The false empowerment of Khloe Kardashian’s ‘Revenge Body’
By Steph Wescott
Last night I decided to check in on my favourite Kardashian, Khloe, to see how her pregnancy is progressing and observe what other mundane and banal things she may have posted that I find inexplicably interesting. This quick stalk was a new chapter in a long and complicated relationship I have with the sisters–one in which I’m never sure if I should scorn and dismiss them entirely or accept and admire the profound impact they have had on twenty-first century celebrity culture.
After quick scroll through Khloe’s most recent Instagram photos I discovered a post she had made earlier this month–an old picture of herself positioned alongside a newer picture, with the words ‘Revenge Body’ imposed across both. The transformation of her physical appearance from one photo to the next is significant. Khloe’s path to fitness and aesthetic modification has been well documented on her Instagram account and the family’s television series, and has opened up new business opportunities for her in the lucrative realm of health and fitness. My immediate reaction, though, was of disappointment. While Khloe’s caption accompanying the photos digresses from the usual ‘revenge body’ narrative, instead telling a story of wellness and empowerment, framing her transformation through the trope of the ‘revenge body’ completely undermines the potentially powerful statement she could have made about the journey of ‘mind body and soul’ she embarked on.
Typically, a ‘revenge body’ is one that is pursued by a jilted, rejected or heartbroken woman in an attempt to incite regret in a former partner. The hope is that the lost lover will notice the extreme attempts the woman has made to manipulate and reduce the size of her body and be instantly filled with regret that they let that body go. The ‘revenge body’ is a label a woman chooses to explain a physical transformation. It is a way of saying, ‘you rejected me, and now I have punished my body to such an extent that you will regret ever having surrendered it’. It is intended to incite jealousy and remorse. It is, allegedly, the greatest retribution for a woman scorned. Most problematic of all, is that according to the ‘revenge body’, a woman’s body is still the most precious and powerful tool she can yield for affect. While branding herself as more valuable than before, the beholder of the ‘revenge body’ continues to commodify herself for consumption under the gaze of a culture that controls her via the same device she brandishes to ‘emancipate’ herself.
Despite captioning her transformation as an act of ‘revenge’, Khloe’s extensive caption tells a different story. ‘Never would I ever consider myself fat’, she writes, ‘[b]ut I would consider myself unhealthy mentally/physically and not knowing my true value’. Her choice, she explains was to put herself first, and now, she is ‘so proud of [herself] for being stronger than [she’s] ever been – mind body and soul’. After reading, I sat with this post for a little while. It remained unclear precisely why Khloe had chosen to frame this post as a celebration of the ‘revenge body’. While her caption mentions that we should free ourselves from being ‘victims and prisoners to the people that we choose to surround ourselves with’, it is unusual to consider that a way to liberate ourselves from these people might be by making ourselves thinner, more ripped, and more conventionally and acceptably ‘attractive’ in the precise ways that these negative forces might reject us for not being.
Khloe’s ‘revenge body’ is a missed opportunity to simply say that her new look is a transformation of the mind, soul and perspective. It had the potential to say, ‘this is who I am now, I am happier and I am healthier and my body is a byproduct of that, not the goal.’ To ignore the fact that now, her body conforms entirely to contemporary expectations for women’s body shapes, wholly unattainable to most and still very much driven by the male gaze is to be completely dishonest with the followers who look to her as someone whose value was in the fact that she did not seem obedient to diet and body culture in the same way that her sister, Kim, is.
Normally, revenge is an act of punishment. It is about ‘getting back’ at a person or people who have wronged you or hurt you. It is therefore the precise opposite of empowerment. Revenge says, ‘you hurt me, and you still have a hold over me, and the way that you treated me still has power over me’. To spend months or years undertaking grueling workouts and withholding food that might be pleasurable to you in the hope that you might be able to ‘show’ somebody else just how much worthier you are now than you were before is submission, not emancipation.
Sadly, what Khloe’s body has actually become is simply more palatable and acceptable to the people on whom she claims to be seeking revenge. Her body is now more compliant and more obedient to a culture that polices, monitors and punishes women and their bodies every single day. The question therefore is, on whom exactly is Khloe seeking revenge? Surely, revenge on those who victimised and imprisoned you would not be to undertake a years-long pursuit of health improvement and then entirely undermine that metamorphosis as ‘revenge’. It would be simply to say, ‘I am happier now, I am healthier now, and that has nothing to do with the unrelenting pressure I felt to drastically alter my body. You no longer have power over me’.
Anne Helen Petersen captures this predicament in her collection of essays, ‘Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud’. She writes:
Women can consider themselves free, feminist, and liberated in so many ways-yet still be controlled by the notion of an ideal body of which their own continually falls short.
This seems to be the precise tension that Khloe has presented in this post. While she may claim to be entirely liberated of the binds that kept her miserable in the past, presenting her new body as ‘revenge’ on that past tells us that the only way to liberate ourselves is to obey others’ expectations of our bodies, and to do it for them. This message, despite its earnest intentions, potentially causes more harm in a post that could have powerfully said, ‘I reject what bound me before. I may look different, but I am free now.’ That is true empowerment.