They do not make, to my knowledge, Very Special Episodes of reality shows. If they did, though, Sunday's installment of Keeping Up With the Kardashians would certainly have qualified for the honor. In it, Kim Kardashian, splayed on an impossibly white couch as Very Special music swelled to mark the moment, looked into the eyes of her sisters and made a shocking confession: She is insecure, sometimes. And insecure about the very thing she has offered up to the public with the wan regularity of ritual sacrifice: her body.
"I cannot leave the house," Kardashian admitted, in her iconically laconic way, "without Spanx."
This was pretty much the Kardashianic equivalent of Tim Gunn showing up to a Park Avenue dinner party in sweats, or of Oscar the Grouch giving Zoloft a try: Kardashian, who regularly asks her legions of fans to consider the subtle differences between self-confidence and self-absorption, is pretty much the last person you'd ever associate with Security Spanx. But there it was: Even Kim Kardashian, according to Kim Kardashian, doubts herself. Sometimes. The proof of this was the only evidence we can ever have when it comes to reality TV's hall of convex mirrors: It was presented to us on a screen.
The Kardashian confession (Konfession?) was made even more jarring by the fact that its airing coincided with the release of the book tellingly titled, simply, Selfish—a 448-page compendium of (a portion of the) photographic images Kim has taken of herself, from 2006 to 2014. In the vague manner of Kramer's coffee table book about coffee tables, Kim's collection is both of and about selfies: It takes her (in)famous love of her own image to a logical, and also absurdist, extreme.
And yet—though critics tend to discuss Kardashian in terms as exaggerated as her hips/breasts/eyelashes, treating her as an omen of either American culture's destruction or its salvation—Selfish is decidedly small. It is a series of selfies accompanied by brief captions, the end. But the smallness is also revealing. In the book's critic-taunting title, in its sleek production value (it was published in the U.S. by Rizzoli, an imprint specializing in art collections), in the quantity of wood pulp required to produce pages slick with ink that has been coaxed into the two-dimensional form of Kardashian's face, Selfish is predicated on the idea that deflecting criticism and absorbing it tend to amount to the same thing.
The MIT researcher Ethan Zuckerman once described the “Kardashian” as a unit of unmerited fame. Selfish responds to that with page after page of Kim Kardashian's boobs.
You could see all that—the book's, and its author's, nihilism-via-vacuity—as a profound commentary on our times, or as yet another of Kardashian's canny acts of capitalism, or as a succinct reply to Daniel Boorstin. You could see it as further proof that our media have coaxed us into living within the context of no context (or, in this case, the Kontext of no Kontext). But what Selfish also amounts to, in its flip book-on-amphetamines framing, is a kind of diary. The photos are presented year by year, chronologically. Which means that they don't just capture what Kim Kardashian looked like on a particular day, at a particular event, with a particular sibling or friend or fellow-celebrity; they also capture her evolution—and not just from the arm candy of Paris Hilton to the arm candy of Kanye West. In Selfish, you see a woman experimenting with new hair colors and new hairstyles (nb: she advises against bangs), with outfits tight and then tighter and then even tighter, with lips from the siren-red to the vixen-nude.
In all that, you see the work that goes into making Kim Kardashian, the person, into Kim Kardashian, the icon. What Selfish depicts, more than anything else, is the labor that goes into beauty. There are the pictures of Kim sitting, patiently, with her hair in Jetsons-esque rollers. There are the pictures of her after makeup lessons from one of the many makeup artists on her payroll. There are the pictures of her post-spray-tan. There are the pictures of her face streaked with the light-deflecting and -absorbing makeup (“I’m obsessed with contour," Kim confesses, breezily) that will, after assiduous layering and blending, narrow her nose and heighten her cheeks. Kardashian is taking that most intimate of things—primping—and making it a public event.
She is blunt, and entirely unapologetic, about all of that. Kim repeatedly mentions, and praises, the team of people required to give her her "glam." (In Kardashianspeak, "glam" is most commonly used as a noun.) "Getting my hair and makeup done has become a daily routine," she writes in an early caption in Selfish. "I have become family with my glam teams." Kim is naturally beautiful—she is gorgeous, pretty much empirically—but she is repeatedly unsatisfied with the methodical madness of chromosomes. She wants more. She works for more. The selfies compiled in her book may be harbingers of arrogance, or of insecurity, or of some combination of the two; what they also are, however, is evidence of an insistent materialism, of the conviction that one’s "look" is not a fleeting thing, but rather a thing that can be made into media. (Bedroom selfies: "Right before bed but you know your makeup looks good so you have to take a pic.") This is industrial production, applied to one’s appearance. Kim is inventing, in her way, a new strain of capitalism. Its currency is the selfie.
There is, say what else you will about it, something admirable, and refreshing, in that. Because Kim is, with her preening mirror selfies, calling the culture’s bluff. Beauty, probably since the dawn of time and definitely since Cleopatra began experimenting with the smoky-eye look, has involved a kind of wide-scale deception. On the one hand, the logic goes, women should, if at all possible, be naturally beautiful. On the other hand, no woman, naturally, is as beautiful as she could be. So beauty becomes, like so much else in life, a complex negotiation between good luck and hard work, with the work—and here’s the real rub—meant to give the illusion of the luck. (Maybe she's born with it … maybe it's Maybelline!) Makeup and hair dye and hair relaxers and hair extensions and false lashes and curling irons and nail polish and skin darkeners and skin lighteners and teeth bleaches and chemical peels and microdermabrasion and eye creams and liposuction and fillers and lip plumpers—their tacit promise is that one can buy one's way into the illusion of natural beauty.
Which is also to say that the cosmetics industrial complex has been dedicated to a tension that is, if we're being fully empathetic about it, also a rather cruel paradox.
It is a paradox that Kim Kardashian, bless her contoured cheekbones, does not embrace. Her way of beauty, instead, overtly rejects the illusion of "natural"; her way of beauty is messy and smelly and absurdly labor-intensive. It strives. It requires Kim to sit in a chair for hours on end as her "glam teams" treat her face like a canvas to be painted and spackled and chiaroscuro-ed. It requires brushes, of both paint and air. It requires tools—chemicals, expertly applied—and time and patience. It requires a collection of workers.
In all that, it becomes entirely reasonable that the person who owns the canvas would want to capture the work that has been done to, and for, her. It becomes entirely fitting that Kim would, without irony or shame, heed the advice of her fellow celebrity: “You better work, bitch.” It also becomes fitting that Kim would, as she admitted to her sisters earlier this week, occasionally be plagued by insecurity. For her, confidence does not, as the unthinking ideal goes, “come from within”; it is instead the result of widespread, collective effort. It is the product of Kim’s “glam team,” yes, but it also comes from Kim’s enormous audience—from the people who watched Keeping Up With the Kardashians on Sunday night, from the people who saw the Paper magazine cover that #broketheinternet, from the people who read People. Kim is, at this point, the unlikely embodiment of Duchamp’s urinal: In declaring herself, against all common sense, as art, she mocks and dares and provokes. She rejects what came before.
And with her candor about who she is and what it takes to make her that way, she might also, against all odds, move us forward.