How Kim Kardashian West made us buy into the new beautiful

In an interview with WWD, Jason Diamond, an American plastic surgeon associated with Kim Kardashian West, explains, ‘Kim has an amazing face. That’s a big part of the reason why she is who she is. Kim’s angularity to her cheeks are better than almost anyone’s on the planet – the neck and chin and the way they come together. The contour is better than just about anyone[’s].’

Given the amount of work done on Kim’s face – something she’s not shy to hide –, this statement almost reads as a self-congratulation, a tribute to the facial sculpting prowess of Diamond, his peers and the non-invasive cosmetic treatment industry. And yet, the Kardashian beauty effect has somehow seeped so deeply into society that to have a perfectly angular and contoured face sitting on a perfectly sculpted hourglass body has become aspirational. How exactly has Kim shaped today’s beauty standards; and is it any good?

The Rebirth of Contouring

Even it wasn’t for the fact that Kim has had her face sculpted by way of fillers and Botox, Diamond’s comment on the media mogul’s contour would still pass as irony. Hard as it is to imagine for some but there was a time without the Kardashians, and back then contouring wasn’t a thing at all. It got big in the ‘80s and ‘90s when drag queens revived the method some of us may know from black-and-white Hollywood movies – big enough to become overshadowed by other approaches soon after the turn of the century. Some two decades and alternative make-up trends forward, and Kim’s trademark beauty look, which her long-time make-up artist Mario Dedivanovic (aka the ‘contour king’) has to get credit for, is declared the biggest craze of the late 2010s. From countless Instagram accounts and beauty blogs to the runway and title pages of Vogue – everywhere, faces are contoured to their best.

Alternately described as ‘face architecture’ (Tom Ford) and ‘a little bit like virtual surgery’ (Charlotte Tilbury), contouring is employed to add depth, shadow and definition to the facial structure, while notably also slimming the nose – a feature Kim is reportedly self-conscious about. ‘I love contouring and I don’t think I’d stop contouring my nose – I know people think I’ve had a nose job but it really is just make-up,’ she tells elle.com. And that’s perhaps the most enticing part about it: being able to remodel and sculpt one’s face without a undergoing a serious beauty treatment and coming up for the associated costs.

Nonetheless, some old-school masters in the industry are pushing back against the method’s popularity and draw. Not only are faces too individual and idiosyncratic for each needing to be contoured all-over – some may benefit from a local cheek contour at most. What’s more, as American celebrity make-up artist Bobbi Brown explains, ‘[t]he contouring trend is so wrong because it tells women there’s something wrong with their face. There’s beauty in a full face, so I don’t like to paint in a cheekbone that doesn’t exist.’ Despite all the hype around the method, Brown notably resisted releasing a contouring set when still active as CCO at her make-up line.

Questions of contouring needs aside, Kim’s association with the method isn’t purely positive either. As she embarked on her entrepreneurial contouring venture in 2017, she didn’t show her best – read culturally sensitive – side. One of her ads, shown as part of the launch of her new Crème Contour and Highlight Kit, featured her looking overly contoured and tan and subsequently received blackface accusations. Kim may have been the incubator of an easily accessible, if somewhat questionable, beauty trend but her alleged role model qualities leave a bit to be desired.

Non-Invasive Beauty Treatments

If there was ever a time when fillers and injectables were in their heyday, free from social stigma and frowned looks, it’s now: the time of the Kardashians, of Instagram, and the time of younger-than-ever millennial beauty seekers. Spearheaded by Kim, the non-invasive treatments (aka ‘tweakments’) have become so socially accepted that many consider it part of their beauty routine, with some services costing no more than a high-end face serum. In any case, having one’s nose done for a fraction of the price of regular rhinoplasty has proven enough of a reason for many to convert. As a recent study conducted by the London-based healthcare consultant LaingBuisson notes, the non-surgical cosmetic treatment market in the UK alone is estimated to rise to 3.6b by 2021. For context, the UK cosmetic surgery market was valued at £273m in 2018.

A key figure in the scene and Kim’s own beauty regime is Beverly Hills-based Simon Ourian, a ‘cosmetic dermatolog[ist] by vocation’ and a self-confessed ‘sculptor by avocation’, as he calls himself on his practice’s website. Through meticulous on-the-job films and before-and-after photos shared on Instagram, he’s played a key role in popularising non-invasive beauty enhancements. One method he’s developed and is particularly famed for is the Coolaser technology, something Kim swears by ‘[f]or all-over skin radiance’ and remodelling and tightening her stretch-marked post-partum body.

However, as beauty editor Nadine Baggott reminds us, ‘Ourian is not a board-certified plastic surgeon, he is a GP who has been trained to do procedures such as filler, Botox and laser.’ And one who’s faced past accusations over negligence and improper record-keeping, at that. While his name may be clear now, his past hints at the fact that the non-invasive beauty market is full of unregulated and murky practices. With millennial clients worrying generally far less about the risks involved, it’s a trend that’s not without its downsides.

We also mustn’t forget that, however cheap and accessible these kinds of treatments may be in comparison to cosmetic surgery, the latter hasn’t completely lapsed from the scene. In fact, what seems to have superseded surgical cosmetic interventions with all its associated costs and risks has become an invitation for invasive treatments. As Liz Heath, author of the above-mentioned LaingBuisson study, expounds, ‘[o]ne upside for cosmetic surgery providers is that non-surgical treatments can act as a “gateway” for more complex procedures. We found that people having non-surgical treatment often eventually turn to full surgical intervention, for example when dermal fillers no longer produce the desired results, patients progress to facelifts, while laser lipolysis patients may move on to tummy tucks.’

So is the non-invasive beauty trend sparked by Kim really any better than its counterpart? I doubt so. While undoubtedly alluring in its promise to create Insta-worthy faces in a matter of minutes (and with routinely less recovery time, at that), such treatments – like any cosmetic intervention that seeks to transform the body, rather than highlighting its beauty and subtle imperfections – are rooted in the notion that our bodies are aesthetically wrong and need remodelling through unnatural means. And that’s what the Kardashian beauty effect is about. We’re born in imperfect bodies and need to rely on the hands of surgeons to get us back in shape: a clone-like ideal.

Closing Thoughts On Body Image

In 2016, Dame Helen Mirren famously gave her accolades to Kim: ‘I’m not into the Kardashians, it’s a phenomenon I just don’t find interesting, but – and this is the big word: B-U-T-T – it’s wonderful that you’re allowed to have a butt nowadays.’ Thus she tells the Sunday Telegraph Magazine.

She may be one of the most body-conscious women out there in the media. One whose body screams ‘curvy’ and ‘sculpted.’ Perfectly workout-ed. Invisibly corseted. Hourglass-moulded. Contoured; definitely contoured. A post-modern Venus. Full. But also filled and injected, pre-modelled and shapewear-shaped, pumped, lasered, lifted, tucked, and sandwiched between harsh beauty ideals.

She advertised Flat Tummy lollipops to her millions of Instagram followers back in 2018. More recently, in November 2019, she shared her aspirations for her 40th birthday – to lose the 18 or so pounds she claims to have gained within the last eighteen months. As an alleged, or perceived, advocate for body confidence, she seems overly, if not too, conscious about slimming methods and beauty ideals, insecure in her own fragile shell that many may see as aspirational. Which brings to mind: maybe the Kardashian beauty effect may, after all, not have worked out for Kim herself.

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