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  • Philippa Snow

How Kylie Jenner Became a Modern Beauty Phenomenon

Examining the cultural impact of Kylie Jenner, the most revolutionary of Instagirls: a hyper-real beauty tailored to look incredible online.

Having lately watched every single episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians for an assignment in just six weeks (do not — I implore you — under any circumstances try to do the same at home), I think of myself as an expert. The family business has become, regrettably, my business.

Every tiny evolution in each ever-changing K-girl is apparent to me, so that I now know exactly how they're modified. Each pointless plot line is too familiar. I have watched them take a homeless man for a haircut; have their asses lasered; fall out and then in again with Kris, who is both loving and psychotic. More than any other change, it is alarming watching Kylie Jenner morph from a bona fide child into a terrifying symbol of sex — one first mimicking, then amplifying and surpassing Kim.

"New face" hardly cuts it.

What Kylie's beauty transition made me think of was a phenomenon written about in New York Magazine several years ago, which — like the showy outranking of Kim by Kylie Jenner 2.0 — it has left in the dust: they called it "The New New Face". The New Face looked nothing like your grandmother's face-lift, and not quite like the face you had in your twenties either. What defined the New New Face in New York Magazine's book was a heady combination of, in the author's words, "Mount Rushmore cheekbones, [an] angular jawline, [a] smoothed forehead… plumped skin, the heartlike shape of the face… [not] pulled tight in that typical face-lift way… [but] pushed out." The final result for the famous patient: "A fantastic approximation! An uncanny resemblance! [They] look like a very impressive artist's rendering of [themselves]."

"Suddenly people got addicted to filling every crack and crevice they saw in their magnification mirrors," a prominent Beverly Hills dermatologist told New York magazine. "The end point got stretched to the extent that you're sitting with somebody who's saying, 'I want another cc of stuff placed in my lips,' and I'm saying, 'I can't put any more in there, it's coming out the other side.'" The face of the New New Face, with the muscular arms of a yogi and the buoyant cheeks of a three-year-old, was — New York magazine claimed — Madonna. Other New New Faced celebrities, allegedly (one needs the legalese) were Cameron Diaz, Lindsay Lohan, Renée Zellweger, Rose McGowan and Melanie Griffith.

"Improve the product!" New York magazine says Madge's agent is described as having yelled on the subject of her client's look. "I know they're humans with beating hearts, but, you know, these people, they are commodities, and improving on your product is the business they're in." Which brings us, neatly, back to Kylie. How else to describe the Kylie Jenner look, if not with the ill-advised addition of another "new"? Her product is — assuming you are one of the people who fawns on her lip-kits — improved. It is not what you would call a Rushmore face, with a pushed-out shape. It's untraditional. Kylie's New New New Face might be described as Instaface; she calls it puberty, which might be half true, but is possibly also half a lie.

"I'm not even sure that Instagirls are very interested in the way they look for three-dimensional men, as much as they are invested in doing their face for the camera. The look is so high-femme that it is almost woman-to-woman drag, which I mean as a compliment."

The less said by myself about the racial aspects of her current face, the better. There are other writers better qualified, less white, and more astute; and besides, what really interests me in this specific instance is the falsehood of it. Making a face so new it's almost science fiction is, I've noticed, very 2017. It is a trend. Not every girl has the financial means for such radical redevelopment: but you can learn how to use an eyebrow pencil, matte-lip paint, a contour kit, and a decent light-source. It's a hobby, like painting. These girls serve as their own celebrities for each other -- on Instagram, Snapchat and Tumblr. I'm not even sure that Instagirls are very much interested in the way they look for three-dimensional men, as much as they are invested in doing their face — their best, most skilled and blemish-vanished face — for the camera. They apparently, although I am too old and thus not hot enough to know, take photos mostly for each other. The look is femme; but so high-femme that it is almost woman-to-woman drag, which I mean as a compliment.

You could call it beauty for beauty's sake. It is not designed for men to "get." It is definitely not designed for baby boomer men to "get" — which is why Scott Dissick, Kylie's middle-aged brother-in-law, deadpans, "That's it, you want your lip to just head on up and touch your nose" when she's doing her make-up. ("How old are you?" he then exclaims. "Because you look about 25! You're like, what, 17?") Vanity takes many forms aside from women's selfies, and teenage girls are no more vain than they have always been. We tell them all the time that they're our pinnacle of beauty, anyway, so why bother to blame them? Now, they're sculpting themselves into something totally new, which is the sexy version of themselves we've all been asking for, and then some. They are lacquering themselves like food designed for photography, i.e. like a thing not necessarily meant for your consumption. I think being high-maintenance when you're maintaining yourself for yourself is a gas. Dagger nails might be designed for clawing eyes as much as scratching backs.

"We live in a culture of spectacle, awash in visual images," says Dr. Nancy Etcoff, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, in an interview with Canadian publication Fashion. "It's about: How do you get a following and show your unique contribution? You may have to push the edge a little further and shout a little to get attention… We're seeing an exaggeration of the size of the lips and eyes, which creates a heightened sense of femininity as women [particularly younger women] tend to have larger eyes and lips. These exaggerations are not meant to be natural."

"When I was 16, I cut my hair off and dyed it blue," Kylie said, of the very specific moment she decided to transition into Instakylie. "[Which] I think set everything off. After that I just felt so free and wanted to experiment with my look. I thought I knew who I was and what I wanted to look like, but then once I did that, I was like, 'Whoa, there's a world of difference.' I just felt like I could be whoever I wanted to be, and I'm all about experimenting."

"Being famous and a teenage girl means being awkward and self-conscious and still held to lofty standards, which is why as odd and sometimes maddening Kylie Jenner's metamorphosis has been, it's also only symptomatic."

Something she has also said in a moment far less guarded is: "if people don't like something it affects me more than anything I've ever done. Everything has to be perfect," which might also explain why her mask never slips and why in the previews for her new reality show The Life of Kylie, she looks like a mannequin of herself. It is certainly not Kylie Jenner's fault that having been on camera since she was nine makes her nervous. Any more than it's her fault that she apparently thinks that the flappers had Restylane (verbatim, thanks to my notes from the six-week binge: "You know in this time it was, like, illegal to have alcohol. That's why The Great Gatsby had all those parties" "Did they have lip injections back then?" "They didn't even have alcohol, KYLIE.") She keeps photographs of her three eldest sisters — Kourtney, Kim, and Khloe — on the wall of what she calls her "Glam Room," as her beauty inspiration, which should tell you most of what you need to know about where she is at. It is always hard to know the things we choose for ourselves, and the things that are chosen for us: and I mean this seriously.

"Contouring has actually been deployed for years in theatre productions and photography studios," Beau Nelson — Kristen Stewart's make-up artist — told the New York Times. "Exaggerated shadows compensate for the camera's harsh light, which can blow out facial features, a reason the technique translates well in selfies." Old people who complain about the Instagirls are almost always men who are furiously eager to be deceived. Movie stars, who most teen girls look up to, do not and have never shied away from painting on new faces. Being famous and a teenage girl means being awkward and self-conscious and still held to lofty standards, which is why as odd and sometimes maddening Kylie Jenner's metamorphosis has been, it's also only symptomatic.

Instagirls have weaponised their beauty by dehumanising and superhumanising it. Skin is not only free of acne, but free of pores; eyebrows are dark, thick, and geometric; highlighter is holographic, not dewy. They are androids. Late last year, an Instagram account appeared called LilMiquela, featuring a girl who users could not figure out. The question was not, as with Kylie Jenner, whether her lips were real, or whether she occasionally performed a racist pantomime of a non-white woman, but whether Lil Miquela was real at all. "In the 13 weeks since she created her account," The Independent said in September, "Lil Miquela has amassed 65,000 followers. In that time, she has pushed her followers into a delirium of confusion as to whether or not she is real. While some are adamant she is a computer-generated image, others think Lil Miquela is a real person that has been heavily edited online… While her wig-like short brown bob, perfectly drawn freckles and plump lips resemble a Sims character, there is an undeniably human-like quality to her appearance."

It would not take a great deal of editing, I found myself thinking, for the final lines to be applied to Kylie Jenner. It does not take a great deal of imagination, either, to see Lil Miquela as being the girl of the future.

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