How the Kardashians used media swerves and myths in their meteoric rise : It's Been a Minute The Kardashians. Whether you're into them or not, one thing is true: You can't avoid them. When they're not releasing new episodes of their long-running reality TV show, they're making headlines about Halloween costume reveals or ex-husbands who go on anti-Semitic rants. Because somehow, over the past decade, the Kardashian family went from Hollywood D-listers to American institution.

Host Brittany Luse unpacks that journey with MJ Corey, known by her social handle Kardashian Kolloquium. Corey, who also runs a newsletter where she applies media theory to the Kardashians' antics, breaks down their rise to the heights of American society and power – and how they got there using beauty, traditional milestones and a media playbook that might look similar to another first family.

You can follow us on Twitter @npritsbeenamin and email us at

Are the Kardashians America's family?

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Hey, y'all. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. OK, so I haven't kept up with the Kardashians in about 10 years. But if you are plugged into culture in any way at all, they're unavoidable. Not only have they launched themselves to the heights of American celebrity and society. They've amassed an astounding amount of real power. The Kardashian enterprise makes just as many headlines for a Halloween costume reveal as it does for famous ex-husbands who go on antisemitic rants. Kim Kardashian could just as easily find an audience in the Oval Office as she can convince millions of people to buy into her product lines. It's made me wonder if the Kardashians are deserving of a title we usually reserved for folks who live in the White House.

Would you say that the Kardashians are America's family?

MJ COREY: I think they are. I think they...

LUSE: That's MJ Corey. On social media she goes by the handle Kardashian Kolloquium. That's Kolloquium with a K.

COREY: They're America's family in the same sense that the Kennedys were, which the Kardashians really try to situate themselves accordingly, and in the Trump sense - so in, like, the most, like, utopian, idealized sense and in the most dystopian sense.

LUSE: MJ also runs a newsletter where she applies media theory to the antics of the Kardashian family. So I asked her, how did a family with only vague connections to America's elite make themselves an American institution? Two quick notes - this conversation includes mentions of sex and a description of armed robbery. Also, I originally talked to MJ in mid-September, before Kanye went on his hate-speech-fueled public meltdown. So later on in the show, I'll check in with MJ to discuss how that collides with the Kardashian mythology. But first, I want to go back to a time when the Kardashians were just beginning their climb to dominance.

I'd like to dig into how we got here. So, like, when I think of, like, a major turning point in the Kardashian empire, my mind goes right to the episode of "Keeping Up With The Kardashians" from 2012 - I think we all know it - where Kanye and a stylist clean out Kim's closet to refill it with clothes that Kanye wants Kim to wear.


KIM KARDASHIAN: Is it so bad to keep things?

KANYE WEST: Babe, you got to, like, really clean out everything.

LUSE: It felt like we were watching the family get their celebrity status upgraded in real time.


LUSE: And at that point, like, to me, it felt like the Kardashians were in serious decline, like, in the early 2010s. Like, Kim had two failed marriages. They seem like they were struggling to stay relevant as celebrities. So Kimye going public at that time, to me, especially Kanye appearing on the show - I felt like that really breathed new life into the franchise.

COREY: Oh, yeah. Kanye was a major turning point. And what's interesting is the Kardashians will even beat us to that narrative. Like, they innovated this classic dynamic of, like, the artist and the muse kind of thing. And I think people love that, you know? And we're speaking of it like this symbolic moment, but it feels this way because it was included in the show in such a curated way. Like, Nassim Taleb, who wrote "The Black Swan" - he's a statistician and, like, a theorist, and he kind of talks about how we're naturally inclined to compress things into narratives.

LUSE: Right.

COREY: And that's how myths are made, you know, because she kept a lot of that stuff. I think the story in the show went that he trashed all of it, but it was all, you know, saved in an archive for her. So there was, I think, intentionality even in the display of that scene and what it was messaging for us. You know what I mean?

LUSE: Oh, my gosh.

COREY: I know (laughter).

LUSE: You said that you can't narrow the turning point where the Kardashians...


LUSE: ...Became an institution down to only one moment.

COREY: Yeah.

LUSE: But what's, like, a major moment in the Kardashian timeline for you that really cemented their institutional status?

COREY: Her fairytale wedding with Kris Humphries.


COREY: Four point four million people tuned in to "Part 1" of it and then 4 million to the "Part 2." It reminds me of, like, the JFK funeral. Like, it manifested the power of TV to involve an entire population in a ritual process.

LUSE: Ooh.

COREY: And I think that's true for a wedding, too, you know?

LUSE: Yeah, absolutely. I literally - I just got married, like, four or five months ago, and I would say that's absolutely true.

COREY: Yeah. The Kardashians have made a business also of these, like, really traditional family milestones that are actually so everyday. How much People paid for exclusive photos and their pictures from the bridal shower - it was a whole machine. So I think the 72-day marriage was already this televised event of a personal experience being made very public. And then it was very controversial because Kim had to go on, like, an apology tour when it didn't work out - so...

LUSE: Right.

COREY: ...Using public shaming, failure and scandal to remain relevant. And then Kanye sweeps in and makes it all better. I mean, it's an incredible myth.

LUSE: Yeah. But it's interesting. Like, I feel like they almost provide a playbook for how media narratives are spun. I think that so many other institutions are doing the exact same thing.


LUSE: They're just not necessarily as naked about it and then can't...


LUSE: ...Quite be studied in the same way.

COREY: Totally. There's a book I really like called "United States Of Distraction: Media Manipulation In A Post-Truth America." And it really breaks down the different media strategies that Trump used to kind of weaponize the press to achieve dominance. And it's a lot of media swerves. Like, when people are kind of, like, honing in on a mistake he made or something wrong he did, he will start discourse about, did Obama do it that way? Did he not? What's right or wrong about that?

LUSE: Right.

COREY: So media swerves are a big thing the Kardashians also do. I think a good example of that is after Astroworld, which they were kind of taking heat for because of...

LUSE: Right.

COREY: ...Kylie Jenner's proximity to Travis Scott.

LUSE: Right.

COREY: They kind of were frozen in time and didn't do anything or say anything for a few days. And then Kylie went to a friend's wedding wearing a very revealing dress.

LUSE: Revealing dress.


LUSE: Yes, I remember. And for those unfamiliar, we're talking about the Astroworld Festival last November, where 10 audience members died at Travis Scott's concert. Travis Scott, of course, is the father of Kylie Jenner's kids. But then it was actually...


LUSE: ...Kendall who put on this outfit. Because of that, the conversation became, should someone wear this type of revealing dress to their friend's wedding?

COREY: Exactly. That was a media swerve one. Yeah.

LUSE: You know, the thing about empires and institutions is that, like, they endure...

COREY: Yeah.

LUSE: ...Through strategy and long-range planning.


LUSE: Something else that I've been thinking about a lot - as this family business has progressed, motherhood has become a huge part of the Kardashian brand.


LUSE: Like, it actually feels like the central focus of their Hulu show, "The Kardashians," which is now in its second season. I wonder if or how you see this focus on motherhood narratives as a part of their institutional playbook.

COREY: I so appreciate you bringing that up. It's such a factor, and I think Kimye reflected but then also subverted very old-school, nuclear-era ideals of family, the American family. And so there's this intersection of really, like, classic consumer images of the family that we were seeing in the '50s - for example, in the Paris episode in 2016 when Kim was robbed in Paris. And then "Keeping Up With The Kardashians" has a whole episode reconstructing that trauma.


KARDASHIAN: And then the guy came in, grabbed the phone from me, threw me on the bed.


KARDASHIAN: And I was like, this is it.

COREY: There's this - a montage on that episode where they're really playing out those roles. Kim is saying, I begged them not to kill me because I'm a mother and I have children. And Kanye says, you know, they knew not to kill you because they knew I wouldn't rest until I found them and killed them myself - or something to that effect.

LUSE: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

COREY: So they really play those - like, the husband is the protector. The wife has - her life has meaning because she's in relation to a family, you know?

LUSE: A nurturer - right, right, right.

COREY: Yes. And I think that there's been a challenge kind of leveled at their critics for boxing Kim in as this sex tape sort of ho when she's also a mother and has all these traditional values.

LUSE: Right. Right. Right.

COREY: She straddled the madonna-whore paradigm in, like, a really unforeseen way, I think. And the fact that it was a brush with tragedy that allowed Kim proximity to a kind of iconism that we associate with the Marilyns and the Jackie Os and...

LUSE: Right.

COREY: So I think that it got her close without having to, like, actually...

LUSE: Actually kick the bucket. Yeah.

COREY: Yes. Yes.

LUSE: Yeah. It's all wild 'cause, like, I was looking the other day at some quote of hers where she said she gets horny from cleaning her children's playroom. Like, she's like, all moms can relate. Just, when their playroom's clean, like, I can finally relax. It's so wild 'cause I'm like, it just feels like "Mad Men"-era advertising copy.

COREY: Totally.

LUSE: But it also feels like this motherhood project specifically for Kim...


LUSE: ...Is, like, a culmination of the sort of, like, reshaping the narrative about herself post-sex tape. She's - every interview, she's like, I don't believe in children without marriage. And...


LUSE: That's interesting, like, that she was able to achieve that while having this public narrative for so long was - it just seemed like the exact opposite.

COREY: Yes. No, it was really straddling both. And that's why - I mean, I guess, no pun intended - the "Bound 2" video is a great example of that. She was featured as Kanye's sort of muse on - in a really memorable, really visual music video.

LUSE: Yes.

COREY: And literally, it's, like, the lines of the song.


WEST: (Rapping) One good girl is worth a thousand...

COREY: B-words.

LUSE: Yeah.

COREY: I don't know if you can swear.


COREY: I don't know how the (inaudible) - the like, parameters around that. But, you know, there was a lot of debate and discourse around that music video, but it really asserted Kim as that role for him, I think.

LUSE: So going back to, like, Kim and this sort of, like - or even just all of the Kardashian mothers 'cause Kendall doesn't have any children.


LUSE: I wonder, what do you think their motherhood narratives say about societal expectations of mothers, maybe even specifically millennial mothers and millennial motherhood? Like, how do you see the Kardashians reinforcing or challenging those notions?

COREY: They definitely exemplify the do-it-all feminism. You can get it done at work, and then you can come home and take care of your kids. And of course, they have so many resources and the ability to do that.

LUSE: Right. Right.

COREY: But it lays out that model quite dramatically. And I think people would have a harder time with these women if they didn't have children and they were just viewed only as, like, a Hillary Clinton type of girlboss, like, power hungry - whatever those exaggerations, these caricatures of female power become. They would be seen as too shrill, too power hungry, too masculine if they didn't have this, you know?


COREY: And I don't think that's why they're doing it, but it helps, you know?

LUSE: No, that was actually part of the reason why I asked you 'cause I was thinking - I was like...

COREY: Yeah.

LUSE: The - just, like, your average successful woman, right?


LUSE: Average woman with career success - it's almost threatening to see her unattached without children or without a partner of some sort.

COREY: Yes. It's hard to picture her without it. And for what it's worth, back to that JFK comparison, he wasn't so camera-ready and so camera-friendly until Jackie entered the picture and kind of helped his image. The image of, like, a soft, idyllic family helps. And looking at even how it was generative for both Kim and Kanye's public images, he would still be Kanye, I think, with or without that marriage. But it did iconize them in, like, that Jackie and John kind of way too. Like, the power of Kimye was major and defining. And so there's that element of a very, like, perfectly mediated family that brought a lot of power.


LUSE: Like I said earlier, I first spoke with MJ Corey back in September. But since then, Kanye seems to have torpedoed both his public image and just about every business partnership he's ever had due to a series of bigoted remarks. And since everything that Kanye does affects Kim's public narrative, well, I had to call MJ back.

So, MJ, since we last talked, a lot has changed in the Kim Kardashian multiverse. What do you make of Kim's response to this whole situation thus far?

COREY: This new turn that Kanye's taken to make the loss of all these major partnerships worth it - like, he's going to have to do something with it. And there's money to be made from the right wing with him.

LUSE: Oh, wow.

COREY: And I do feel like Kanye is sort of emerging as the essential sort of Trumpist figure right now. So Kim's response was self-restrained for a while. And then notably, she went out to dinner, according to TMZ, with Ivanka Trump at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

LUSE: Right.


LUSE: Right.

COREY: And apparently, Kim was overheard talking to Ivanka about antisemitism. And then the next day, Kim made her long-awaited story post condemning not specifically what Kanye's saying but condemning antisemitic rhetoric. And I think there's something interesting about that because Kim likes to play both sides. She's said before that she's socially liberal but fiscally conservative. And she's never fully committed to a party, but she's been very aligned with establishment Democrats. So I think she doesn't want to lose the right entirely by fully condemning Kanye. That's sort of, like, my read on it.

LUSE: Wow.

COREY: Yeah. It felt very cautious. I also think, if we're going by this theory, that Kanye is aligning himself with a certain kind of Trumpism.

LUSE: That's so bizarre but also, I mean, I guess kind of astute when you think about how things have sort of played out with them so far. But I wonder. What does the fallout from Kanye's actions say about the size of the influence of the Kardashian machine?

COREY: This is an example of sort of the political establishment and entertainment collapsing more and more, which is what Neil Postman really predicted in his book, "Amusing Ourselves To Death," about politics as spectacle.

LUSE: I think that sounds about right. Obviously, since Donald Trump was president previously, there's, like, a well-trod path to be able to take power that you have in the pop culture sphere and really end up with a heck of a lot of power in the political sphere.

COREY: Totally.

LUSE: Oh, my gosh - so wild to think about.

COREY: I know.

LUSE: After all the latest headlines, would you say the Kardashians still fit the narrative of America's family?

COREY: Yeah, because they're never perfectly America's family in that they reflect or represent, like, everyone in America. But they do reflect and represent the systems as they're evolving. So I still think that they are that reflection, again, whether we like it or not.

LUSE: It's kind of like if you're showing me a Kardashian, you're showing me your values...

COREY: Yeah.

LUSE: ...Basically.

COREY: Oh, it's totally - it's an inkblot test for sure.

LUSE: That's writer MJ Corey, expert on all things Kardashian. You can find her online as Kardashian Kolloquium. She also runs a Substack newsletter called DeKonstructing the Kardashians, all spelled with Ks, of course. OK. So the Kardashians used beauty as the foundation for their entire syndicate. But a lot - I mean a lot - of other celebrities have started their own beauty and skincare lines. What are all these people trying to sell us, and why are we buying? That's coming up next. Stick around.


LUSE: My next guest is also well-acquainted with the business of the Kardashians and the power they hold. Jessica DeFino is a beauty reporter and cultural critic. But at one point, she actually worked as an editor for the Kardashian-Jenner apps, which meant she received a lot of free luxury skincare samples.

JESSICA DEFINO: That eventually backfired on my face, on my skin and on my soul.

LUSE: The products, the work, the paycheck - which, she says, was not even enough to afford the gas she needed to get to work - eventually took their toll. And she began to really examine the beauty boxes she once joyfully received.

DEFINO: It really started my whole journey with learning, like, how does the skin actually function? And that was a big lightbulb moment for me, separating function of the skin from skin care products, separating care from consumerism.

LUSE: I talked with Jessica about a trend that's been snowballing for the last few years - celebrity beauty lines, like the ones the Kardashians have. And she's got all the answers, from what these celebs are actually selling to the reasons the face was left behind in the body positive movement.

In the world of beauty, skin care seems to really be having this huge moment. Why do you think it's such a big focus of the beauty industry right now?

DEFINO: Oh, there are so many reasons why skin is having a big moment. Color cosmetics are sometimes seen as superficial or, like, a vapid pursuit. Skin care has all of these claims to health and wellness, so it's easier for people to feel like they are taking care of themselves, that this is for their health, their well-being, even their mental health and not feel like they're funneling time into perpetuating beauty standards, even though that is, for the most part, what skin care is as well.

LUSE: (Laughter) But still, a lot of people - a lot of consumers are looking to people to influence their purchasing decisions, especially around skin care because I feel like we've reached this huge, like, zenith point where it feels like every celebrity or influencer has a skin care brand. Why do so many celebrities have skincare brands now?

DEFINO: I do think money is the main driver. Celebrities have always been very involved in the beauty industry, but traditionally, they have been more involved in the way of endorsement deals. So they would be the face of an established skin care brand or a fragrance brand or a cosmetics brand.

And I think just with the way the world is moving, it doesn't seem as lucrative of a position to be the face of somebody else's brand when you could pretty easily be the face of your own brand. So I do think there's an element of control. There's an element of capitalism. And then there's also the element of just fame.

LUSE: So this is the thing, the thing that gets me with celebrity skin care lines - is how they're selling a product that did not help them to achieve the, like, the clear, glassy, plump skin that they have now.


LUSE: Like, even thinking specifically about, like, say, Jennifer Lopez, right? Like, she came out with a skin care line a couple of years ago. She has been known to have very clear, beautiful skin for, like, two decades. It's not like she was using her Jennifer Lopez skin products, like, back in 2009. Like, she just came up with these. That's not why her face looks like that.

DEFINO: It is so true. I mean, celebrities have, quote, unquote, "good skin," the cultural ideal of good skin because of strong genetics, expensive facials, injectable fillers, maybe even some light surgery. And then they're turning around and saying, if you buy these products that I just came up with, even though you've been idolizing me for 20 years, you can look like me, too.

LUSE: Like, what is, quote, unquote, "good skin?" What does that mean?

DEFINO: I personally despise the term good skin. I think good skin is an excellent example of how beauty has been wrapped up in morality. Beauty functions in society as an ethical ideal, and we have been fed messages since, you know, the minute we pop out of the womb that to be a good person is to be a beautiful person.

You know, you even look at like Disney princess movies. You look at the princess who's good, and you look at the villain who's ugly.

LUSE: Right.

DEFINO: Like, we get these messages constantly. I do think that the idea of good skin shifts over time as beauty standards and beauty trends do. Currently, I think the ideal of good skin is very smooth...

LUSE: Yes.

DEFINO: ...Extremely shiny, wet looking. There is no allowance for changes in tone or texture. It's very flat, glass-like. It reflects the state of our largely virtual digital lives. You know, we're expecting our faces to look like a screen. And it's so interesting because when you look back on, like, the history of beauty and the history of beauty standards, this isn't really a new phenomenon. So for instance, like, when movies first came out and we could see actresses on the screen, the lighting wasn't that great. The camera quality wasn't that great. And it lent this sort of blurred, ethereal look to actors and actresses. And all of a sudden, people were like, this is what somebody famous and worthy looks like. I want to look like that, too. Every advancement in screens, in cinema, in digital has had that moment. And we are trying to adapt our real-life human faces to a virtual, hyper-real standard of beauty.

LUSE: So to talk about Kim Kardashian for a second, who just put out her own skincare line, you wrote about an interview of hers where she said that if she had to eat poop every day in order to stop aging, she would. What do you think the marketing around her product says about where we are as a society? Because she gave that quote to The New York Times. Someone like her knows what she's saying if she's talking to The New York Times.

DEFINO: Exactly. She gave that quote to The New York Times, and then she doubled-down on it in an interview for Allure magazine a couple of weeks later. So she said it twice. She's been very clear that she would eat poop if it would make her look younger. I think it says a lot about the state of modern beauty marketing and modern skin care marketing because in that very same New York Times interview, The Times noted that Kim Kardashian, for her skin care line, is opting not to use the term anti-aging to market any of her products.

LUSE: Right.

DEFINO: They don't want to use this negative connotation of anti-aging. However, when you come out in that same article and say that you would eat excrement to look younger, you're perpetuating anti-aging ideology. And I think this is a really important thing to note because in the beauty industry at large, we are seeing sort of a backlash to negative-sounding terms like anti-aging.

LUSE: Right.

DEFINO: But the underlying ideology hasn't changed. Like, our society and our beauty industry in particular is more youth-obsessed than ever. It's just that these messages are more being told in the underlying marketing stories, in the models being used, in the products being pushed, in the injectables being normalized. Like, we are living in a youth-glorifying culture even if we are like, oh, I'm not going to say anti-aging.

LUSE: To, like, bear down on this a little bit more, why do we not want to use the term anti-aging and yet still don't want to age? Like, what's beneath that?

DEFINO: Anti-aging at its core is ageism, plain and simple. It is internalized ageism. And, of course, the underlying ideology hasn't changed because we live in a deeply ageist society. You know, we value members of society largely for their productivity. Your productivity and your value to the economy wanes the older you get. We don't have equity for the elderly. We don't have sufficient medical care for the elderly. We don't have a lot of resources in place that would make aging seem like an appealing proposition.

We also live in a very surface-level society, so if we can take away some of our age anxiety by temporarily erasing our wrinkles with a shot of Botox, we're going to go for that because we have been trained to want a quick and easy sweep it under the rug fix for what is actually a societal problem.

LUSE: Coming up, Jessica DeFino on how skin care culture is riddled with insidious beauty expectations. Stick around.


LUSE: So I'm not a big - I just never have been a big makeup person. It's just never been a super huge thing for me. Day-to-day, usually I don't wear any, but I noticed that increasingly in professional situations, like, I feel like if I'm getting dressed and I see my face and I don't have it, I'm like - it's almost like my brain tells me that I look incomplete in a certain way.

DEFINO: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that is a message that we have been fed by beauty culture for pretty much our whole lives. I mean, to contextualize it, I like to frame beauty culture as diet culture's face-focused, fraternal twin...

LUSE: (Laughter).

DEFINO: ...Because I think people are really familiar with diet culture and how...

LUSE: Right.

DEFINO: ...Insidious it is and the things that it does to our minds and our self-perception. It's what diet culture does, but for your face. So, like, it's totally understandable that you would feel that way. I mean, I feel that way. I put on concealer and a brow gel for this interview because I was like, maybe I'll be on camera.

LUSE: (Laughter).

DEFINO: And, you know, this is the stuff that I've been deconstructing for, you know, the better part of a decade now.

LUSE: Right.

DEFINO: But it still exists within me because I still exist within society that tells me I need to look professional and put together. What I always say when this comes up is, like, we have to be gentle with ourselves. We have to understand that beauty culture is insidious and it does affect us psychologically and it does do a lot of damage. And it's OK to participate in some of these beauty norms because they do still affect us on a professional level. I think the most important thing is just to be aware of it, to divest when you can, when it feels safe, when it feels like it isn't a threat to your professional and financial well-being and to just keep talking about it because I think right now, beauty especially gets praised as self-expression and self-care...

LUSE: Right.

DEFINO: ...And empowerment. And of course, beauty can be those things. Like, there is a powerful case for makeup as self-expression and as art. And I love using makeup in that way. But just because these things can be true doesn't mean that they are always true, and it doesn't mean that they're the primary ways that beauty is being used. Like, primarily, physical beauty today is being used as a tool of conformity, complacency, control and consumerism.

LUSE: You brought up diet culture. I can't think about diet culture without also thinking about body positivity. Like, the connection between body positivity and sort of beauty culture and where they kind of will intersect or overlap or not makes me think about another influencer who was recently marketing skin care, Katie Sturino. So for people who are not familiar, she's a businesswoman known as a body-positive model - very famous on Instagram. And yet, not long ago, she was marketing Botox on her Instagram page in a post that has since been deleted. It's like, you know, her whole message is body positivity, and yet she was, you know, pushing Botox. And I know, influencers, they make money in lots of different kinds of ways and sell lots of different kinds of ads. But that felt dissonant. Like, it almost feels like skincare is divorced from the body positive movement.

DEFINO: Yes. Yes. I 100% agree. There is a huge disconnect there. The body positivity has rarely extended above the neck in popular culture...

LUSE: (Laughter).

DEFINO: ...Which is always concerning to me. The standard of beauty is a set of parameters. Like, you - there's some room for change. I think people can understand the idea of maybe having a fat body but a pretty face.

LUSE: Yeah.

DEFINO: Like, those have always sort of been, like, a consolation prize. Like, well, maybe I'm fat, but I have such a pretty face. And so these parameters still exist, and the body positivity movement did not address those parameters at all. So we see a lot of body acceptance influencers like Katie Sturino preaching about accepting your body and loving your body and funneling the brain space that they have freed up in worrying about their body image to their face. And something that I always like to say is skincare culture is just dewy diet culture. Like...

LUSE: (Laughter).

DEFINO: ...And you can make these really easy swaps to see if a piece of content feels right to you. So for instance, I think in Katie Sturino's Botox post, she was talking about erasing her frown lines.

LUSE: Right.

DEFINO: But if you swapped the word frown lines for stretch marks, would that content, would that anti-aging, anti-wrinkle content still feel good if it was telling you you had to get rid of your stretch marks? Like, there's really no difference between these things. It's just that we have separated body from face and body from skin. And I really just hope that it's time that we bring all of this together and can see how we have been, like, collectively bamboozled by diet culture and beauty culture and skincare culture, and they all stem from the same forces.

LUSE: Yeah, it almost feels like there's this, like, algebraic equation - like, body size, race, gender presentation, skin...


LUSE: ...Age. You can have, you know, a certain type of features or a certain skin tone, but your hair has to have a certain kink to it or curl to it, has to be absolutely straight. It feels like there's a conventional beauty standard where you have to constantly be accounting for, quote, unquote, "perceived flaws" that fall outside of these narrow norms. And, like, you can't sort of be almost, quote, unquote, "flawed" in more than two or three aspects. Otherwise, you fall outside, you fall too far outside of, like, conventional...


LUSE: ...Beauty norms. And I don't think I'm, like imagining this (laughter).

DEFINO: No, no, you're not at all. That is exactly how it works. I used to love watching "America's Next Top Model."

LUSE: I mean, didn't we all back then?


LUSE: (Laughter).

DEFINO: And there was one season - I don't know if this was, like, a consistent thing that Tyra Banks said, but there was one season in particular where I remember she talked about this idea of being flawsome (ph).

LUSE: (Laughter).

DEFINO: And she encouraged the models to pick out their one flaw and really play it up. So, like, her flawsome thing was her big forehead.

LUSE: I remember.

DEFINO: I mean, it has stuck with me for probably 20 years now. You're only allowed to have one flaw.

LUSE: Yeah.

DEFINO: And so whenever that concept of parameters comes up, I think of the scam of being flawsome (laughter).

LUSE: OK, so I've been reading your work for some time. The thing I think about, though, with regard to beauty - and I've been thinking about this a lot - is, like, divesting from - like, coming from where I'm coming from as a Black woman, it's hard for me to imagine divesting from something that I never really felt fully welcomed into in the first place from having, like - and I'm on the lighter side, and I still can't, like, buy makeup at many places (laughter), you know? And you said something earlier about, like, divesting when it feels safe. But I think for a lot of people with regard to beauty, some people literally are not safe...


LUSE: ...Divesting from beauty even a little bit.

DEFINO: I think that's such a valid point. Like, beauty culture is part of reinforcing racism and colorism. And you can see this in the products that are on offer. For example, you can look at, like, any foundation range of most beauty brands pre-Fenty, and you would see, you know, 20 shades for lighter-skinned women and maybe three shades for dark-skinned women to choose from.

LUSE: Yeah.

DEFINO: This is not, like, a flaw in the beauty system. It's a design of the beauty system. And it's tempting to champion inclusion as the answer to all of it. And, like, to a certain extent, it is. Like, we should have products available for every person. And I think it's really important to sort of separate these two tracks to equality. Like, there is one track where it's all about inclusion, and it's all about making everybody feel seen, and it's all about having something available for every person. And then there's another track where we abolish beauty standards completely. Like, in an ideal world, we should be able to be respected as human beings no matter what we look like by virtue of being human beings.

LUSE: So, like, I hear what you're saying, and I agree with it. Beauty still feels like something that I think we need to buy into. Even you said, you put on some concealer and brow gel before you came to talk to me today. Why is beauty something that we feel that we need to buy into?

DEFINO: Oh, this is such a great question. Beauty is an inherent human longing. Like, when I'm critiquing the beauty industry, I am critiquing the industrialized, standardized portions of it. And I never mean to diminish the power and the importance of beauty in our lives. Like, I think of beauty as being up there with like, freedom, truth and love. These are inherent human longings. These are spirit things. The human spirit craves and needs beauty. And we appreciate this all over in other ways. You know, we can appreciate the beauty of nature. We can appreciate the beauty of, like, a piece of artwork. We need that kind of beauty in our lives.

And part of what makes the beauty industry so powerful is that it co-opts this instinctual need, this instinctual craving for this like free, beautiful, energetic, three-dimensional version of beauty. And it flattens it into one dimension. And it says, no, beauty is only physical, and beauty can only be achieved through these products and these procedures with this money. And it really sort of, like, bamboozled us into believing, okay, that's the beauty that my spirit is craving. And that's also why it's so unfulfilling. We keep buying, and we keep trying things, and we keep applying things, and we keep trying to make ourselves look different because that inherent human longing for beauty is not satisfied by the physical, standardized, industrialized stuff.

And, I mean, I don't have an answer for it. I don't know how we get all of us to, like, connect with that kind of beauty rather than physical appearance. But that's sort of what keeps me going. That's what keeps me interested. I think beauty is so important to our like, well-being on a soul level. And it just upsets me so much that we've been fed this one-dimensional, flat, unfulfilling definition of what beauty is.


LUSE: I'm going to be thinking about this for quite some time. Thank you so much for joining us today on IT'S BEEN A MINUTE.

DEFINO: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I really loved our conversation.

LUSE: Thanks again to beauty reporter Jessica DeFino. You can find her work on her Substack newsletter "The Unpublishable." This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by...





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LUSE: All right. That's our show for today. See you next week for another episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. Talk soon.

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