No cosmetic procedure has defined the beauty culture of the last decade like the BBL. What was seeded in mainstream pop culture in the early noughties by celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez became a widespread cultural phenomenon by the mid 2010s. In 2014, Vogue declared: “We’re Officially in the Era of the Big Booty”, citing Kim Kardashian, Nicki Minaj and even Miley Cyrus’s 2013 VMAs performance as bastions of the new age. Later that year, Kim Kardashian broke the internet with her Paper magazine cover, flashing her bare derriere and tiny waist to the camera. Gone were the days when “does my butt look big in this?” could be taken as an insult – for the rest of the 2010s, the bigger the butt, the better.
After a 2011 episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, in which Kim proved with an X‑ray that she didn’t have butt implants, many started speculating that the star (and her sisters) had undergone a Brazilian Butt Lift, or BBL, a cosmetic procedure in which fat is removed from the stomach, lower back or thighs, and then strategically injected into the buttocks. Unlike butt implants, which have limited cosmetic range, the BBL can be used to sculpt the hips and butt to the patient’s desired look, and wouldn’t show up on an X‑ray as the injected fat coalesces with the existing body composition (nice, huh?) The BBL era had officially begun.
Between 2015 and 2019, the number of BBL procedures performed increased by 90 per cent. From 2019 to 2020, the US saw a further 37 per cent increase in butt augmentations, and in 2021, the BBL reached its apex, as the fastest growing cosmetic surgery in the world. Egypt Rodriguez, a 27-year-old from Atlanta, Georgia, was one of these patients. She had two BBL procedures within three months in 2018, and has spent upwards of £9,000 on her figure.
“Before I had any surgery, I would try a lot of diets and workouts, but I always had love handles or certain things I wanted to change,” she says. “Nikki Minaj was very popular and she had a big, beautiful butt. I loved that look, and once I realised I could achieve it through surgery, I knew it was a good option for me.”
Despite being the fastest growing cosmetic procedure, the BBL is also one of the deadliest. One 2017 study placed the worldwide mortality rate at a staggering one in 3,000, although through increased awareness and education, the ratio is widening. Still, thousands of women fly to Turkey, the Dominican Republic or Mexico in order to get cheaper treatments, with TikTok showing videos of long lines of BBL patients waiting at airports in their wheelchairs. In March this year, Nikki Minaj confessed to receiving butt injections from a “random person” and celebs such as Cardi B have been open about how unsafe their BBL surgeries were.
Despite the risk, the BBL’s popularity continued to rise, transcending beauty and creeping its way into wider culture. Twitter users decried the rise of “BBL fashion”, while celebrity shapewear lines such as Kim Kardashian’s Skims and Lizzo’s Yitty reeled in customers who wanted to achieve a cinched waist and lifted butt. The 2010s also charted the rise of the fitness influencer – a typically toned gym girl with a natural predisposition to growing huge glutes, many of whom were selling workout plans to replicate their look.
But is the BBL bubble about to burst? Recent images of Kim and Khloe Kardashian showing a slimmer physique and more proportionate waist-to-butt ratio have sparked rumours that both sisters have had their alleged procedures reversed. The transformation has caused a stir online, fuelling discussion that the sun is setting on the golden age of the BBL.
“While they aren’t disappearing anytime soon, we are beginning to see a slowdown of people looking to get a BBL,” say Lesley Reynolds and Dr Aamer Khan, founders of plastic surgery clinic Harley Street Skin. “Requests for procedure reversals are on the rise, despite not being something we commonly needed to perform previously. The primary cause is people not liking the result as much when matched with the current beauty landscape but, more concerningly, there are those who know these surgeries are reversible and therefore can be more light-minded about whether to undergo the procedure to test it out.”
Dr Alan Matarasso, Immediate Past President of the American Society for Plastic Surgeons, agrees: “While we can’t be certain yet whether or not the BBL has maintained its popularity this year, we have seen people coming in and saying they’re disappointed with the look and want to change it. I find that many people who are considering a BBL now don’t want the extremes we’ve been seeing.”
As with any trend, once the BBL became popular in the beauty mainstream, it began to lose its social and financial capital. The exaggerated proportions no longer had the same impact in 2021 that they had just five years earlier. White influencers with privilege, like the Kardashians, can trade on this, moving from one trending ideal to the next, and morphing their physical selves into whichever mould is most desirable. Women with less privilege, power and wealth, however, do not have the same luxury. When we consider the risk associated with BBL procedures, the very fact that women are willing to undergo multiple rounds of the surgery, before potentially getting a reversal just years later, sparks huge concern. Despite only having her surgeries in 2018, Rodriguez has been considering a BBL reduction after struggling to maintain her results.
“I have what’s called a vixen look, which is a super tiny waist and big hips,” she says. “I gained about 40 pounds after having surgery, it looks more dramatic and the areas just keep on growing. I researched reductions for over a year and paid a deposit with a doctor who does reconstructive surgery, but I’m just not at ease about it.”
Luckily, a BBL reversal or reduction is possible, and far less dangerous than the original procedure. Liposuction and fat grafts remove the fat from the desired areas and reduce the overall silhouette, but it’s yet another trauma on the body, and another potential risk.
“I didn’t want to get a BBL reduction and then risk needing another surgery to fix contours and irregularities,” says Rodriguez. “So I’ve decided instead to do a lot of cardio. If I can be really disciplined and get my weight down, I won’t need another surgery. But I don’t know if I can maintain the look throughout my entire life. I might just go ahead with the reduction.”
The fall of the BBL was, in some ways, inevitable. Trends come and go – rising to a peak before exhaustion sets in and we seek relief. Women’s bodies have been continuously commodified throughout history, and over the past century the beauty standard has oscillated back and forth between slim silhouettes (1920s, 1960s, 1990s) and curviness (late 1800s, 1950s, 2010s).
“The BBL is a relatively new procedure,” says Dr Matarasso. “Often these things take time to find their place in our society and culture. People get excited initially because it’s a relatively new concept, and then we see where it fits in. Both surgeons and patients are becoming more conservative in their approach.”
Just like the exaggerated breast augmentations of the 1990s, the overt BBL look will inevitably die down. The procedure will find its place in the beauty ecosystem, settling into itself and becoming increasingly commonplace and undetectable.
“It’s less likely now for someone to want to obviously look like they’ve had a BBL than it was even last year,” add Lesley Reynolds and Dr Aamer Khan. “We’re seeing an uptick on the trend of looking like you’re from the early 2000s, with a trim, straight look.”
This return to a noughties aesthetic has prompted fear that the end of the BBL era means an inevitable return to the heroin chic aesthetic of the 1990s – one later followed by the “pro-anorexia” or “pro-ana” content of the early internet. This article for SCREENSHOT magazine decries the return to flat tummies and thigh gaps, but we never truly escaped the constant strive for thinness. The BBL era may have created an illusion of acceptance for curvier women, but despite body positivity movements online, statistics around eating disorders have only gotten worse since the 1990s, when the ultra-thin supermodel reigned supreme. In fact, the global prevalence of eating disorders increased from 3.4 per cent in 2000 to 7.4 per cent in 2018, with the vast majority of cases affecting young women. The numbers are only worsening due to Covid-19 lockdowns.
The beauty trends over the past two decades have not replaced one another, but become additive in their contradictions, mutually inclusive as they compound on our insecurities. Women do not just need to just be thin or curvy, they must be slim in the arms, calves and stomach, with rounded curves on the hips, buttocks and breasts, all while maintaining a cinched waist, clear skin, bouncy hair and an appropriate level of muscle definition. Exhausting, right? As capitalism moves on to colonise another area of the female consciousness, the BBL will simply be added to the roster of treatments and procedures women are expected to partake in in order to achieve the beauty standard.
The BBL’s absorption into the zeitgeist and the widespread popularisation of the procedure as a “solution” for women has many finding fault in their body where perhaps there wasn’t before. The BBL boom might be over, but we can’t retract the accessibility of the procedure, or the scar it has left on womens’ conscience. This year, a UK-wide body image study by Origym found that one in five of 16 to 24-year-olds have wanted to alter their derriere with either implants or a bum lift. These findings are reinforced by Google search data which shows that searches for “bum lift” are up 69 per cent from last year.
According to Harley Street Skin, what we’re seeing is a move towards a subtler look. What’s been coined a “country club BBL” is a more conservative approach to the aesthetic, one that still “perfects” the backside, but without the obvious shape of the early 2010s. Much like we’re seeing with the #cleangirl beauty trend, and the move towards extensive skincare routines and dermal filler, the beauty standard is moving away from a hyper-visible, hyper-exaggerated aesthetic, and towards invisible labour.
With her divorce from Kanye West, her increasing involvement in US politics and her legal training, Kim Kardashian is leaning away from a hypersexualised aesthetic and towards a more conservative, middle class beauty image. This is significant because so much of the Kardashian’s beauty paradigm was colonised – it was an aesthetic stolen from minorities.
The commodification of a body type that many Black women naturally possess – as well as the distortion of what that looks like – reinforces the phenomenon of appropriation, especially as these features are most highly celebrated on white or light skinned women. The dropping of the overt BBL in favour of a “Country Club” alternative, therefore, has coded racist messaging – are the bodies we typically attribute to Black and Latinx women not “conservative” enough to be appropriate for middle class spaces? With women’s bodies (and particularly minority women’s bodies) being increasingly controlled, commodified and desexualised across America, it’s no coincidence that the move towards a more conservative beauty aesthetic runs in parallel with an increasingly polarised political landscape, the overturning of Roe v. Wade and heightened racial tension.
Despite its apparent evolution, the beauty standard is still upheld at the expense of minorities, and in the interest of classism, sexism, racism and capitalism. However the BBL aesthetic evolves, it is still artificial – an impossible look for a human being to achieve or maintain without access to huge privilege and resources. We have become so used to seeing bodies both surgically and digitally enhanced, that we accept any aesthetic that looks “more natural” – especially after the exaggeration of the 2010s – as a departure from oppressive standards.
The era of beauty we are moving towards is anything but natural. It is an era in which the augmentation and assimilation of our faces and bodies becomes so normalised, so insidious, and so undetectable, that the distinction between real and fake will become almost impossible to draw. The BBL era isn’t over, it’s simply been absorbed into the mounting expectations for women’s bodies. The beauty standard prevails. Inevitably, the next few years will bring a new area of focus. It’s up to us if we want to opt in or out.