The Big Problem With Our Fascination With Kylie Jenner's Lips That Nobody Is Talking About
Another Kardashian just "broke the Internet."
This time it's Kylie Jenner, whose photos showing plumper, poutier lips set off pandemonium this week on social media. Teens and young adults have been sucking hard on shot glasses to temporarily plump their lips, and then posting photos and videos of the results online for the #KylieJennerChallenge.
But the fanfare surrounding Jenner plays into a white fascination with plumped lips, a feature commonly associated with stereotyping and fetishizing black bodies.
Big lips and black people. Historically, common black features such as nappy hair and big butts have been deemed undesirable or ugly, or treated as fetishized stereotypes. During the 18th and 19th centuries, whites in Europe and the U.S. regarded people of African descent as "culturally and physically unevolved, and apelike in appearance," according to a 1995 study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. The so-called apelike features lambasted by whites included everything from flat noses to "eccentrically elliptical" hair and thick, protruding lips — just like the ones these teens are at once emulating and mocking.
The denigration of big lips on black bodies continued through minstrel shows and cartoons, where blackface was the norm. Performers exaggerated the size of their lips for comedic value, using makeup to create clown-like caricatures. Many of the images circulating in the #KylieJennerChallenge hearken back to this unfortunate episode in American history.
Though black individuals have historically been ridiculed for their appearance, in recent years, bigger lips have become fashionable — for white women, at least. Entertainers such as Angelina Jolie receive praise for their plump lips, for example; some famous women have undergone surgery to get plumper pouts too, often becoming targets for jokes if it doesn't turn out well. Jenner herself has been accused of receiving lip injections, despite being just 17 years old.
Some people credit women like Jolie and Jenner for making big lips fashionable, but this viral trend underscores a peculiar double standard. Scores of black public figures with voluptuous lips have walked red carpets, appeared in films and music videos, even on the covers of mainstream magazines, but they aren't called trendsetters.
On the contrary, these women receive more denigration than praise for their features. Take the controversy of a New York Times TV critic calling How to Get Away With Murder star Viola Davis "less classically beautiful" in September. Davis has many features that have been historically denigrated in black people, like kinky hair, dark skin, a flat nose and, yes, thick lips. As a result, her beauty was deemed "less" than the typical network television show lead actress.
It seems when black women have features associated with black people, they are called "less beautiful" or ignored, while white people embodying these same features often receive kudos for pioneering trends.
For example, as Mic noted, when Kylie Jenner wore dreads, Fashion Police host Giuliana Rancic called them "edgy." But earlier this year, Rancic said biracial actress Zendaya Coleman's red carpet locs made her look as though she smelled of "weed" or "patchouli oil." Last fall, Vogue came under fire for implying that Iggy Azalea and many other white women somehow were pioneering a "big booty" trend, even though performers like Nicki Minaj and Jennifer Lopez have celebrated their curves for years.
Where's the appreciation? This isn't about attacking a young woman for her makeup routine; Kylie Jenner can do what she wants with her face. It is about the broader tendency to credit white people for starting trends related to physical attributes long negatively associated with black people, and once again centering white bodies when dictating what's considered normal, trendy and beautiful.
Big lips aren't anything new, whether they're natural, surgically altered or a product of clever makeup skills. That young people and others now see this as a feature worth copying when it's on Kylie Jenner's face sends a message about whose bodies are valued versus whose bodies aren't.