Are we witnessing the end of the BBL era?

TikTok is celebrating a possible cultural shift away from the Brazilian butt lift aesthetic. However, its demise isn't necessarily a good thing.

by Banseka Kayembe
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23 December 2021, 7:00am

TikTok: @antonibumba @bbxtchz

It’s hard to believe how much time has passed since Vogue dubiously ushered in “the Era of the Big Booty” in 2014 (and even more so since the peach emoji became shorthand for a desirably peachy bum in 2010). In the years gone by, the number of Brazilian butt lifts (BBLs) globally performed has grown by 77.6%, propelled in no small part by an army of uber-famous women with ever-growing, metamorphosing behinds. 

That celebrity effect has inevitably trickled down to our own social media feeds too. A casual scroll through Instagram will often present you with endless examples of the BBL influencer aesthetic; posts of women posing with a perfectly round bottom that takes centre-stage like an object in its own right, matched with an impossibly cinched waist and small breasts. Sponsored ads for seemingly easily accessible BBL surgeries are common on both Instagram and TikTok, while #BBL on the latter platform has 3.9 billion views and is proliferated with videos selling faja body shapers (padded shapewear for women that gives the illusion of a small waist and larger behind). 

But all eras eventually come to an end, and the BBLs retirement is being helped in no small part thanks to TikTokers celebrating that, women especially, no longer need to feel inadequate about their lack of voluptuous behinds, especially since a series of recent pictures of Kim and Khloe Kardashian have cropped up with what appears to be a dramatic reduction to their famous bums.

The “BBL Effect” is one of TikTok’s biggest trends this year with the hashtag having 202 million views. Started by @antonibumba, the trend pokes fun at the BBL-influencer aesthetic, portraying those who get the cosmetic surgery as having a ludicrously self-important, main character energy. There’s also been a decry of “BBL fashion” in the form of growing discontent over cut-out style garments that are practically impossible to pull off on a non-surgically enhanced body. But there’s also been a recognition of how out of hand the invasive trend has become. Earlier this year, a clip went viral of a flight to Atlanta allegedly being delayed by two hours because 24 Black women had to board the plane in wheelchairs due to the after-effects of recent BBLs in the Caribbean.

Plastic surgery itself has roots partially in the racist and classist ideology of eugenics, a belief that the “genetic quality” of the human race can be improved by discouraging or stopping those deemed inferior from reproducing. Dr Renato Kehl, who founded the Eugenics Society of São Paulo in Brazil in 1918, approved plastic surgery to facilitate “the extinction of the black and the rainforest-dwelling races”. Historically, beautification went hand in hand with prizing whiteness as the most desirable aesthetic. BBLs seemed to flip the script, with typically non-white phenotypes like big bums being celebrated. However, that celebration of curves was predominantly on the bodies of wealthy white women. As a result, the BBL has become an asset that generates racialised capital.  

BBL surgery is also known for being very dangerous. Assessments are supposed to be undertaken prior to surgery for risk factors like being overweight, blood clotting disorders or any cardiovascular issues. During the procedure, patients run the risk of fat, which has been removed from other areas of the body, being injected into one of the deep blood vessels connected to the heart or lungs, resulting in cardiopulmonary collapse, which can cause infection, strokes or even death. Surgeon Samuel Lin told Harper’s Bazaar: “the mortality rate from BBL is estimated to be as high as 1 in 3,000; this is greater than any other cosmetic surgery”. Viral plastic surgeon Emily Long has highlighted some of the dangers on TikTok. In some states in the US, doctors can take a “weekend course” to be qualified to administer BBLs. Inevitably, the cheapest surgeons are also likely those less reputable, increasing the chances of medical complications or botched results for the less wealthy.

However, for some marginalised communities, BBLs are a mechanism of survival. In the 2020 Netflix documentary Disclosure, trans actor Jen Richards made incisive points about “one woman’s armour becoming another woman’s adornment”, arguing that celebrities such as the Kardashians are often styled by gay men who are influenced by “street queens” in queer spaces, who in turn are influenced by sex workers, many of whom hyper-feminise their bodies to secure work. Those women, especially trans women, are often unfairly accused of reinforcing the worst patriarchal standards of beauty when all they are doing is trying to survive and minimise the physical and emotional violence they face, not monetise their bodies to accrue unconscionable amounts of wealth.  

It is, of course, impossible to dissect the BBL narrative without doing a deep dive of the Kardashian-Jenners, who are often considered the figureheads of the trend. Speaking to MJ – the creator of @kardashian_kolloquium, a TikTok account that demystifies the Kardashians through an academic lens – they speculate why the BBL trendsetters might also be bringing big butts to a close. “We don’t know yet if it really is the end. We don’t have enough data yet,” she disclaims, but “they are ageing and will commodify themselves in different ways.” MJ acknowledges that even super-influencers remain vulnerable to patriarchal ideas of female expiration dates. 

MJ further argues that “extreme plastic surgery is inherently a gesture of economic power” and for celebrities “their newly enlarged butts became the perfect display of excess”. But it seems, as conversations around cultural appropriation and privilege grow, their financial asset loses its capital value and ceases to be useful. “The titillation and conversation it used to create is now skewing very negative,” she adds.

Whitney Roberts is a writer, podcaster and educator who regularly covers issues around race, and argues the BBL trend means “the expectation is now even higher to have a big butt if you’re a Black woman, even if you already sort of have one”. There’s something intensely weird about Black women’s features being, as Whitney describes, “cherry-picked like a buffet”, and then hyperbolised and repackaged to be sold back to Black women as a beauty standard. She argues that since the BLM movement’s resurgence, “influencers can’t continue to behave in the same way. It’s easier for them to distance themselves from now less palatable appropriation by reducing their bodies.” 

Another theory floated by those in the comments under #BBL TikToks is that the proliferation of the surgery in celebrity and social media culture means they are becoming “normalised” and perhaps are just too common now to provoke the speculation and astonishment that translates into income. If, as the stats illustrate, it’s the fastest growing cosmetic surgery globally and can be done as cheaply as $3,000 in some parts of the world, then it’s simply becoming more accessible.

What exactly does it say about society when wealthy white influencers impact the body expectations held against Black women and then simply discard the BBL aesthetic when it’s no longer profitable? “It sends a message of disposability,” says MJ. “There’s a long history in America of that kind of treatment of Black culture and aesthetics as capital.” Whitney agrees: “In my teens I had the BBL body type and was vilified for it. There's a judgment that comes from that body being on a Black girl rather than a white woman.” 

There’s also a paradox here. For many women, the idea the BBL era might be ending is cause for both celebration and anxiety. For those of us with curvier bodies, the rise of the BBL aesthetic initially came with a relief at not having to live up to the stick-thin body championed in the 2000s. A trend that for many created a dysmorphic view of teen girls bodies and a perpetual drive to lose weight that continued into adulthood. While the BBL style was in itself still out of reach, it paved the way for a self-acceptance of natural curves, no doubt at the expense of other women then feeling more inadequate about their bodies. Ultimately, liberation from these trends requires a dismantling of the notion of body standards completely.

Whilst we don’t yet know whether the sun is finally setting on the BBL era, there is one thing we can be sure of: we are very far off from living in a world where race, class, and gender dynamics don’t heavily influence who can profit and who loses in the marketplace of beauty standards, and even further away from living in a world where female body types are not commodified at all.

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Opinion