How The Kardashians Became Unlikely Wellness Icons

It’s been 10 years since Keeping Up With The Kardashians first aired on TV. This week, we examine how the world's most famous family has entertained us, angered us, and made an indisputable impact on our culture.

Earlier this year, Khloé Kardashian shared an article on her app about the eight-step vaginal skincare routine she uses to "ensure she's feeling fresh and looking $." It involves a $199 Kegel-tracker, a $20 vulva cream, a $75 vagacial treatment, and sounds exhausting. If you're wondering who takes vaginal health advice from a Kardashian, the answer is me, and likely some of her hundreds of thousands of app subscribers, too.

As humans, we're predisposed to follow celebrity advice, because they provide "shortcuts or signals to point us towards what we should actually do," even if we know they're not experts, explains Steven Hoffman, PhD, who has studied how celebrities impact health decisions. The Kardashians certainly aren't the first celebrities to dole out unqualified health wisdom (Jenny McCarthy? Angelina Jolie? Charlie Sheen?), they're just the loudest, most honest, and possibly most successful ones to do it.

Thanks to their spellbinding show, relentless social media presence, and popular apps, the Kardashians — particularly the three oldest sisters — have overshared to a point where it feels like we know them on an intimate level, according to Christina Beck, PhD, a communication professor at Ohio University and author of Celebrity Health Narratives and the Public Health. So, although we may sense that their advice is misguided or uninformed (for example, suggesting an unnecessary vaginal skincare routine), we trust them because we feel like we know and understand their story, Dr. Beck says. The Kardashians are unlikely role models, and that's why it works: They swear incessantly, talk frankly about their genitals, have tumultuous love lives, and put it all on display for fans.

In order to understand how the Kardashian sisters have transformed from a group of wannabe reality TV stars to health influencers, you have to take a look at each of their trajectories over the past 10 years of Keeping Up With The Kardashians — and we did. Here's how each sister contributed to this phenomenon, and where we go from here.

Designed by Abbie Winters.
Kim Kardashian West: The DGAF Truth-Teller

The Kardashian empire was built upon Kim's sex tape, which she never once denied making. Kim represented sex-positivity before the term was buzzy (but that may have been less of a choice than a necessity). Whether or not this was a strategic move, it worked. Kim's shame-free outlook on sex and relationships — and basically everything else — became the guiding principle for her role on the show.

For the first few seasons, Kim was single, and dealt with her family members' constant prodding and awkward set-ups (she even went on a date with her own bodyguard). But, eventually, she got a boyfriend, she got engaged, she got married, she got divorced, she got pregnant, and then she got married again. She did all of this without apologizing for her decisions or feeling the need to justify them to anyone — because that's just not Kim's style.

And when it came to pregnancy, she wasn't going to follow the narrative of the blissful Hollywood mom-to-be, waxing poetic about her baby's nine months in utero. In fact, Kim said in interviews that "pregnancy was the worst experience of my life."

She was also candid about her difficulties conceiving her second child, and showed so many doctor's appointments on KUWTK that Dr. Huang, the Kardashian family's fertility doctor, is basically a supporting character on the show. Whatever your thoughts on Kim, it's hard to deny that this transparency only helped remove the shame and stigma many women feel around fertility. Today, a source says that Kim and Kanye are expecting their third child with a surrogate.

None of this is to say that Kim's approach is without its faults. She's been criticized for sharing her goal of returning to her "pre-pregnancy weight" in the same breath as talking about how she must teach North that "positive body image comes from having a healthy self-esteem." (Oof.) And she tends to run into trouble when she doles out straight-up health advice via product endorsements. Case in point: When Kim endorsed a morning sickness drug on Instagram, she pissed off the FDA, because she failed to include information about the drug's side effects in her #ad. Later, she re-posted the endorsement with lengthy details about the side effects and possible interactions. (Oops.)
Designed by Abbie Winters.
Kourtney Kardashian: The "Just Like Us" Gwyneth

Kourtney loves to suggest eccentric alternative wellness trends in a completely deadpan voice as if they're "Bible." She has tricked her family into believing they were eating placenta, persuaded Khloé to witness a live water-birth with her, fed her sisters pineapple smoothies to change the smell of their vaginas, and preached about the benefits of eating organic, non-GMO foods only. (PSA: There really is no reason to avoid GMOs.) Kourtney has filmed herself pulling her kid out of her vagina with her own two hands — twice. At times, she even makes Gwyneth Paltrow look like some Western medicine-peddling conservative.

But just because she's into holistic remedies, that doesn't mean she's afraid to seem less-than-Goop-perfect. For one, she's openly used a breast pump on camera (which is awesome). And despite her monotone presence, Kourtney has been through her fair share of family and relationship drama on the show, as she's defended her relationship with Scott Disick. Not to mention, she's a choice mom, and proud of it.

Kourtney has also showed viewers that going to therapy is not a weakness. In 2009, Kourtney saw a therapist on the show for the first time to discuss her trust issues with Disick. She also went to couples therapy with Disick, and befriended a therapist who made house-calls to her in the Hamptons. For better or worse, Disick's struggle with addiction played out on the show, and Kourtney openly discussed her concerns and frustrations as a partner, which is a narrative that you don't usually see on TV.

When stars like Kourtney reveal so much about their personal lives, including their mental health assistance, they break down barriers, Dr. Beck says. "Individuals who are fans will certainly see that and think, Wow, that's something I should think about," she says. "They put it right there in the available discourse, rather than treating it as something to be hidden or something that should not be discussed."

Kourtney is proof that you don't have to be a seemingly "perfect" yogi to dabble in untraditional wellness habits: You can be a mom who drinks kombucha — and also throws your partner's suitcase down the stairs when you're mad.
Designed by Abbie Winters.
Khloé Kardashian: The Almost-Body Positive Icon

In the beginning of KUWTK, the running joke about Khloé was that she didn't belong in the family, simply because she had a different body type than her sisters. It got to the point where Khloé literally tricked her mom Kris into taking a DNA test to prove that she was her daughter (she is, BTW). But even with the genetic proof, Khloé said that she felt like an "obese, fat whale" compared to her sisters. (Oy.)

Khloé's struggle with her weight became a through-line on the show. "I never thought I was fat," she said in the KUWTK 10-year anniversary special. "I would call myself fat because everyone else did." In 2009, while Khloé was preparing for her nude photoshoot for PETA, she told her sisters, "I don’t want to be Kim Kardashian’s 'fat ugly sister.'" Since this was back before body positivity hit the mainstream, the pressure to meet unfair standards was even less understood than it is today. In the same episode, Caitlyn Jenner asked, "Don't you think you should lose a few pounds?" She clapped back saying, "I have a rock hard body, I’m just a bigger individual." Sure, Khloé couched her retort with the fact that her body was "rock hard," but she nonetheless set an example of taking zero crap when it comes to people telling her to lose weight.

Then, Khloé met Lamar Odom. Their three-week infatuation turned into a fairy tale marriage, and she finally seemed to accept herself and her body (or at least shift her focus). A few years later, though, her relationship started to deteriorate as Lamar's struggles with substance abuse resurfaced. To cope with her stress, Khloé started working out, and even compared it to going to therapy. (For what it's worth, exercise is a healthy habit, but it isn't the same as going to cognitive behavioral therapy, and equating the two still puts stigma on seeking mental health assistance.)

Like a true Kardashian, Khloé was able to spin her personal struggles into a business opportunity. She launched a fitness app, which received 498,000 downloads in its first week in the Apple app store. Her workout philosophy exemplified some tenants of body positivity, like focusing on strength and what your body can do, rather than how it looks.

And then, this year, Khloé managed to confuse her body-positive devotees with a major bombshell: She premiered her own transformational weight-loss challenge show, Revenge Body, in which she helps people reach their own goals through intense exercise and dieting. The title of the show was a reference to the "revenge" that she sought on anyone who said she wasn't worthy simply because of her weight. Moral of the story: In order to be respected and "win," you have to lose weight. Problematic much?

But the thing is, it's hard to judge Khloé without ceding that she's a product of the harsh criticism she's received during the show's run (and likely before). She may be misguided, but many people have watched her arc on KUWTK, and they see themselves in her and want to grow into their confidence just as she has.
It'd be irresponsible to assume that there are no potential problems with viewing the Kardashians as credentialed health or mental health experts, or that blindly using whatever wellness product or fitness routine they're #sponcon-ing on Instagram is a good idea. The point is that the Kardashians aren't going away anytime soon, and many of us are going to be influenced by their choices, whether we like it or not.

So, if there's one lesson we should all feel free to take from them it's this: Feel no shame, and take no shits. For everything else, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional — there's no reason to "keep up" before checking with a real expert.
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