Is the Kardashians’ obsession with fitness body positive or body shaming?

It has been ten whole years since Keeping Up With The Kardashians premiered, and the show has just been renewed for another five seasons. Which means that there will soon enough be teenage human beings out there who have never known a world without the Kardashians on TV. It also means that fans (or anyone who has access to the internet) have spent a decade consuming what the Kardashians are putting out, part of which is an obsession with makeup, fashion, and weight. For people who have never watched the show and know the family only through social media headlines, it’s easy to assume that the emphasis they put image is a bad thing. But is it?

In reality, it’s a little bit of both.

The Kardashian and Jenner sisters are way more complex than they might appear on magazine covers or in your Instagram feed. On their reality shows, they’re funny, loyal, loving, and often goofy. They’re human beings with authentic emotions and lives, just like the rest of us, even if they take private jets and get to wear naked dresses on red carpets on the regular. And just like the rest of us, they have complicated relationships with their weight and body image.

Still, sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the Kardashians’ obsession with their bodies is fat shame-y or body positive.

The Kardashian’s take on body image is much more complicated than that.

Weight and body image are frequent plot points on KUWTK and in the media surrounding them. The most obvious place to start digging into the Kardashians, body image, and fitness is with Khloé, who has publicly struggled with her weight on the show and was instantly labeled the “fat sister” almost as soon as the very first episode of KUWTK aired. 

Khloé recently told Harper’s Bazaar in an interview promoting her Good American clothing line:

"I didn't know I was bigger until I started doing our TV show, and once I was in the public eye, people were able to pick me apart. That's when I was like, 'oh my gosh, I guess I'm chubby.. or I guess I'm bigger.' I really commend my mom and my sisters for never making me feel less than."

Most recently, Khloé’s been criticized for her spinoff show Revenge Body, a reality show based on her diet and workout program. Contestants come on the show after a breakup or because they’re sick of their family and friends being terrible to them and get in shape as a way of “getting back” at the people who’ve hurt them.

We can’t blame Khloé for America’s obsession with how people look and the fact that our culture as a whole values certain body types over others. Judging people for their weight or body type is fat shaming and Khloé’s approach — that one has to be skinny or look a certain way in jeans to be happy or come off as successful — is problematic in so many ways. 

Then again, Revenge Body isn’t just about weight loss. Many of the contestants go through a total transformation on the show, seemingly not just physically, but also emotionally. It’s like they’ve hit a bottom in their life and need to make a change, and working through things using exercise and adherence to a healthy lifestyle as a tool is definitely one way to do that. It’s is a pretty common thing means by which to focus on oneself in healthy ways (as long as they are, indeed, health, which not all “fitness” lifestyles are).

Think of it like this: In substance abuse recovery, a focus on fitness is often recommended by health professionals. It’s a way to commit to practicing self care in a healthy way. As opposed to indulging in your vices and then feeling shame about it, a person can adopt a hobby they can feel good about. Sometimes, there’s even a sense of much needed community that comes out it. And studies have shown that exercising is a great way to battle anxiety and depression. It has nothing to do with weight or health (since you can be totally healthy at any size), but just …well, feeling good. How many of you out there that exercise regularly just feel out of sorts when you don’t go for your usual run or yoga class? It’s a thing.

The framing of Revenge Body is about “getting back” at an ex or a terrible group of fat shame-ing friends. But it can also be about tackling personal demons and boosting your confidence.

But that’s sort of the problem, too.

Confidence shouldn’t have to come with having a body that our culture deems “acceptable.” Writer Roxane Gay might sum up the message of Revenge Body  best in her memoir Hunger. “It’s a hell of a thing,” writes Gay, “this idea that the way to truly settle old scores is to get thinner and fitter,” she writes.

It is a hell of thing, too, that Khloé often fat shames those closest to her, seemingly as a way to joke around. She’s often the first one to call out her brother Rob, who consistently feels terrible about himself when he gains weight. In Season 13, episode 4, Rob is discussing Blac Chyna’s birthing plan with Khloé and Scott. His sister cuts in and jokes that she can’t picture the two having sex, totally off topic. 

“I just got this weird image. Between her ass, her belly, and your belly…” she trails off as Rob interrupts her. Putting all the baggage surrounding Rob aside, Khloé’s comment is indicative of how she uses other people’s appearance and weight as a put down. Yes, it’s her often terrible brother she’s teasing, so maybe it’s well-intentioned or innocent. But still, it’s just not a funny joke, especially since Rob’s entire presence on the show for the last few seasons has revolved around treating his weight gain with the gravity of a terminal cancer.

Khloé’s also quick on the trigger to shut down comments about her weight. Recently, she clapped back at commenters on a Good American Instagram post that were musing about whether or not she had a baby bump. Khloé didn’t address the baby rumors, but explained that the shirt she was wearing was peplum and “flared” out, which is why she might have looked bigger.

Although she was cheered for shutting down comments about her body, she wasn’t shutting down comments about bodies in general. Just hers. It came off as more a way to defend herself about being called “fat” or “bigger than usual,” as if that were a bad thing. Then again, living so publicly means constantly having to think about what she looks like. She told Us Weekly about her fluctuating weight and struggles with body image, “It’s like being brain-washed: You think, ‘Do I have a distorted body image and think I’m not as big as I am?’”

The Kardashians’ treatment of body image can feel like a “chicken or the egg” situation: Are they perpetuating an idea that skinnier = healthier and happier, or are they just women in a society that trained them to operate under those conditions?

Again, the answer here is “they are both” — but they also have a massive platform, so how they handle issues that impact so many of their viewers is an implicit responsibility.

Kim recently opened up about feeling fat shamed on this season of KUWTK. After unauthorized paparazzi pics of Kim in Mexico were released last year, people took to the internet to mock the cellulite on her butt. When Kim first saw the pictures in the second episode of Season 14, her first response was anger. “F*ck. I don’t get it. I literally don’t look like this,” she says, looking at her phone and implying that the media outlet might have Photoshopped her backend for more clicks.

If nothing else, people love to hate on Kim and her sisters for whatever reason possible. People are awful to the Kardashians. Remember when there were trolls who made jokes and Halloween costumes about Kim’s robbery? When those Mexico pictures came out, people shamed her for cellulite. Or shamed her for being ashamed about the cellulite. There is literally no way for her to win in the public’s eye.

After Kim’s initial disgust at her own cellulite, she opens up and says that she hates to go out these days because of anxiety around what people will say about her. “I can’t have fun after seeing those pics…It’s literally giving me body dysmorphia. I’m getting crazy,” she says in the episode.

You might brush that aside as being dramatic, but that’s the same way that millions of girls and women feel all the time about their bodies. Being a wealthy, stunning celebrity doesn’t change the fact that we are all socialized to assume our bodies should be a certain way and that they are usually not up to par.

Why should the Kardashians (or sister Kylie Jenner, who has also been interviewed about her “weight gain” over the years) be any different?

Maybe the Kardashians are more like us than we think.

Since they have such a huge platform and widespread appeal, it would be ideal if the Kardashians were totally perfect and shut down fat-shaming and modeled what “real” body positivity looks like all the time, in everything they do. But maybe it’s better that we watch them struggle with their image and public perceptions of themselves, or that they eat salads almost every single day and then guiltily Snapchat a milkshake outing or gush over a plate of fries in their hotel rooms.

If the Kardashian’s obsessions with fitness, weight, and body image are messed up, they’re also a reflection of our social media- and image-driven culture, too. Let’s hope at some point they realize that the incredible influence they have might just give them the power to effect change in how people feel about their bodies.