Selfie society: Are the Kardashians ruining womanhood?
Our reporter examines the impact of the Kardashian-Jenner family on Irish women
Published 13/11/2016 | 02:30
Is there a more divisive figure than Kim Kardashian?
She of the almost-airbrushed complexion, of the lips glossed in 50 shades of nude, of the small waist and big everything else. Love her or hate her, the 36-year-old has proved to be an inescapable presence in pop culture. Even if you've never watched a single second of her reality show, you know exactly who she is, and her influence is undeniable.
When a TV series about the Kardashian women debuted in 2007, few people were familiar with the family, and those who were hadn't exactly heard great things. Those who followed the OJ Simpson trial more than a decade earlier knew the girls' father Robert as one of his lawyers and close friends, but it was the infamous sex tape of middle daughter Kim and her then-boyfriend, singer Ray J, that really brought the now-ubiquitous name into the mainstream. Eight months after it leaked, Keeping Up with the Kardashians premiered and the rest is history.
The show was instantly popular and became the E! network's highest-rated series ever. It still pulls in solid numbers, but the Kardashians are far more than just reality TV stars at this point. The women of this family - Kourtney, Kim, Khloe, Kendall, Kylie and their "momager" Kris - have permeated contemporary popular culture in a way we've never seen before.
Kim may be worshipped by fans across the globe, but she is at the same time reviled as a symbol of the very worst of modern womanhood, embodying all of western culture's basest assumptions about women - that they are little more than walking blow-up dolls.
Kim inspires a distinct type of loathing, viewed as a glossy mascot for a generation obsessed with aggressive self-documentation, a generation more self-absorbed, materialistic, fame-hungry and vain than ever. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that Kim's recent armed robbery in Paris was a sort of karmic comeuppance for being a terrible role model for women, sneering with tangible glee that she had brought it upon herself.
Commentators have expressed concern about the power the Kardashian family wields, arguing that Kim et al promote a toxic form of femininity and heap pressure on young women and girls to maintain a picture-perfect, Instagram-worthy image around the clock.
What is it about the Kardashians that so appeals to 21st century women in a way that no other celebs have done before? Amanda McClain, a US communications professor and author of Keeping Up The Kardashian Brand, explains: "The Kardashians are women who seem to 'have it all': wealth, beauty, fame, great relationships with their family and friends, and they share their lives with their audiences. Women want to be like them and be their friends."
Most fans will have a 'favourite' Kardashian. You might not identify with Kim, but could relate to Kendall's love of fashion and free spirit, or Kourtney's no-nonsense attitude and dry sense of humour. "The Kardashian sisters have done a really good job of differentiating from each other," Dr McClain continues. "Each one has a specific niche - Kylie is trendy, Kendall is fashion, Kourtney is motherhood, Khloe is fitness, and Kim is sexiness."
She points out that key to their appeal is their manipulation of social media channels - namely Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook - to push their individual brands and share details of their personal lives directly with their followers. These social platforms reinforce the fans' perceived intimacy to their best-loved celebrities, making it feel like a genuine relationship. Kim is your virtual BFF.
"Kim is simultaneously someone you could know, and someone experiencing things the vast majority of people never will. We follow her to see into her life - to see a $5,000 dress and the inside of private planes and then to see her at the dentist and eating salad," says Dr McClain.
Social media has become such a powerful force that people can now make a living by using it to construct a sellable personal brand. The Kardashians are the best examples of this, but Ireland now boasts a whole host of 'social influencers' - people whose online personas have become so popular that they can earn money by working with brands, hosting events and endorsing products in sponsored blog and social media posts. Being an influencer is now seen as a viable - and very attractive - career option by younger generations.
As global leaders of this new breed of social influencers, the Kardashians recognised early on that branding through social media would be one of the dominating trends in 21st century marketing.
Sonia Harris, of Harris PR, says the Kardashians have completely redefined what it means to be famous. They didn't come to prominence because of any particular talent, and to some it may seem they don't really do anything apart from be famous. But they have made a career out of their own celebrity, leveraging their fame to launch mobile games, make-up collections, individual apps and multiple spin-off shows that Khloe has described as "a 30-minute commercial" for their own merchandise and many endorsement deals.
It's evidently working, as the family is estimated to have a collective net worth of €275m. They may get a lot of flack for being spoiled and privileged, but there's no denying these women are bona fide entrepreneurs.
"Social influence isn't a new thing - quite the contrary, it's as old as marketing itself," Ms Harris explains. "I think what is new and what the Kardashians are doing is the idea of branding oneself as an influencer. The Kardashians have used their fame to build their brand and a lot of people are doing that now."
Kim and her sisters have offered a masterclass in the use of social media to fashion a seemingly meaningful social relationship with their fans, but Aisling Murray (26) from Westmeath says that the likes of Instagram and Snapchat, and their effect on the platforms, have put more pressure on young women and girls.
"Social media wasn't around as much when I was 16, nobody in school really cared how I looked," she says. "Now social media is huge - you see the Kardashians and you feel that you know them because you're watching them on Snapchat, it's instant. You can check and see what Kylie is wearing today by looking on her Instagram. When I was in school, you'd buy Bliss magazine once a month and take your inspiration from that."
Although the world is now acquainted with every nook and cranny of Kim's nude body, she has managed to peddle an almost prudish image, what Dr McClain refers to as the "sexy good girl". "She'll pose nude and wear provocative clothing, but is married, a mother, and monogamous. You'll never see her inebriated or out of control," she says.
That being said, her body is her money-maker, and she has set a new standard for what we consider a desirable female body. "Kim's body shape really helped change the stereotype of what people think is beautiful and sexy. She's clearly not a size six, and is considered a sex symbol," says Dr McClain.
Some women have heralded Kim's body as a celebration of curves, while others believe the Kardashian look promotes dangerous extremes and encourages women to seek out cosmetic surgery and other treatments to achieve Kylie's plumped-up pout or Kim's larger-than-life buttocks. In any case, the look has inspired an unprecedented level of grooming, with strong brows, dramatic neutral smoky eyes, heavy contouring and over-lined nude lips becoming the norm among Irish women in their teens, 20s and 30s.
"I will openly admit my beauty routine can be extensive," says 23-year-old Eimear Greene. "But I love looking like I made a real effort with my looks." The Dubliner says she spends at least €100 a month on grooming, between Gelish manicures, eyebrow treatments, make-up and spray tan.
"The Kardashians are a big influence. I hate to say it, because it's such an obvious choice, and because they've really been demonised. If you say you want to look like a Kardashian or a Jenner, people think you're a bit thick. Whereas if you said you wanted to look like Kate Middleton, they wouldn't judge you."
However much people look down on the Kardashians, their effect on contemporary beauty standards is beyond question, as Eimear observes: "Everybody has the exact same look now."
She adds that Facebook and Instagram have had a big impact on her self-image. Social media has done many great things for women - it's allowed us to connect, it's given us a platform to get our message out, it's offered a meeting place for new mothers, and brought us together to lead movements from our devices - but when it comes to beauty, it may have done more harm than good.
"As I've gotten older, social media has really influenced me. I use a lot more products to try and achieve a certain look, which I probably wouldn't do if I wasn't online," says Eimear. "I get slagged for just how many selfies I take. If I've done my make-up for a night out, I'll take a few - I've spent an hour on this, it wasn't for nothing."
As older generations lament the "Kardashianisation" of society, critics often point to selfies as a grievous sign of the times and the increasingly narcissistic impulses of young people. On the other hand, people have been taking pictures of themselves for as long as we've had cameras - and it just so happens those cameras now fit in our pockets.
Instagrammer Jessica Banaghan (23) from Tipperary admits that a lot of work goes into a typical post - her friends have even nicknamed her 'Selfie Girl'.
"I take a lot of selfies. I always take at least 30-40 to get that perfect 'Instagram-worthy' one," she says. "Sometimes I'm concerned about how my selfies are received. But it's not like I won't sleep at night if I don't get over a certain amount of likes. I don't need 'likes' to represent how liked I am or how good the photo was."
However, she admits to having taken down photos that weren't generating a reaction on occasion. "I've deleted posts once or twice. But this would have been because I uploaded it at the wrong time. Timing is everything on Instagram, there are certain times to post online that you know will get you more likes."
Jessica is a self-described "obsessive" Kardashian fan, and names Kylie as her favourite. She managed to get her hands on one of the 19-year-old's coveted lip kits, which routinely sell out upon every restock, and says she spends up to €80 a month on manicures, waxing and assorted beauty products, but wishes she didn't have to wear make-up everyday.
"I would definitely consider the Kardashians an influence on my beauty routine," says Jessie Brennan (18) from Roscommon. "We are constantly seeing them all over social media and how perfect they portray themselves, so that then makes me feel that I need to look the same as them even though that is impossible because of all the surgery they are rumoured to have had. I feel I wouldn't be as self-conscious of things like my lips or my body or hair if they weren't all over social media!"
Although she realises that the filtered images she sees on social media are "unrealistic", she adds: "That doesn't stop the amount of pressure we feel to look exactly like them. We see these girls on social media with such perfect skin, bodies, hair and faces, and we then feel insecure and want to try and live up to those standards."
Mum-of-three Breda (37) from Dublin says she is alarmed by how much make-up her teenage daughters wear. Her own daily make-up consists of foundation and mascara, and she says she "couldn't be bothered in the mornings wasting time" on a full face, but that her two girls, aged 16 and 18, are "obsessed" with make-up.
"My 16-year-old gets up extra early for school to do her make-up and has actually cried on occasion because her eyebrows aren't 'on fleek', as they say," she says. "About 40 minutes is spent sitting in front of the mirror doing make up before school each morning. I think it's crazy.
"When my older daughter has a night out, she usually starts preparing the night before because it takes her so long. I feel the internet has a lot to do with it, and they are massive fans of the Kardashians. They are very pretty girls both of them without all that, but they both have low confidence, which I think comes with young girls who obsess over how they look."
Irish women may be devoting their time and money to emulate the signature Kardashian look, but Liz Dwyer, founder of the Beauty Bootcamp workshops for make-up and hair styling, warns that it is unrealistic for most women, and "doesn't translate" to real life.
"It's very hard for the average person to have the patience to do all that themselves, let alone the skill. The Kardashians are taking it to a whole other level, where you literally can't keep up with the Kardashians," she says.
"Kim is just in a league of her own. I know people in the industry who work with her and she spends at least two hours a day in a make-up chair to look like that. It really misguides people, because everyone thinks if they just do their contouring and their eyebrows in such a way then they'll be up there in the glamour stakes, but it's just a different league, in terms of the amount of effort and people behind her look."
She adds that there's a big difference between make-up for everyday and for photoshoots, but that the line between the two has become blurred in the age of social media. "With Instagram and selfies, people are looking at themselves all the time, and you think you look fine, but then on a camera you'll look different. It's not going to pick up your contouring. Heavy make-up is done for shoots to make the features look more defined," she says.
"You look on Instagram and you see these lovely young girls looking terrifying and putting on this weird mask. They're just like clones of the Kardashians, and they're taking it too far and merging with everybody else.
"If you met the Kardashians in real life, you'd just go, 'wow, they have loads of make-up on'. Most celebrities that I meet, they always have so much make-up on and so much fake hair, but yet on screen they look quite natural and glossy and shiny. It's very deceptive."
What is particularly deceptive, psychotherapist Anne McCormack notes, is how the Kardashian women have packaged their look and lifestyle as something followers can attain too - just so long as they use the family's various apps, video tutorials and beauty products.
"The thing about the Kardashians is that they not only align themselves with this concept that how you look is really important, but they also seem to suggest a route towards becoming of high worth, because they sell this idea that it's something they can make possible for you if you follow them on social media and see how to do it," she says.
"I know a certain amount of it is interest in fashion and beauty, but I think that a lot of women have been sucked into believing there is a path to follow to become a person who is deemed to be of high worth."
She points out that women in their 20s and 30s tend to have a greater awareness of the industry around the Kardashians, but that any kind of obsessive celebrity worship can have harmful effects.
"If you're worshipping the Kardashians, I think it's important to be aware that they are making money out of this, this is their business, rather than just worshipping them as people who 'have it all'," she says.
"Otherwise you can fall into the trap of comparing yourself to them in a negative way, and you can end up with low self-worth, you can feel anxious if you think you don't look as good as you should because you're comparing yourself to these people online."
Social media allows ordinary citizens to broadcast their lives as if they were celebrities, using the same social platforms as their favourite stars do. Young people have become accustomed to receiving praise online through likes and comments, but Ms McCormack argues that seeking validation on social media and waiting for someone else to confirm that you look good can leave you feeling more insecure.
"Part of what can happen is you begin to see your own worth in the context of your physical appearance, and that limits your own ability to experience joy, because you can become dependent on feedback from others in order to feel good about yourself," she explains.
"If it does boost your self-esteem, that heightened self-esteem can be quite fragile, because what happens then if you post a selfie and you don't get any likes? Your self-esteem crashes, so it's best not to source it from that external place. It's better to have a self-esteem source that's not so linked to other people, so you're more in charge of it."
Of course, part of the success of the Kardashian brand is that they are willing to broadcast their own anxieties and crises of confidence and show that they are 'just like you'.
Compared to stars of the past who seemed distant and aloof, they have a very obvious appeal. With shiny dark hair and unconventionally ample curves, they've upended the image of the size-zero Hollywood blonde.
On top of it, through Snapchat videos, Instagram stories and the reality show that started it all, they've demonstrated that they are funny, friendly and unashamedly flawed people, who believe that family and sisterhood is paramount.
While they may keep some of the less glamorous aspect of their lives in the dark - such as their recovery from cosmetic procedures and even their children's nannies - they don't shy away from touchy subjects, tackling addiction, fertility issues and, of course, Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner's gender transition with sensitivity.
"I think it's easy for people to dismiss the Kardashians as having no talent but they are unapologetically true to themselves," says Aisling Chan (20) from Dublin. "They wear what they want, they use their voice to shed light on important topics and they personally inspire me to be a businesswoman and do it for myself. Each one of them has their own individual empire as well as the success of their family brand, and I believe they are empowering for the women of today."
For some, the Kardashians will always be seen as a symbol of empty celebrity. They have come to represent so much that is absurd about our age, but is it all their fault? Of course not.
Women have always wanted to be beautiful, and it's not necessarily dependent on whether they're a fan of Kim or Kylie. A lot of it is just about enjoying make-up and liking to look good. At the same time, a lot of it is knowing that being out in public means being looked at, maybe being snapped for a friend's Instagram post, and being scrutinised in a way that men still are not, and probably never will be.
It's no coincidence that the rise of the Kardashians runs parallel to the rise of social media. The distinction between Instagram fantasy and reality is now dangerously subtle, and the Kardashians have found themselves, whether by their own design or not, right in the middle of it all. They are merely one family in a world of over-sharers - a symptom of our time, not a disease. Without Kim Kardashian, we'd just have one less person to complain about.