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Are white celebrities ‘retiring’ a Black aesthetic?

A recent article by ‘Dazed’ suggests famous white women, most notably the Kardashians, have abandoned the Black aesthetic they’ve appropriated for the past few decades. But can racial and cultural identity be reduced to a ‘look’? And does the white monopoly over global beauty standards show any signs of waning? 

Side-by-side comparisons of Khloe Kardashian have been making the rounds online, pointing out the sudden disappearance of her infamously large bottom. Her sister, Kim, has also lost a drastic amount of weight, dropped the fake tan, and bleached her hair.

Fascination with the Kardashian aesthetic has propelled the family to global fame, and many would argue it’s the only thing sustaining it. But it’s not just flawless skin and enviable curves that have made Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney the blueprint for modern beauty.

For the past decade, discussions of cultural appropriation have surrounded the Kardashians. From cornrows to BBLs (Brazilian Butt Lifts), the sisters have adopted Black aesthetics and cultural signifiers to push a certain image of themselves.

This image has extended into nearly every aspect of their lives. They repeatedly date and marry Black men, have mixed race children, and publicly yearn for a stereotyped ideal of Black womanhood.

After her baby was born in 2018, Kylie Jenner commented, ‘the only thing I was insecure about, she has – she has the most perfect lips in the whole entire world. She didn’t get those from me.’

One of the most obvious appropriations of a Black aesthetic came when Kim famously posed for Paper Magazine in 2014. Her images were shot by Jean-Paul Goude in a recreation of shots from his 1982 series ‘Jungle Fever’, starring Grace Jones.

The original series was a caricature of the Black female body, featuring shots of Grace in a cage hissing like a cat. Other images exaggerated sexual body parts, posing an uncomfortable affinity to 19th-century illustrations of Saartje Baartman. 

‘Blacks are the premise of my work’ Goude said of the original series. ‘I have jungle fever.’

But despite this long history of appropriation and tone deaf social commentary, it seems the Kardashians’ affinity for Blackness has reached its climax.

Over the past few months, there’s been a notable change in Kim. Besides her drastic weight loss, blonde hair, and smaller behind, the reality star’s physical changes have been coupled with a new self-constructed public image.

Some have suggested that Kim’s new law career has motivated this abrupt aesthetic reinvention.

Not only has passing the bar seen Kim noticeably move away from the socialite sex-symbol narrative that led her to fame. She has also placed emphasis on the legal system’s treatment of African American men and women, adopting the position of ‘white saviour’.

As part of this overhaul, Kim has started publicly dating a quirky white man (her first white partner since being in the public eye), abandoned the box braids and fake tan she’s sported heavily over the years, and reduced the sexual content on her social media.

Darkest Hue, a self-proclaimed ‘safe space for *Dark-Skinned* Black girls, Women, and femmes’ has described this shift as a ‘ditching of the stereotypical Black aesthetics as [celebrities] enter new phases in their lives.’ In Kim’s case, they argue, it’s part of an effort to reintroduce herself to the world ‘as a respectable white woman’.

After Dazed released an article discussing Kardashian’s abandonment of Blackness, readers criticised the magazine for a reductionist view of cultural and racial identity.

‘What exactly is ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’??? It seems very right wing to reduce people and culture to skin colour’, commented Andreja Pejic.

But the fact that white women like Kim can pick and choose when to adopt certain signifiers of Blackness reduces entire cultures and communities to their own stereotyped ideals of Otherness, and reaffirms the white monopoly over beauty standards and trends.

Understandably, Kim’s decision to drop her racially-ambiguous identity has angered women of colour.

Ellie Delphine, a fashion blogger, praised the Dazed article for its ‘insightful’ take on appropriation, stating ‘my race, my culture is not a costume and cannot be reduced to certain attributes that are deemed trendy. Blackness is the whole package, the full experience, the systemic racism, the discrimination…all of it. I cannot ‘retire’ from being Black’.

After years of profiting off of Black women’s bodies, the Kardashians have ultimately decided this aesthetic doesn’t serve them anymore. As Delphine’s comments demonstrate, this sends a message that Black identities are disposable.

When you boil it down, it’s ultimately not the appropriation of Blackness that poses the biggest issue, but a white woman’s ability to abandon it when it suits them – shopping between cultural aesthetics with an insatiable freedom that only white supremacy could allow.