On Tuesday, Kim Kardashian posted, for her 111 million followers on Instagram, an image of herself, seemingly nude and in full glam, sucking provocatively on a lollipop. For anyone casually scrolling through their feed, nothing about the photo—which Buzzfeed reports was accidentally deleted then restored by Instagram—seemed terribly amiss. Sandwiched between an artfully grainy photo of a pair of shoes and another of herself clad in gold satin and leaving a Met Gala afterparty, Kim’s face could be selling or promoting anything: Body glitter; colored contacts; hair. Upon closer inspection, though, this picture communicated something slightly more sinister, if not that unusual.
The lollipop in question comes from Flat Tummy Co., one of many companies producing dubious “cleanses” that the Kardashians promote on their various social channels for a quick buck—a practice in their family business that predates their current, stratospheric fame. “You guys....@flattummyco just dropped a new product,” she wrote. “They’re Appetite Suppressant Lollipops and they’re literally unreal.”
The outrage over the casual nature of her promotion of these appetite suppressants to her millions of fans was swift, spearheaded by actor Jameela Jamil, who also runs an Instagram account supporting body positivity and who quickly came for Kardashian’s curious choice to continue to associate herself with these nefarious brands in spite of her massive influence. Jamil, in a tweet, called Kardashian out specifically for not fully realizing her own reach and her impact on young women.
Many others followed, flooding Twitter and the comments of the post, decrying Kardashian’s choice to continue to work with the brand—a choice that she made long ago and continues to do, because money is money is money —drawing the kind of attention that one might expect from a burgeoning celebrity’s first real scandal. But unlike FitTea, a supplement-adjacent health regimen also hawked by Kardashian, this Flat Tummy Co. post was significant because it dropped the pretense of health and “wellness” and said exactly what it was: a dieting aid. It’s emblematic of a subtle shift in a corner of the wellness space that seems to be ushering old-fashioned ideas of dieting back into the fold—rebranded for Instagram, and stripped of stigma.
The main currency of the Kardashian empire is public image, but more specifically, their bodies. Kylie Jenner monetized her lip injections by creating a cosmetics line, and more specifically a “lip kit” that emphasized her cartoonish pout. Khloe has undergone a transformation aided by a lot of workouts and what one can reasonably assume is plastic surgery, debuted spectacularly on the cover of Complex in 2015, and accompanied by an Instagram post comparing the cover to the un-retouched original. For Khloe, diet and her body have been monetized quite explicitly, via her show Revenge Body With Khloe Kardashian, which hinges on the premise that you can get back at someone for various slights and wrongs by losing weight and changing your shape. Kourtney, who has been upfront about her breast implants, is not as explicit—her brand journey has been more about being a mom—but she still finds time to promote her fitness routines on Instagram.
Kim’s particular physique is her trademark, to the point that her most recent perfume bottle is an eerily lifelike cast of her nude form, tiny nipples and all. Her Instagram is sponsored content for her main product which is, of course, herself. Without the body, would she be nearly as successful? It’s impossible to say, but it stands to reason that it is her moneymaker. Obscuring the actual means by which she achieves that body is a choice, but partnering with a detox tea or appetite-suppressing lollipops intended to present a “quick fix” to the problem of having a normal body is an evil sort of genius for her followers who see her figure as aspirational. Appetite suppressing lollipops and detox teas fit nicely with in the narrative of diet culture—Dexatrim is passé and no one eats grapefruit for every meal as a quick way to slim down anymore, but a “cleanse” or a “detox” uses the language of wellness to move diet products, while achieving the same result as less ashamed products of decades past.
Of all the Kardashian sisters, Kourtney subscribes to a more traditional sense of wellness as we’ve come to know it, downing a spoonful of ghee in the mornings as part of a loose Ayurvedic treatment plan and espousing the virtues of manuka honey. Kim’s wellness journey is less intentional than her sister’s, and therefore perhaps much more insidious. Kim would never call herself a wellness guru, but as the lines between wellness, lifestyle, and diet culture blur, it seems that Kim has plopped herself in the middle of that Venn diagram. Part of what is so reprehensible about the way Kim has chosen to sell dieting—which is heavily reliant on her impossible-to-attain beauty standards—is hinging it to her tenuous relatability. She’s a working mom with three children and a recalcitrant husband, just like you—but armed with a small squadron of trainers, personal chefs, nannies, stylists, and surgeons all dedicated to the pursuit of making sure she always looks like the taut, glowing “after” photo in a weight-loss-journey diptych. It seems highly unlikely that she’s drinking, say, diet shakes as a part of her regimen, despite the copy of the below sponsored post. But any deviation from this very specific narrative makes the product less appealing.
The aesthetics of the detox tea-sponsored posts are markedly different from the more middlebrow aesthetic of a Weight Watchers or a Jenny Craig, two traditional pillars of the dieting industry, though both are peddling a kind of empowerment gospel vis a vis weight loss and an adherence to conventional beauty standards. It’s not a matter of what they’re selling, but how they’re selling it. Weight Watchers is the preferred weight loss program of Oprah, who lustily declared that she loved bread in 2015 and spoke candidly for a stirring commercial about her struggles with weight—inspirational, supportive, and collaborative. Dieting is for suburbanites who wish to return to their pre-child body and for whom Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday is must-see TV. A Shake It Baby meal replacement shake from Flat Tummy Co. is essentially Slim-Fast, but expensive. A four-week program of the aforementioned shakes costs $89; an eight-count box of SlimFast is $9.98. Kim Kardashian, mother of three, standing barefoot in a professional kitchen pretending to drink something creamy out of a sleek white glass is not easily gotten, but something to aspire to. Wellness photographs well. It looks expensive. But it’s just dieting in a fancy gown.
Detox teas and cleanses of the type sold by the Kardashians and others exist in the murky space between wellness and diet culture. A detox tea is vaguely “natural,” but contains laxatives, which were an essential part of the rainbow diet pills of the mid-century, a dizzying regimen of uppers, downers, and laxatives intended to eradicate appetite and confuse the body into submission. A steaming mug of Fit Tea morning and night lacks the weird shame intrinsic to the branding of a Snackwell’s Devil’s Food Cake cookie or a 100-calorie bag of popcorn. The diet cookie is a sinful indulgence, giving in to your basest instincts; the wellness tea is a conscious decision for your health, liquid instead of solid, light and not heavy. In the curated world of Instagram the latter is perceived as superior, but really, they’re the same thing.
The main ingredient in the appetite-suppressing lollipops Kim promoted is Satiereal, a substance unapproved by the FDA that is derived from saffron and supposedly induces the feeling of satiation—normally achieved by eating—via “a unique mechanism that may support satiety by helping to avoid snacking and compulsive eating behaviors, which may, in turn, lead to reduction in weight and inches.” Unlike senna, a common ingredient used in detox teas that is also an effective natural laxative, Satiereal claims to “act on serotonin.” The narrative here, of course, is that being hungry isn’t a physical sensation, but a mental sign of weakness to be snuffed out.
The wellness industry relies on weakness and provides solutions for strength, treating an “unhealthy” lifestyle as a problem to be managed, and then solved via supplements, maca powder, spirulina, and eating the right foods at the right times. Erasing that which is “bad” is a means of exerting control, and control is a sign, the industry tells us, that you’ve conquered weakness. Succumbing to a snack craving by eating a fistful of Cheetos is weak, it says, but an appetite-suppressing lollipop is a crystal-clear choice. It’s a code of conduct they’re selling us on—and it’s sure not wellness.