Growing up with a set of feminist aunts, Katherine Bogen — a 27-year-old doctoral student in clinical psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln — heard one message on repeat throughout her childhood: Don’t get plastic surgery.
“It’s buying into this toxic aesthetic culture to literally shave pieces off of your face to fit a beauty norm,” Bogen’s aunts would tell her.
Years later, Bogen said, she realized “they were [saying] it to reinforce that this standard of beauty is not realistic, and to allow us to think critically about what we were seeing.”
So when Bogen started posting selfies on Instagram using face-altering filters about six months ago, she was surprised by a shift she felt within herself and saw among her followers, most of whom are her friends. She would use beauty filters that narrowed her nose, she said, and got positive comments from friends. Bogen began to dream of getting a nose job. As a Jewish woman, Bogen said, she felt particularly conflicted with her own shift in thinking, given existing anti-Semitic stereotypes — coupled with the self-love instilled in her by her aunts.
“Seeing this immediate tangible benefit of pretending I have a different face has been bizarre and unsettling,” she said.
When an unfiltered photo of Khloé Kardashian posing in a bikini by a pool leaked earlier this week — prompting the Kardashian camp to launch legal threats demanding the image be taken down — Bogen felt compassion for the 36-year-old reality television star.
“We all exist in this social media climate in which perfection is the ideal to which we aspire,” she said. “The feedback that we get is so reinforcing when you do engage in photo editing.”
In a statement — accompanied by videos of herself — that Kardashian posted to Instagram on Wednesday, she called the photo “beautiful” but claimed it did not accurately portray her body, adding that “the pressure, constant ridicule and judgment my entire life to be perfect and to meet other’s standards of how I should look has been too much to bear.”
Tracy Romulus, chief marketing officer for KKW Brands, told Page Six that the photo was “color edited” and “taken of Khloé during a private family gathering and posted to social media without permission by mistake by an assistant.”
On social media, some users criticized Kardashian’s response, noting her — and her family’s — role in shaping the unattainable ideals she complained of.
Others empathized with the reality star, pointing to the sexist and unrealistic standards that women and girls, including Kardashian, face — especially on social media.
The buzz brings up an urgent conversation about the impact of social media on women and girls’ self-perceptions, some experts say.
“Self-objectification has a cognitive effect on girls and women — on their self-perception and on their actual thinking,” said Soraya Chemaly, executive director of the Representation Project, an organization that challenges gender stereotypes. “If so much of your energy and psyche and time is consumed by pursuing this body image, what are you not doing? What are you thinking you’re not capable of?”
Research has shown the negative impacts social media can have on how women and girls view their bodies. A 2018 study, published in the journal Sex Roles, found that using Instagram made women more likely to compare themselves to others and more likely to self-objectify when comparing themselves to people who they thought were more attractive than them. It also notes that social media can be particularly pernicious because young women and girls often don’t realize “that these photos are sometimes just as edited and curated as those seen in fashion magazines.”
And a 2019 study published in the journal Body Image found that young women were more likely to see their bodies negatively after seeing social media images of friends who they perceived as more attractive than them.
Jacqueline Hogue, co-author of that study and a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at York University, is now undertaking research for her dissertation on young women’s experiences of viewing “thinspiration” and “fitspiration” content on Instagram. The young women she interviews often aspire to Kim Kardashian’s and Kylie Jenner’s toned, hourglass shapes — referred to on social media as “slim thick” — rather than to weight loss alone, she said.
But those aspirations are “still objectifying,” Hogue said: “This is still about the body as an object, rather than women being seen and experiencing ourselves as more than a body.”
For social media users who follow the Kardashians and other “fitspiration”-type accounts, it is crucial to remember that many of these celebrities are incentivized to stay in shape by making money off of their appearances, Chemaly added.
“A woman like Khloé Kardashian, she is her own product — that’s how she makes money,” Chemaly said. (Kardashian’s net worth is an estimated $50 million, according to Page Six — a fortune she earned partly through “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” her Good American denim line, and endorsements for products including water, weight loss supplements and migraine medication.)
Still, some social media users saw the recent photo as a refreshing — and more realistic — look at the reality star.
“You just look at it and think, ‘That’s a normal woman’ — she looked happy in it,” said Aimee Harley, a 20-year-old restaurant supervisor in Cornwall, England. “She should’ve taken a bit more pride in it than I think she did.”
Research shows that viewing more realistic depictions of bodies on social media can boost women’s self-esteem: A 2019 study published in the journal New Media & Society found that young women felt happier and more satisfied and appreciative of their bodies after viewing body positive content on Instagram.
This has proved true for Harley. When she first started using social media about five years ago, she followed celebrities and “attractive” influencers. But she soon noticed the negative effects that seeing their edited — and unattainable — images were having on her self-esteem.
“Every time I scrolled through, I was getting so depressed looking at these people,” she said.
To cope, she unfollowed those accounts, stopped posting pictures of her own body and started following accounts promoting body positivity, she said.
Emily Lauren Dick, author of “Body Positive: A Guide to Loving Your Body,” recommends Instagram users follow this lead, by curating their feeds to find accounts that showcase and celebrate a variety of realistic body types.
“Being a conscious social media participator is about following accounts that make you feel good about yourself,” she said. “When you don’t feel so alone, you don’t feel so ashamed — and your body is normalized.”
Chemaly sees body positivity content as resisting “oppressive norms,” by reclaiming narratives around what “normal bodies” look like. “There’s a greater diversity of bodies being shown, and greater pushback against the gatekeeping that produced a very narrow band of bodies for people to see,” she said.
Bogen is still “vaguely considering” getting a nose job. But it’s not a decision she would make lightly, she said. “I think I have a lot of guilt about even wanting to change my appearance — I consider myself a radical feminist activist.”
For others who harbor similar insecurities — about their noses or any other parts of their bodies — Bogen has a message: “You don’t have to change [yourselves] if you don’t want to,” she said. “And if you do want to, just recognize that that’s a side effect of a culture that performs these beauty standards, and it has nothing to do with your worth.”