A few weeks ago, 23-year-old model Bella Hadid was named the world’s Most Beautiful Woman, an honour bestowed by a combination of “the latest computerised mapping techniques” and the mathematics of the golden ratio. A news article announcing her title in the Daily Mail featured an annotated photograph of Hadid, apparently showing her to be 94.35 per cent Beautiful Woman. Her chin was singled out for particular approval – just 0.3 per cent from perfection. (Former Most Beautiful woman Scarlett Johansson languished at sixth overall, “let down by her face shape”, with only a 99.4 per cent Beautiful Chin.)
The Mail’s true intent in publishing pictures of beautiful women, ranked, was not lost on readers. One commented: “Objectify, objectively”. That a mathematical formula can “measure physical perfection” is not just sexist (and often racist) but also at odds with the cultural and commercial forces intrinsic to our modern relationship with beauty. Because, as the picture at the top of this article shows, one objective measure of aesthetic appeal is dominating in 2019, and it is not based on ancient mathematical principles but simply, “Is it Kylie Jenner?”
Yes, Kylie Jenner: the youngest of the second-generation Kardashians, she of the impressively private pregnancy and the cosmetics empire, with the pout that launched a thousand Lip Kits. Like Helen of Troy, Jenner’s beauty can be measured by impact, with 150 million Instagram followers and the Twitter power to send stocks plummeting. Jenner does not feature on the Daily Mail’s most recent list of ‘Up To 94.35% Beautiful Women’, but there is no doubt she is setting the new beauty standards of our times, based on a very different set of maths; this time, financial.
That is the only possible conclusion can be drawn from an unsettling photo recently posted to Instagram, showing five women dressed as Playboy bunnies at a Hollywood Halloween party. All bear a striking resemblance to Jenner in facial features, styling and pose – the deep tan, the jutted jaw, the highly arched brows – and the effect is only amplified across the five of them. The image is like a Magic Eye picture where a pattern of infinite Kylie Jenners, on zooming out, reveals another Kylie Jenner: she is somehow essential to it. And yet the picture does not actually feature her at all. Spooky.
It was a revelation pointed out by Nylon magazine’s editorial director Alyssa Vingan Klein, who tweeted (with one eye to the avenging stans, ever-vigilant for criticism of their queen): “When did all of K*lie J*nner’s friends become her clones?” Other posts revealed Jenner to have been present at the party, thrown by her friend Anastasia “Stassie Baby” Karanikolaou.
But Jenner’s image influence goes far beyond her exclusive immediate circle, to be felt globally in the ubiquity of bodycon and athleisure, the trend for nude shades, the comeback of 90s brown lipstick and heavy lip liner. Where Jenner differs from Hadid, Johansson, Beyoncé and the other women singled out in the Daily Mail story is that Jenner has monetised her look, every element of it available to purchase. And in this, a klone army has been born.
Though Jenner has never openly admitted to cosmetic surgery, doctors have publicly speculated that she has undergone several procedures. She has, however, shared freely about dermal fillers, even Instagramming her late-night lip “touch-ups”. This has contributed to a sense that her look is attainable through money alone, with Jenner’s name often referenced in the explosion of low-cost “tweakments”, especially among younger women. With little regulation of non-surgical procedures, some doctors have even been known to advertise “the Kylie package” for nose, jaw and lips.
But Jenner’s particular beauty aesthetic is also readily replicable without fillers – even without makeup. The big eyes, contoured cheekbones, highly-defined lips and “Instagram brow” that define her look are also evident in apps like FaceTune and selfie filters. These have already been proven to be having an insidious effect on body image, by blurring the line between real human features and impossible standards, and even possibly triggering the onset of Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Instagram recently announced that it would be banning filters that mimicked the effects of plastic surgery from its platform, interpreted by some as a recognition of their potential harms.
It is too late, however, to reverse the impact of the Kardashian aesthetic that Jenner is the best advertisement for. Researchers have found that beauty standards are changing faster than ever before in the digital age, even in the absence of social pressure. The result is a homogenising feedback loop: as Kylie Jenner’s look becomes more ubiquitous, it becomes more desirable – especially as she packages it for sale.
Beauty standards may be changing, but Jenner’s presence online – both as herself, and in her myriad lookalikes – means she is instrumental in shaping them. Whether they recognise it as her influence or not, young women are being nudged towards bigger lips, higher cheekbones and stronger eyebrows; being moulded in Jenner’s image, online and off, just as her friends seem to be. It is the opposite of an untouchable understanding of beauty. It is fuelled precisely on giving the impression of access. One more Lip Kit. One more flick of brow pencil.
No one believes that there is such a thing as a 100 per cent perfect chin, apart from the cosmetic surgeons trying to sell you on one. The new golden ratio, in understanding beauty, may be less about the width of the space between the eyes than the distance we perceive between us and them – and what we can buy to close it.
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Photographs Kylie Jenner and Instagram