Cultivating Body: Ethics and Aesthetics in Trends

Cultivating Body: Ethics and Aesthetics in Trends

By: Kalynna Davies

May 31st, 2023

This article is part of our Winter 2023 magazine. Click here to read the full edition.

Bodies, like many other aspects of visual culture in the United States, have been aligned with fashion trends for years. There are many different parts to these trends – from hairstyles, to makeup, lifestyle, and even body modification.

In this way, bodies can be identified as manufactured – as products of cultural and social surroundings. One can seemingly be categorized into a certain wealth, race and gender by the way they are perceived, or how they put themselves together. This is a flawed system – one that permits the top of social apexes to steal, integrate, and sell back to larger, marginalized audiences.

This is mostly perpetrated in celebrity and influencer circles – those who rely on public attention and adoration to garner wealth, and use their following to advertise.

A good example would be influencers floating around on Tik Tok, who boast makeup techniques such as ‘fox eyes’, or deep, dark tanning – mimicking features of different races as a trend. There are less extreme examples in aesthetics like ‘clean girl’ which subtly aim to popularize looks that have been staples in Black and Brown communities for years.

The timeless look consists of minimal, gold jewelry – along with a sleek hairdo, a dewy, fresh face and lip gloss. It’s even made its way into celebrity circles, attributing celebrities such as Hailey Beiber, or Bella Hadid as entrepreneurs.

In reality, it’s only so ‘minimal’ and ‘effortless’ in the hands of those celebrities. What is done out of innovation in Black and Brown communities is done out of immense effort for famous people who rely on their appearance for success.  

This is most likely the reason why the  focus of body trends have seemed to turn from just the external. Boasting the foods one must each to retain clear skin, the appointments with their personal trainers for a perfectly snatched waist – and the constant visits to the best spas, the best doctors, the best private chefs.

It’s an aesthetic not as easily copied in blue-collar communities, since for the first time since 2011, the 2021 US Census reported an even larger gap in wealth.  It’s not an aesthetic easily copied by Black, Indigenous, or other people of color, either, due to the intersection of wealth these communities historically sit at – since the idea of ‘beauty’ and ‘health’ is erected by those who dominate cultural and bodily aesthetics.
The obsession with making the posed seem unconstructed takes large amounts of money, and an absorbent amount of time on social media, or in front of cameras for movies and shows.  It used to be common to see American media, and even WebMD, asking  “Does my butt look big in this?”

Back then, an affirmative answer may have provoked a poor response, but after wealthy celebrities such as Kim Kardashian (who initially denied the rumors of enhancements) popped up with bigger rears in the early 2010s, a big butt suddenly seemed to appeal to every mainstream trend.

This particular silhouette has been considered a desired body type in Black and Brown communities for much longer than 2010 – however, when Kim’s carefully curated image made it popular to have a curvy figure, it came with an influx of butt augmentation procedures in the following years, doubling the amount of augmentation between the years 2005 and 2011, according to the data produced by both the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, and The Aesthetics Society.

One of the more popular forms of this augmentation in 2022 is called the BBL, or the Brazilian Butt Lift. According to a New York Times article featuring a quote from Dr. Miami, Michael Salzhauer,  “It’s called the Brazilian butt lift, not because it was necessarily invented in Brazil, but you think of Brazilian women having like, you know, perky butts, bigger butts.”

Some might be asking how a big butt, or makeup, or a hairstyle is so closely attached to cultural identity – but the ability to buy all of these things has made it possible to buy and market features. The name of a BBL alone gives an idea of how race, commodity, and wealth connotes a culture of consumption here in the United States.

In lieu of buying actual, physical bodies in times of slavery, capitalism has made it possible to buy a ‘brazilian’ butt. It has made it possible for people to darken their skin tones, for fashion companies like Comme Des Garcons  or Kim Kardashian to put in cornrows and call them something else  – all in hopes of appealing to the masses.

But the bodily aesthetic of any race is not rooted in the same kind of choice, and features of Black and Brown people are often mocked, said to be undesirable, and then made “chic” on a White body without a nuanced understanding of cultural appropriation. The BBL aesthetic is rooted in a collection of history- having both the means and the methods to capture and produce the look has led to a flattening in aesthetics. The rich’s attempt at homogenization across cultures is…boring.

This issue goes past just the Kardashians, or that specific fashion brand. They are not the only ones who’ve found success aligning themselves with Black and Brown communities – they are not the only ones that figured out co-opting builds a better bankroll. Many of the rich and famous, such as beauty guru  Nikita Dragun, or singer Ariana Grande, construct their bodies and overall images to be relatable in look, but exclusive in obtaining it.

It’s counterproductive. It allows for bodily image and representation to be another product of manufacturing – another category for the wealthy to take advantage of. They are able to decide what to do with these means of production due to their followings, and their wealth.
Kim Kardashian’s most recent stop in her fashion journey is reflective of this. In 2021, her emphasis was on effortless looks. A smaller booty that doesn’t require occasional shape ups – nude colors, lowkey outfits – and bleach blond hair appeared just in time for her ‘all-american’ look on Interview Magazine’s 2022 September issue.

This took place only a year behind a pretty massive drop in BBLs, going from 28,000 in 2019, to 21,000 in 2020. The return to something closer to her original figure might be a signifier that popular personalities in the media are finished with attempting to emulate Black beauty standards.

This does not mean they’re done taking from other cultures, however. Underneath the guise of ‘broadening’ the accepted aesthetics in mainstream media, they are being washed of their uniqueness and sold back to the average consumer.

Clothing companies continuously accused of stealing aesthetics from Black, Brown and/or smaller creators are Fashion Nova and Shein companies that pump out replicas devoid of quality and personality. While many buy from these brands because of their low price point, it enables them to take looks, and, again, sell it back to the masses for a pay check of their own.

This points to the ethics involved in this process – of wearing makeup, clothes, and even plastic surgery. While these things by themselves aren’t bad to engage with, taking a bit of time to reflect on the production of these categories, and the way that influencers in celebrity circles take advantage of them.

Perhaps the ease of conversion over innovation is the reason for the resurgence of Brown aesthetics in White spaces in the first place. It is much easier to co-opt original ideas from those who are not traditionally seen as powerful. It will be interesting to see the steps that the rich and famous take in order to stay exclusive.

Kalynna Davies is an English major in her senior year. She has a concentration in creative writing and a minor in film – these are both activities she enjoys outside of the classroom, as well. In the future, she intends to use these skills to cultivate counterstories in an array of media – from novel to film.