right were swept off the Internet faster than you can say “bible.” (Which is especially troubling when you consider the platform consistently lets off Nazis and death threat-spewing users scot-free.)
If Khloé and Ko. weren’t familiar with the Streisand Effect before—an Internet-age social phenomenon in which the act of suppressing information actually further draws attention to it—they certainly are now. The photo went viral, and Khloé released a statement decrying society’s bullying and impossible beauty standards, and how they have impacted her over the years. And that’s completely fair. I totally have empathy for her there. Getting called “the fat sister” by the media for years isn’t a fate I’d wish on anyone.
But she lost me when she acted like she’s a victim of society’s beauty standards in 2021 when she and her family are major perpetrators of the problem. It’s been more than a decade since the Kardashians came onto the scene as just a regular, albeit rich and connected, relatable family (rather than the fully formed brand they are today). Hundreds of millions of followers later, and with impossibly small, photoshopped waists and surgically enhanced behinds attributed to “hard work and exercise” (rather than the work of very talented LA-based plastic surgeons, or at the very least, personal trainers), the Kardashians have, for years, wielded a staggering amount of power over women’s self-esteem, and society’s beauty standards as a whole. Who do you think started the signature “Instagram face,”aka an oversize pout, button nose, and fox-like eyes? This, all while selling women products that capitalize on their specifically feminine insecurities—whether it’s body makeup, or contouring kits, or slimming shapewear. (Jameela Jamil was onto something when she dubbed the Kardashians “double agents for the patriarchy.”)
Like it or not, Kim, Kourtney, Khloé, Kendall, and Kylie brandish massive influence, and have, in a way, become “the standard” that women everywhere have emulated in the looks department—a standard that, to be clear, has been largely appropriated from women of color, from their signature features, to their style choices.
And if even the Kardashians—with their plastic surgery and trainers and personal chefs—are so miserable with their own appearances that they’ll sue over an unfiltered photo, what hope do the rest of us have? Why should any of us feel comfortable with our naked, unfiltered, unedited bodies if even a Kardashian can’t feel happy with hers?
What a message to send.
To me, the act of threatening legal action and having Twitter users’ accounts suspended for 12+ hours simply for posting an “unflattering” photo is self-hatred at its most distilled. (And it’s especially ironic when you remember that Khloé runs a brand, according to its website, on a platform of body acceptance.)
It didn’t end there, though: After the photo went viral, Khloé took to Instagram Live to show off her toned body, from a distance, in a dimly lit room. As if she had something to prove. As if she was saying, “I don’t look like THAT. There’s something inherently wrong with looking like that, and I need to prove to you that I don’t.”
In one fell swoop, the Kardashians alienated women everywhere and showed themselves for who they really are: self-hating, fatphobic hypocrites. And while that might sound harsh, they are a brand, after all. And as far as I’m concerned, Kris Jenner and her krew need to rapidly evolve with today’s times before their brand gets left behind in the 2010s, just like Victoria’s Secret.
Images: Jamie McCarthy/WireImage
I stopped following all the Kardashians on social media when Khloé used “anorexic” as a compliment in 2018. It was the final nail in the coffin (shaped nails) of their toxic behavior and hindrance to the positive body image movement of which they once fancied themselves as champions.
But you don’t have to be following them to be keenly aware of their most recent content catastrophe, all provoked by an unfiltered, unphotoshopped, and by all standards very nice photo of Khloé in a bikini. It doesn’t look like the Khloé we know from TV and Instagram. It looks like the Khloé that may actually exist.
The photo is said to have been taken on a recent family vacation to Palm Springs, and was either leaked by an assistant or her grandmother (whose grandmother hasn’t taken a photo of us we don’t approve of?). But it’s not the photo for once that’s making headlines: It’s the aftermath.
After its initial posting, the offending bikini pic was removed faster than an accidental like on your ex’s Instagram, with the family allegedly working overtime to scrub any traces of it from the internet forever (a gargantuan feat, even for a family with such a firm grip on the media and its inner workings). Sister Kim herself even got involved, allegedly direct messaging people to request its removal, citing the image, taken in broad daylight, as being “doctored”, taken “in the worst lighting”, and a “copywright infringement” as opposed to the truth, which is that it’s just not an image Khloé has carefully curated for the world to see.
On its (contoured) face, this is just another effort on the famous family’s part to control their narrative and image, but dig a bit deeper and it’s all just extremely sad. The Kardashians, what with all their yacht-loads of external validation (a combined 80 gazillion Instagram followers and “likes,” a slew of homes, so much money, access to any and everything) are no further along—and in fact, they seem frighteningly behind—people without an ounce of their resources, money, and fame to find a shred of self-worth. The timing of the incident, right before news also broke of Kim Kardashian officially becoming a billionaire, pretty perfectly drives home that sentiment.
The sadness I feel about Khloé, who has spent years (and, as she laid out on Instagram on Thursday, her entire life) publicly striving to achieve a version of herself that she finds “worthy” is twofold. Look at that photo and you’ll see what we have been conditioned by society and media to believe is the ideal body: a flat stomach, curves in the exact right places. These are things that I—and most people—don’t have! And yet she is so ashamed of it, writing on Instagram that it “doesn’t capture your body the way it is after working so hard to get to this point” with its non-Barbie doll smoothness (thank you, Diet Starts Tomorrow for that analogy) that her sister—who, by all accounts, has plenty more to do with her time than reach out to random people on social media—is doing everything she can to hide it.
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It’s equally as sad to learn that Khloé has obviously not found her own version of self-acceptance and has not done the internal work necessary to love, or at least make peace with, the external. The message being sent to millions of young (and not-so-young) women who look up to her and her sisters is that this more-than-acceptable body is simply unacceptable.
Even her response is sad, going on Instagram Live to prove that “this isn’t photoshopped” when in reality the only difference in the Palm Springs image is a bit of skin texture. It’s impossible to comprehend what it’s like to be ridiculed by the media for the way you look, but the reaction—one that can only be compared to that of a leaked sex tape as opposed to simply acknowledging that it’s a bad photo and moving on—speaks louder than a caption could.
It’s also impossible not to examine this incident as it pertains to her clothing brand, Good American, whose Instagram bio literally reads “representing body acceptance”. Often heralded as “expensive but worth it” by legions of fans on TikTok and actually impressive in terms of size offerings compared to most other fashion brands, here we see a true inability for Khloé to practice what she preaches.
Whereas many of the models in Good American’s marketing materials represent a more realistic body image, a recent campaign image of Khloé looked more like one of those Stretch Armstrong dolls of the ‘90s, all elongated limbs and a distorted body shape. She wants to be a champion of body diversity—just not when it comes to her own body.
Looking at the images Khloé did choose to share drums up toxic feelings, too. Despite knowing that they’re likely doctored, despite knowing everything I do about feeling good in my skin and the pitfalls of comparison especially on social media,, there’s a small part of my brain that’s jealous of the woman in this image, with her flawless skin and exposed rib cage. As long as we continue to glorify images like this one, and these women in general, the longer it will be before shifting beauty standards and healthier relationships with our bodies will trickle down to us, the masses.
If nothing else, perhaps this might be a moment of reckoning for anyone who still views these women as body image role models. It’s high time we all realize that the Kardashians, with their weight loss tea spon con and usage of skinny as the ultimate compliment, are anything but.
Images: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images; khloekardashian / Instagram