Kim Kardashian doesn’t have it easy. I’ve never envied her. For being among America’s wealthiest women and gracing all the high-profile events one could imagine, she has never seemed particularly happy to me.
From the first time I saw her in a magazine, I’ve noticed she always has the same look—a steely and stoic almost-stare, framed by much-mascaraed lashes. The people around her in a photo might look candid and conversational, but she looks like her wax figure at Madame Tussauds—frozen, closed-off, and never smiling. This look has become Kardashian’s signature, and it stares out of nearly all the photos in her recently published picture book of selfies, Selfish.
So last week when Kardashian revealed in an interview why she doesn’t smile in all her paparazzi photos and selfies, my interest was piqued. Let me say up front that I think women can choose whatever look they want. Not everyone is a smiley person, and that’s OK. I don’t think Victoria Beckham, Anna Wintour, or Marilyn Monroe—all famous women who have been critiqued for their frequent blank stares—owe it to the world to smile all the time. But according to the Huffington Post, Kardashian never smiles because of . . . body shaming.
Body shaming? Yep. According to Kardashian in her interview with C Magazine, she doesn’t smile in photos because she felt shamed when she was criticized by outlets for gaining weight during her first pregnancy. I can’t help but think, really? Kardashian’s body gets a lot of public attention, much of which appears to be the result of her own doing, but my guess is that if there’s a ratio of positive to negative commentary on her body, it would be ninety-nine to one. Last fall she “broke the Internet” with her nude cover shoot for Paper magazine—and not because people didn’t like it. Websites such as BuzzFeed rounded up a survey of body standards over time, placing a Kardashian-like figure as today’s highest ideal.
Kardashian may indeed feel shame in connection to her body image, but I wouldn’t say it’s primarily because others are shaming her. It could be because many people are objectifying her. It could be because she attaches her self-worth to her popularity and financial success. It could be because she’s hyper-focused on looking unrealistically perfect at all times. It could be any number of things I could or couldn’t imagine. But all these are reasons to believe it isn’t the outside world shooting shame bullets from a stun gun that stops her smiles.
It’s much more likely that her ice-princess facade is a sort of armor intended to shield some part of her from the continual pressure and attention.
The Shame Game
While I can’t comment on Kardashian’s interior thoughts, I think her public comments on shame bring up a significant point that is worth unpacking.
Researcher Brené Brown has studied the concept of shame arguably more than anyone else today. And what she has found is that shame is a toxic but real thing that everyone experiences to some degree in their lives. The key is to develop the ability to overcome moments of shame when they crop up so that they don’t diminish one’s self-worth. From Brown’s research, the data overwhelmingly points to embracing the quality of vulnerability as an antidote to this shame.
Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and, therefore, unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” By Brown’s definition, shame is, unlike guilt, not helpful or productive but instead “much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure . . . [and] the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.” What helps people reconnect in a genuine way, she explains, is vulnerability—that is, “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”
A big part of living a wholehearted life, from Brown’s research, involves making time for oneself regularly—time for play, not just work, and intentionally living out authenticity on a regular basis, which in great part requires letting go of concern about what others think of you. For someone whose livelihood is connected to the public consumption of her image, this could be an even more difficult task for Kardashian than it already is for most people.
I struggle with what others think of me, yet I’ve never received a nano of the public attention Kardashian has. And thank God! I am glad I can walk through New York City and be completely anonymous; being one of many in a crowd is one of my favorite things about the city that never sleeps and, for me, never judges. It makes sense why Kardashian says Paris is her favorite city; perhaps it’s because it is to her what New York City is to me—a gorgeous, vibrant city but one where no one is watching your every move, thanks to it being in a foreign country that doesn’t stream her TV show.
As the band Keane sang in its 2004 hit song, and as Brown’s research would suggest, we all need “somewhere only we know.” Or as Katy Perry put it less poetically, “the part of me that you’re never gonna ever take away from me.” For celebrities and reality TV stars, these are much more scarce. The world wants to eat up their every last private moment with interviews and paparazzi photos. That’s what some celebs are selling, in fact: a continuous invitation into their private lives—or at least that’s the appeal.
This is why I say I’ve never envied Kardashian. If I experience the very human struggle to possess myself daily—to not be overwhelmed by outside influences trying to exert control over my life—how much more so is that true for Kardashian, for whom continued success is tied to what the outside world thinks of her? To me, it’s never been a surprise that she doesn’t smile.
The End Game
It’s understandable that Kardashian and people like her in the spotlight want to keep some part of themselves guarded and unexposed to public scrutiny. But unchecked, this can go in the opposite direction of true vulnerability and instead lead to numbness and shutting down. (Cue the falling personality towers of Riley’s mind in the delightful Disney/Pixar film Inside Out.)
Perhaps what happened to Kardashian when she received negative comments about her weight was indeed a feeling of shame. I believe her when she says it hurt and that having ninety-nine times more positive comments about her body doesn’t take away that pain. That’s understandable, if her main goal is to always look 100 percent perfect to others. If that’s the case, the 1 percent of the time that she doesn’t would be 100 percent failure.
That’s why, according to Brown, when it comes to the data on the happiest people in the world—those with “wholehearted living”—the key is to detach ourselves from what others think because that only sets us up for failure. As Brown has said, “Perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience.” The key is to get in touch with what we ourselves think and live authentically—a much harder, though much more rewarding, goal.
Whether Kardashian’s body-shaming out is true or not, her hardened facial expressions are not likely to succeed as self-protective armor in any real sense. When it comes to self-preservation and wellness, both our outward personas and our internal selves have to work in harmony. This is no easy task, but the sooner we accept it and exit whatever confining constructs keep us from being our true selves, the less painful it will be when we don’t measure up to what others expect. And who knows—maybe we’ll smile more.