Welcome to the Learning Curve, a monthly column where we unpack the complicated experience of accepting your own body in a world that just doesn’t seem to want you to. This month, news editor Nicola Dall’Asen addresses the harmful and hidden message celebrities send when they refuse to be photographed or filmed in an “unflattering” — nay, normal — way.
We’re alone in her room, my conventionally hot friend and I, shuffling through Forever 21 crop tops and Revlon lipsticks like a groundhog who isn’t ready to see its own shadow. It’s a Friday night and we’re teenagers so, naturally, we’re hunting for outfits that’ll make us look older and sexy for our wild night out at the local AMC theater. She turns abruptly to me, sending her long, wavy hair over one delicate shoulder, her flat stomach peeking out from above her mid-rise jeans. “I feel so fat,” she delfates, and my desire to be seen in public shatters. Because when she says she feels fat, I know what she really means is that she feels unattractive, as if those two things are mutually exclusive (they’re not). But she’s neither of those things. So there I sit in front of her, twice her size and height, wondering how she must think I look. I never ask. I don’t want to know the answer.
Those kinds of conversations thankfully don’t happen to me nearly as often in adulthood, and I’ve learned how to handle it when it does. Celebrities and influencers, however, say this to everyone, all the time, and there’s pretty much jack shit I can do about it. Obviously, A-listers aren’t coming to my house to hang out and unload all their insecurities on me — but they constantly send the same hurtful message when they refuse to be photographed or perceived in a certain way. Indirectly and probably without them even realizing it, a famous person’s own insecurities can send regular people into a head-first tailspin of our own. Celebrities have been accused of, in many instances, deleting their own posts or altering the images in their posts (Britney Spears, and Lindsay Lohan have faced accusations, among others). The most recent case in point: Khloé Kardashian’s “photogate” incident from April. As a member of one of the world’s most notable families — one who’s taken her fair share of both warranted and unwarranted criticism — she’s a prime example of what can happen when a celebrity is afraid to be seen as is.
If, by some miracle, you didn’t hear about it, here’s the quick version: An assistant of the Kardashian family posted a lightly edited candid bikini photo of her to Instagram Stories. In the post, Kardashian flashed a sweet, close-lipped smile right into the camera, phone in hand, and one hip cocked while she stood near a pool. Her legs, as usual, looked long and tanned, her stomach flat, hips wide, waist narrow, breasts perky… by any average person’s standards, it still would’ve been a Tinder-profile-worthy swimsuit shot. In my humble opinion, she looked fucking hot. But the differences between that photo and Kardashian’s typical Instagram posts managed to highlight just how much planning, posing, and filtering goes into our public perception of her. Page Six reported that “members of the Kardashian camp” almost immediately tried to have copies of the image wiped entirely from the internet under legal threats because it was unauthorized.
In response to all the hullabaloo about this photo, Kardashian posted a lengthy note to Instagram, musing on how her self-image has suffered from being in the public eye and that she had every right to shield our eyes from a photo that was posted without her consent. That part of her message, I think, is entirely fair. As far as bullying from the masses goes, she has arguably had it the worst among her hyper-famous family. And thanks to social media photo tagging, we all know what it’s like to see a photo of yourself that doesn’t quite capture how you looked and felt in that given moment. It wasn’t her words that sent an icky shiver down my spine; it was the fact that she paired this message with videos and photos of her bare stomach and legging-clad backside, taut and toned in all their buff, supposedly unretouched glory. On the surface she was just trying to guard herself against claims of over-editing, but a sinister subtext remained: I promise I’m not as fat or ugly as you think I am.
In that moment, just like my thinner friends who unintentionally questioned my own body-image by calling themselves fat when they weren’t, Kardashian’s knee-jerk reaction to an “unflattering” photo revealed a damaging belief that she, intentionally or not, passed on to her 155 million Instagram followers: Worth is directly tied to appearance, and anything different than tapered waistlines, thigh gaps, and airbrushed skin has no place in a perfect world. Insecurity bubbled deep in my gut, more so than I’ve felt in a long time. If Kardashian feels so negatively about a photo of herself looking like that, how would she feel about a candid bikini shot of me or anyone else with a different body type from hers? I then pondered how many social media posts I’ve seen of beautiful people who might’ve secretly used FaceTune or an awkwardly stretched pose to hide the fact that they look more like me than they do a Kardashian. (Yes, I am looking for a therapist! Why do you ask?)
Celebrities definitely don’t have any responsibility for our own body-images, and I’m not saying that they should, but let’s take a minute to picture what life might be like if people with Kardashian’s wide-reaching degree of influence saw it that way. By trying so desperately to prevent people from seeing her body in a way she deemed imperfect, she inadvertently ended up drawing more attention to it (hello, Barbra Streisand Effect) and, therefore, drew more criticism about both her body and her hypocritical stance on body-positivity. Had she — or any of the other celebrities who’ve attempted “damage control” — just ignored the photo entirely and let it live online, she probably could’ve side-stepped much of this unwanted attention in the first place. And, instead, she could have made one of the most subtle-yet-powerful statements of her life without even saying anything.
Because here’s the thing about “unflattering” celebrity photos: They’re just pictures of humans looking like humans. Body rolls, cellulite, double chins, under-eye circles… at the end of the day, these “imperfections” are just natural features that bodies have — they just look jarring when seen on people who are usually well-lit, intentionally posed, and (a lot of the time) edited in some way or another. When a celebrity has no shame about showing these features to us (and pointing out what images of themselves have been digitally altered, either by themselves or someone else), they can peel back the curtain on our cultural obsession with unattainable beauty and remind us all that what we see on our screens is often just an illusion.
We live in such a technologically advanced time that it can be impossible to discern what’s reality and what’s a filter, but if celebrities and influencers were more willing to disclose what they really look like, maybe we could slowly start to break the chains of this standard that we just made up one day and decided to follow to our own detriment. (And when I say “we,” I do include myself in that. There’s a reason I rarely show my stomach or legs on Instagram. Even someone who writes about body acceptance for a living can have hang-ups, y’all.) If that photo of Kardashian had just stayed put, she could’ve shown millions of people that she’s OK with the way she looks without editing, and that could have caused a whole lot of people to think critically about why they feel a certain way about their own appearance.
It’s not an easy thing to do, not in the slightest. People are really fucking mean sometimes, and I’m sure that’s the very reason Kardashian wanted that photo erased from existence in the first place. Internet trolls who live to make people ashamed of their bodies will probably always exist; I wouldn’t call them good people by any means, but it’s worth addressing that many are likely feeling pressured to meet an unattainable standard, too, and are just lashing out in attempts to feel a sense of control, validation, and superiority. It’s a vicious cycle: We (average folks) feel pressured by celebrities’ manufactured perfection, try our best to live up to it, and get upset when we realize the standard we’d been trying to achieve was a lie all along. So we get mean and hyper-analyze their bodies to make sense of what we’re feeling. As above-it-all as they seem, celebrities don’t like being bullied, either, and their solution to that problem might be to continue their intense dieting, airbrushing, or whatever it is they do to feel self-assured in their image. But that has to end somewhere, lest we collectively continue to morph into the same life-size Barbie doll with fake proportions that don’t make any physical sense and no relief from the constant expectation to look like a TikTok thirst trap at all times.
Based on history, the Kardashian family definitely isn’t the best place to go looking for revolutionary actions against unrealistic beauty standards and body-shaming, but I have the utmost faith that someday soon, the cycle will start to deteriorate if more celebrities start using their platforms to do just that (see Jameela Jamil’s iWeigh campaign as a decent example alongside Tracee Ellis Ross, who’s no stranger to calling out non-consensual photo retouching). And it’ll continue to do so as the fat-acceptance and body-neutrality communities continue to grow. A couple of my favorite follows for keeping my Instagram feed in the realm of reality are The Power of Plus and Fat Sex Therapist, among others.
“The media,” as my baby-boomer father calls it, also shares a big slice of the responsibility here. That especially goes for tabloids and glossy magazines. It’s no secret that so many magazine covers and the snapshots have been airbrushed and altered, sometimes to the point that the celebrity in question is unrecognizable. There are plenty of publications out there that continually monitor celebrity weight gain and loss, too. The Daily Mail, for example, recently published a roundup of celebrity men who’ve fallen victim to “the curse of the COVID dad bod.” A quick Google search for “Adele weight loss,” will also populate headlines from 2021 promising that you, too, can achieve the singer’s transformation. And, as a member of said media, I can confidently hypothesize that these stories are being published primarily because readers are clicking on and reading them — sometimes more than they click on and read any other stories published that week. That anything-for-clicks mentality reinforces our cultural obsession with “perfect” bodies, too — a lot of the time without the consent of the people being discussed or Photoshopped.
And, of course, there are the brands, who have a long history of tweaking the “after” photos in ads to make products look like they work miracles. We have seen some progress here in recent years, with companies like CVS and Unilever vowing to stop doing major retouching on promotional materials. However, there’s still plenty of work to do in terms of making sure those non-Photoshopped faces represent a truly diverse swath of faces and bodies.
It’s not just up to them, though: Us average folks living regular lives in regular places have to start learning how to be nicer to ourselves and also try not to get so pressed about other people’s bodies in general, famous or not. The next time we feel the words “I feel fat” or “I look ugly,” or any other negative appearance-based statement on the tip of our tongues, let’s swallow it. Instead, let’s turn to people we trust and say “I’m feeling insecure about something.” On the flip side, it’s time to ditch a lot of what we’ve long considered “compliments.” Congratulating someone on weight loss they haven’t discussed with you, for example, can reassert systemic fatphobia by implying that thinner bodies have more value than thin ones. If someone looks good, just tell ‘em they look good; it doesn’t have to be in relation to their body or weight.
Without the risk of indirectly passing judgment on our loved ones, we can foster meaningful conversations that present relief instead of self-doubt. Then, the next time we see a famous person in their natural, makeup-less, filter-less state, we can offer them a system of support (or even better, complete indifference) rather than feeding the beauty standard beast.
More on body image:
- Where Are All the Fat People In Beauty?
- Why I’m Not Worried About My “Strawberry Legs”
- Do You Really Think Michelle Buteau Cares If You Don’t Like Her Body?
Now, hear five women’s body acceptance stories:
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