Kim Kardashian, Thick Thighs And Our Ever-Changing Relationship With 'The Perfect Body'
The Debrief: Women's body types go in and out of fashion - so what's that doing to our self esteem?
Illustration by the Poop Culture
Thick. I can’t remember the first time I read that descriptor, but I know what happened when I did, I didn’t identify with it. In my head ‘thick’ as a body type meant thick thighs, meaning big thighs, unfeminine, crushing-your-man thighs, cellulite-covered thighs. The type of thighs I had been trying to convince myself I did not have.
But then, slowly, thick became something desirable. Thick began to mean curvaceous, an hourglass figure on steroids, boobs and bums and brown skin. Suddenly the Kardashians – with their hyper animated, puffed-up lips and (possibly) fake bums were setting the standard of beauty; at least on the internet. Instagram careers are being built on large, perky assets. Indeed, when Rihanna gained a little bit of weight this year, the internet lauded her transformation into a ‘thick girl’.
While all of this was happening, I was growing up – emerging from my late teens into my early 20s. In the mirror, I was kinder to myself. I relished seeing my bum rounding out beneath a tight dress, my boobs, solidly 34DD, tended to be more tucked away thanks to high necks being in fashion, but I still loved the way they looked. I became more comfortable being a curvy woman; less bothered about not having the long, skinny legs that had supported the aesthetic status quo for so long.
However, what I have pondered repeatedly over the past few years is how and why this body happened, to what extent it has just been motivated by a wider public acceptance, the normalisation of different body types by the proliferation of social media and, arguably, the hijacking of them by the surgically enhanced stars who exist there.
Eleanor Riley, 27, marketing officer at national mental health charity, has had the same thoughts I have about her ‘hourglass’ body-type. At six feet tall from age 14, she always felt ‘like an oafish, awkward big person who takes up too much space’. For many years she actively hunched and stooped, trying to make herself smaller. The feeling got worse as she developed hips and boobs and felt even bigger. But, much like me, in the past few years her body acceptance has coincided with a change in what constitutes a fashionable body.
‘To my shame I think it was a Daily Mail online article that had the most impact on me initially’, she says. ‘Which I guess is interesting as they're not known for being bastions of body positivity. It was an interview with the plus size model Robyn Lawley. Honestly, once I read that interview and started following a few curvy plus size models on Instagram, that guilt began to dissipate. Maybe it's sad that I needed some sort of external media validation to make me feel ok with my body, but having that represented and lauded in a mainstream outlet was powerful for me.’
For me, media validation seemed to coincide with what the guys around me also found attractive. Ellen Scott, 24, a lifestyle editor, agrees. ‘I noticed that my butt started to be listed off as guys' favourite features, and I realised that a lot of the fashion advice I was reading wasn't just 'cover up your massive hips with an A-line skirt' [as it had once been],’ she says. ‘There was definitely a shift in the general definitions of attractiveness (which, as a teenager, was very important to me) as well as in fashion, and the kinds of bodies we were seeing in the media […] Seeing that other women's bums could be celebrated completely changed the way I viewed my body. I stopped obsessing over being super slim, and started wanting to accentuate the difference between my hips and waist.’
However, when Scott was younger she was seriously impacted by negative comments she had overheard about bigger women during her teen years. Her dad consistently pointed out Rihanna's 'big legs' or called Hilary Duff (Scott was a big Lizzie McGuire fan) a ‘big girl’. She adds: ‘In my teens I was referred to as a “wide load” by my friend's boyfriend, which haunts me to this day.’ Similarly, I too remember my peers’ negative comments about women’s bodies having a long-lasting effect.
For Hayley Sarah Jane Mills, 27, a strategy manager, things took an even darker turn during her youth. ‘The first time I kind of looked at my body in any which way was when I was going through puberty. It kind of semi-collided with my eating disorder’,’ she says in her gentle Scottish burr. She had a run of bad luck after her mother passed away, and then she was moved from South Africa to a suburban town in very white Scotland. ‘When I was in high school bums were not the thing. Nobody wanted girls with bums. I wanted to kind of hide that and I remember working so hard that I had this intense six-pack at points.’ She adds that, ‘as a kid’ she became ‘focused on [the] idea that “if [she] could have the perfect body, everything [would] be ok’. She gradually moved beyond this mindset when difference was becoming increasingly celebrated more in the media. Like all of the other women I spoke to she referenced the Kardashians but, that said, she doesn’t see them in a particularly positive light.
It’s true that the Kardashians (and Jenners, for that matter) are bound up in problematic ideas around race, surgery, consumerism. Plus, as Scott says, they are definitely not body positive role models: ‘Every time Kim Kardashian talks about needing to lose weight, being ashamed of her body, or tells everyone that photos of her cellulite were faked, it sends a very clear message: Her body is wrong, and so is mine. If someone who's considered super hot needs to lose weight, cleanse, and be cellulite-free, it undoes all the stuff she's done for promoting curvier bodies - because if her body isn't “good enough”, mine definitely isn't.’
In many ways this is deeper than just curves –our skin colour is bound up in it too. Zoe Mumba, 24, a mixed-race black exec for a communications agency, says that growing up she remembers ‘slim white girls with big boobs’ being the held up as the standard of beauty. She describes herself as ‘pear shaped’ with a small chest and waist, but big hips and bum. ‘I was quite an early developer and although I’ve always been relatively small chested, I’ve always been quite curvy with thick thighs, and it took me a long time to embrace it.’ Nowadays she’s finding it ‘quite bizarre’ to see women working or even paying to have what she’s been genetically blessed with.
‘I feel like an appreciating for “thick” girls i.e girls with big hips, thick thighs, small waists, started coming into fashion in my early 20s’ she says, ‘when you see women with a similar body shape to you being celebrated in the media it definitely makes you look at your body in a different way. I used to be quite self-conscious of having a big bum, but I started wearing clothes that accentuated it and started squatting with heavier weights because I wanted it to be even bigger and better.”
But while Zoe empathises with girls whose body type isn’t in fashion – ‘I also know that it must be impacting the self-esteem of a lot of girls whose body type isn’t being celebrated’ – she does think that she will be able to hold onto her newfound body confidence after the time our curvy body shape becomes unfashionable once again. ‘My body shape being in fashion has definitely helped my confidence, now I'm older I think the confidence comes from acceptance’, she says. ‘Ultimately, body fashion trends will come and go but my body will be with me for life, so I better start loving it.’
She’s ‘pretty certain’ that big bums and thicker thighs will go out of fashion and she is probably right. If you look at art through the ages, body fashion trends have always existed. For example, women depicted in Renaissance art were fuller figured, whilst in the 19th century the ideal woman had thick legs and hips and a small waist. In the 1920s, the looks changed once more, and androgyny came into fashion.
Personally, like the women I spoke to about this issue, I’m feeling hopeful that the prevalence of social media will mean that body fashion trends wield less of an influence in the future. I mean, ‘body fashion trends’ was there ever a more absurd concept? The internet has enabled a lot of body positive movements to flourish. We see everyone from plus sized girls to female bodybuilders being celebrated and are discovering different types of beauty that aren't just sold to us in glossy magazines – darker skin tones, tiger-striped thighs, saggy boobs and stretch marks. The truth, we are learning, is that there is no ideal, there is variety and difference and people cannot go in and out of fashion.
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