Why we need to talk about Kim Kardashian and body positivity

It’s time for the hyper-popular reality TV star – who had to relearn how to breathe in order to fit into her wasp-waisted Met Gala dress – to step away from dangerous body image territory

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 02:  Kim Kardashian attends the Balmain and Olivier Rousteing after the Met Gala Celebration at The Gilded Lily on May 2, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images)
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"So, Anna, if I don't sit down for dinner, now you know why," Kim Kardashian West says, addressing Vogue editor Anna Wintour in a video of her final dress fitting ahead of the 2019 Met Gala. In the same shot, the reality TV star's minuscule corseted waist can be seen as she hovers uncomfortably over a chair, reiterating: "I cannot hardly sit."

It’s difficult to get past that tiny waist, and the fact that a woman used a garment to alter her body so dramatically that she was unable to sit down. When she arrived at the Met Gala on May 6, Kardashian’s waist looked so impossibly small that people began to speculate that she’d had ribs removed to achieve the look.

This extreme sartorial suggestion was then dubbed “#waistgoals” by a number of fans, and within days, how-to articles entitled “Plastic surgeon reveals how to get a body like Kim Kardashian”, had been written and published.

Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala - Met Gala - Camp: Notes on Fashion - Arrivals - New York City, U.S. - May 6, 2019 - Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
Kim Kardashian at the Met Gala. Photo: Reuters

Fortunately, Kardashian had not gone to the length of removing actual bones from her body to wear the Mugler dress and Mr Pearl corset to the fashion fundraiser; instead she had trained herself to breathe differently. No biggie.

“Seven months in the making and fittings in Montreal, Paris and LA. Corset breathing lessons from none other than Mr Pearl. It was worth it all,” the mother-of-four captioned an Instagram post of her first meeting with Manfred Thierry Mugler. So, on top of being unable to sit, Kardashian had to relearn another basic human function, breathing, in order to be able to attend a ball. That seems a little extreme, no?

The star is no stranger to the waist trainer, a form of corset, and has spoken about the 24-inch waistline it has helped her achieve in the past. For the Met Gala, experts estimate Kardashian was able to reduce her waist by a further four to six inches. That’s a dramatic drop by anyone’s standards.

How the Kardashians made 'kurves' 'kool'

Body positivity and the Kardashian family have a complex relationship. There is the argument that they are responsible for setting a new standard when it comes to body image, and that they made the ideal a more “realistic” woman with curves – a far cry from the waif-esque image of female beauty.

So Kim Kardashian's two Met Gala looks, while different, both accentuated her unrealistically small waist and wide hips / thighs. Leading young girls and women to believe it's all 'natural' is crazy and dangerous

Debates over body-type appropriation aside, I believe the standards set by the women in the Kardashian clan are as, if not more, dangerous than those set by the ultra-thin set of the 1990s. “People need to stop glamorising Kim Kardashian’s waist because that ain’t healthy,” one Twitter user wrote, with another noting: “So Kim Kardashian’s two Met Gala looks, while different, both accentuated her unrealistically small waist and wide hips / thighs. Leading young girls and women to believe it’s all ‘natural’ is crazy and dangerous. I’m just waiting for the ‘KKW waist challenge’.”

Fans also reached out to Kardashian directly, commenting on her post about her breathing lessons, writing, “Also maybe mention how wildly dangerous corseting that extreme is to your body … let alone just regular corseting / waist training.”

Kardashian's personal trainer, Melissa Alcantara, rushed to her defence on social media: "To make things clear. 1. This dress is corseted BUT 2. Kim trains six days a week, she wakes up early and is dedicated," Alcantara wrote on an Instagram Story. "I see her train and I see her sweat and I see all the work she does outside the gym and THAT is commendable!"

The controversial history of corsets

Alcantara’s opinion lends credence to the fact that corsets are, in the words of Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, “probably the most controversial garment in the history of fashion”. The bid to achieve the desirable “wasp waist” in the 18th and 19th centuries has long been described as harmful by doctors, who warn of displaced organs and spinal issues if the garments are used for a prolonged time.

In 2008, when Kardashian and her hourglass frame exploded on to the celebrity scene, there was almost a collective sigh of relief that her more realistic body standard was stepping out from behind the shadow of a waif-like Paris Hilton. Hilton, herself, has admitted to being dangerously thin at the height of her fame.

However, more than a decade on, Kardashian seems to be stepping into the same dangerous territory. It's not for me to say what a woman does with her body: many women choose to wear shoes, dresses, jeans and bras that restrict them from walking, sitting and breathing comfortably.

What the average woman doesn't have, however, is 138 million Instagram followers, who hang off her every word, whether she is touting appetite-suppressing sweets, laxative teas or a brand-new waist. The fact is, Kardashian is one of the most visible women in the world, and seemingly everything she does is copied by innumerable girls and women. And therein lie the perils of the Kim ­Kardashian effect.