Earlier this month, an unedited, unauthorized photo of reality star Khloe Kardashian standing poolside in an itsy-bitsy, very Kardashianesque bikini was posted on the internet. Kardashian and her team scrambled to get the photo off the web, threatening legal action against pretty much any social media users who’d reposted the pic on Twitter, Instagram or Reddit.
It didn’t matter that all of us who keep up with the Kardashians, wittingly or unwittingly, thought Khloe looked “younger, happier and healthier” than she had in years. (If you haven’t been keeping up, there’s been a lot of conversation about Khloe’s ever-changing face as of late.)
“If I looked like Khloe in that unedited photo, I’d be sending it to everyone myself,” one woman joked.
Still, it’s true that she did look different; this wasn’t the poreless, pouty-faced, Facetuned creation we’ve come to expect from a standard-issue Kar-Jenner Instagram pic. The sisters guard their images as if they were sacrosanct. (The family has even been accused of photo-editing their toddlers’ faces.) Giving good face ― and good body ― is de rigueur in the family, and Khloe had inadvertently changed all that.
Days after the initial brouhaha, she posted a video on Instagram Live in which she stripped out of a sweatsuit to prove she “isn’t photoshopped.”
She also posted a four-page statement explaining her side of the controversy: “It’s almost unbearable trying to live up to the impossible standards that the public have all set for me,” she said, noting that for years people have called her “the fat sister,” “the ugly sister” and said she must have had surgery when she lost weight.
Though deserving of sympathy, the message seemed more than a little disingenuous coming from the Kardashian family, the originators of “Instagram face” (ever notice how everyone on social media looks they’ve visited the same surgeon, or at least watched the same contour tutorial?) and the slim-thick body ideal (flat stomach, toned thighs, impossibly thin waist and a large booty to boot).
Often under the guise of “body positivity” (you deserve to look your best, girl!), the Kardashian clan has reportedly made billions of dollars promoting and producing products that not-so-subtly suggest to women that there’s much about our bodies that needs atoning for: Theirs is an empire built on waist trainers, appetite suppressant lollipops, fit tea (a cute thing to call a laxative), flat tummy shakes, diet pills, lip plumping gloss and even Spanx for pregnant ladies.
In other words, you’d be hard-pressed to find celebrities who have done more to perpetuate and profit off unrealistic beauty standards.
Meanwhile, the women have “perfected” themselves in less plebeian, far more costly ways: On Instagram, they share their frequent trips to the dermatologist’s office for laser treatments and their exacting daily workout sessions with top trainers.
Then there’s the alleged work they’ve had done. Through the years, countless plastic surgeons “who have not treated the Kardashian or Jenners” ― lest we forget, mama Kris Jenner is sue-happy! ― have hypothesized about the various invasive and non-invasive surgeries the women have undertaken: Juvederm lip injections, Botox, rhinoplasty, butt and breast augmentation.
It breaks my heart to see women ― and young girls ― compare themselves to edited images that are so outside of the realm of possibility for most humans.Emmaline Rasmussen, a registered dietitian and holistic wellness coach
There’s an endless amount of work involved in keeping up with the Kardashian beauty ideal. As Khloe’s note on Instagram reveals, when it comes to setting unattainable beauty standards, a Kardashian is both the oppressor and the oppressed.
Emmaline Rasmussen, a registered dietitian and holistic wellness coach, tells HuffPost: “The unrealistic Kardashian beauty standard that made them famous has become so outsized and outside reality that even they can’t live up to it.”
“Obviously she looks great, and I feel a deep sadness for the fact that she is under pressure to edit the images she typically shares with the world when the real image is beautiful and her figure is enviable before Photoshop,” she added.
Rasmussen works with young women who openly talk about how Instagram and the infinite scroll of Kardashian and Kardashian-wannabe models affects their self-esteem.
“This family has absolutely influenced the expectations my clients have for their own appearance, particularly that of their body,” she said. “It breaks my heart to see women ― and young girls ― compare themselves to edited images that are so outside of the realm of possibility for most humans.”
When Twitter user Mary Sheehan, 26, saw the unedited Khloe picture, she felt a weird sense of relief seeing that it was filters and Facetune and not so much invasive plastic surgery that was responsible for making the Kardashian sister look so different over the past few years.
“There have been some mean-spirited memes over the past few years of Khloe having a ‘new face’ every month, but in that picture she was very much recognizable to her younger self and not the uncanny valley version of herself she posts online with no visible skin texture,” Sheehan told HuffPost.
“I mean, if you look at some of Khloe and her sisters’ photos, you can see they Photoshop themselves so much they’ll accidentally blur out their knuckles, elbows and kneecaps, normal textured areas of the body,” she said.
The unedited photo ― and the makeup-less pics celebrities sometimes deign to release ― are a window into just how much photo-editing programs and camera filters can change an image and our perception of that person, Sheehan said.
Rebekka Arnold, 28 and a Kardashian fan, was also taken aback by the unedited photo and how it made her feel.
“The amount of unconscious body dysmorphia the Kardashians cause young women is unbelievable,” she wrote on Twitter last week. “I didn’t even realize how much I needed to see that unedited picture of Khloe Kardashian.”
Arnold told HuffPost she still thought Khloe’s body was “goals” in the leaked picture, but goals in a normal-girl-in-a-bikini way instead of flawless and edited-to-CGI heights.
Given how much Khloe has been criticized for her looks in the past, Arnold isn’t without sympathy, but only up until a point.
“I completely believe these women, despite their privilege, have their own personal body image demons, but they have literally fallen victim to the culture they have been part of creating,” she said.
The photo debacle was a missed opportunity for Khloe, who’s always been a bit of an underdog.
As a genuine fan, Arnold wishes Kardashian would have used the photo controversy as an opportunity to be vulnerable with the women who follow her ― to truly “represent body acceptance,” as she claims to do on the website of her denim brand, Good American.
Ultimately, that’s what makes this incident so sad. Khloe, the sister who, by her own admission, has always been perceived as too tall, too big, too insecure, would have been a perfect ― and perfectly subversive ― conduit to take on today’s unhealthful Instagram-fueled body ideals. To openly discuss how joyless it is to live with even a little bit of body dysmorphia, to always have to look camera-ready.
Instead, fans got legal threats and a dimly lit video reconfirming just how hot her body is. (As for body dysmorphia, it’s something Khloe has touched on in passing once before. In a Snapchat years ago on the way to a red carpet event, Khloe made a jokey “confession” to Kourtney Kardashian: “I feel like the whole of our family has a little bit of body dysmorphia, but I’m kind of into it as it keeps us on our A-game.”)
Samantha DeCaro, a psychologist and assistant clinical director at the eating disorder treatment center Renfrew Center in Philadelphia, watched the photo controversy unfold with a mixture of fascination and horror.
DeCaro thinks the Herculean effort the Kardashian team made to remove the untouched photo from the internet is “merely a symptom of our culture’s deeper pathology.”
“We live in a culture rife with ageism and fat phobia. Here is someone with virtually unlimited resources who has managed to attain these unattainable beauty ideals,” the psychologist told HuffPost. “It’s astonishing that even she doesn’t feel emotionally safe to be fully seen.”
Removing the photo hurts all of us because it indirectly sends the message that we, as we are, shouldn’t feel safe either, she explained.
“Khloe seems to be facing the familiar fear that she is not worthy just as she is, and we can all relate to that on some level in this culture,” DeCaro said. “Photo-based platforms like Instagram reinforce the belief that we derive our worth primarily from our appearance.”
It’s obvious that women want something more, though. The popularity of Instagram accounts like @celebface show that many of us are thirsty for untouched photos ― pics that show the fine lines and undereye bags that normally wouldn’t see the light of day on Instagram.
But more often than not, those accounts have a mean sheen to them; you get the feeling they’ve been created more to “expose” celebrities and give followers a place to drag their faves rather than to celebrate natural beauty.
Khloe has a platform to render such accounts obsolete. Imagine how empowering and how much credit Khloe would get if, at her own volition, she shared photos like the bikini pic of mysterious origins. She’d be a Kardashian for a new age. A Kardashian for the rest of us.
“Exposure to unfiltered and more realistic images like this Khloe pic could help us all challenge some of these harmful beauty ideals,” DeCaro said. “We would all benefit from increased exposure to body diversity on social media, including diversity in shape, size, ability, gender, races and ethnicities.”
Of course, Kardashian’s image strictly belongs to herself; it’s up to her, not us, to decide if she wants to take up the mantle of true body positivity. It’s heartening to know that there’s a growing number of celebrities who are already doing this, rejecting the new Facetune normal for something more real and relatable: Ashley Graham has shown off her post-baby stretch marks and pre-baby cellulite. Serena Williams went unretouched on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar for its August 2019 issue.
Obviously, we don’t have to wait for celebrities to make the first move, either. We have agency in this issue; we can choose to curate our Instagram feeds so it’s not just one stick-thin Instagram influencer after another.
We can pledge to go on an unfollowing ― and following ― spree. We can make a conscious effort to follow people who look like us, both in complexion and body type, and ditch anyone whose photos makes us feel crummy.
“It’s really important to realize we can set our own boundaries around social media and limit the time we’re spending on these platforms,” DeCaro said.
To that end, the psychologist often encourages clients to check in with themselves to see how they feel after a long scrolling session on their phone.
“If we let it, social media can be beneficial if used as a tool to connect rather than a tool to compare,” she said.
That said, of course, we’d love to live in a world where Kardashians went au natural and their legions of fans felt safe enough to follow suit. Until that day comes, the sisters Kar-Jenner, their filters and their Facetune are deserving of our side eyes ― and our sympathy.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.