Pretty Hurts," sang American singer and songwriter Beyonce seven years ago. The song, like many of her tunes, became a mega-hit not just because of its composition but because of its message.
Part of the chorus goes, "Pretty Hurts, Shine a light on whatever's worse, perfection is the disease of a nation."
For those in the millennials and generation Z, these words are close home. The rise of social media platforms like Tik Tok and Instagram has ushered in the era of instant beauty, and unachievable beauty ideals, and with it the pressure to conform and spend megabucks.
'Want a tight bum in a matter of days? An injection will do it. And if you are liquid enough a BBL (Brazilian Butt Lift will do the trick. 'Having a bad hair day?' Pop into that beauty shop and you will get dream hair, depending on your pocket.
While beauty is said to be cultural and personal, and varies in communities or individuals, in today's interconnected world it's also universal. Take for example those who are regarded as international beauties—those people who have come to represent the standard—like the now It girls, The Kardashians, with their slim thick trend.
Slim thick, which is fashioned today by a lot of Insta influencers even in Kenya, is a phrase that has become more popular recently to describe a certain female body shape. The figure is generally used to describe a woman with a small waist, flat stomach, and larger hips, bum, and thighs, who is toned or considered physically fit. Think, Huddah Monroe, Vera Sidika, or Corazon Kwamboka exteriors.
With this push, many women today spend hundreds of thousands to attain the elusive beauty standards. If you walk through the city's leafy suburbs aesthetic beauty clinics have now become common. Something that probably some five years ago was not possible to find.
These are the new entrants in the beauty industry. Getting that flat tummy, firm breast and that round bubble butt can be achieved within a short time. And the best part according to city women it's that it is non-surgical.
"We have come a long way in understanding our beauty, our skin, and our bodies. The target is not just about doing a facial, but finding a solution for the skin problem, be it acne or skin tags. Women are now concerned about their whole body and not just the face. Some suffer from acne around their bikini area and these are issues they will never talk about in public," says Ms. Domiana Mwangangi. She is the owner of Skinsol, an aesthetic beauty clinic located in Westlands. Her journey in the beauty industry spans more than 15 years starting as just a nail and makeup artist.
The beauty industry has evolved over the years, and today it's a billion industry, with Kenya's share estimated as being worth Sh58 billion in 2019, by Euromonitor. The same research says that the hair industry is worth over Sh12 billion.
Today, thanks to technology, it's possible for women to fix an issue in a matter of minutes, something that was a mirage a few decades ago.
"With good money, women can achieve that flawless skin or perfect body in a short span. Women are also willing to spend thousands to get the right results because they have seen the side effects of using cheap products," Ms. Mwangangi, who reinvented herself as a skin expert after training, says.
Aesthetic beauty clinics offer just that. Here women get an array of treatments with the most common ones being correction or post skin lightening conditions and skin lightening procedures.
"Some 10 years ago the market was flooded with lightening creams. At that time, we did not know how safe they were or tell genuine products and how to use them. Recommendations then were largely by word of mouth. If a friend is using a particular product and it works for them then everyone rushes to buy that product," Ms. Mwangangi, says.
Developing side effects
A few years later some of these women using the product started developing side effects. Burnt skin, or skin that was very thin and is prone to infections, was a common problem.
Ms. Mwangangi says that this group of women forms a large part of her clients, with new entrants being women who want lighter skin.
"Instead of bleaching creams, women are now going for injections. The procedure includes injecting vitamin C into your body. A person has to get two of these injections in three months," Ms. Mwangangi said.
The treatment requires consistency in maintaining the lighter skin colour.
"This is a luxury treatment; this means you have to have money to maintain it. An injection ranges from Sh10,000 to Sh15,000. But there are options of tablets which do not cost as much as the injection, the tablets of course will not yield fast results like the injection that is why it is not popular. And when it comes to beauty, women can be very impatient," she explains.
Another popular treatment is the butt facial. For some people, the butt area is usually infected with acne and black spots.
"You see the way people breakout on the face; some people will have this on the butt. This acne makes the butt skin become rough or have dark spots. The butt facial helps to get rid of all that and leaves the skin smooth and evenly pigmented," Ms. Mwangangi says.
It is not just beauty procedures and how to get that flawless skin that has advanced. Getting that hourglass body shape can also be obtained without having to break a sweat at the gym.
Through a process called body contouring that may include wood therapy, cold sculpting one can get that curvy posterior. Laser firming is also a treatment that is used.
"These are very popular treatments. What happens is you could be going to the gym every day but there is that area on your body that you keep working on but does not give you the results you want. We have machines to help in such situations, things like the love handles, or that lower pouch on your stomach area," the beauty expert says. At her beauty clinic, Ms. Mwangangi uses a machine that breaks down the fat and is later excreted by the body.
Body contouring should not be mistaken for weightless, experts warn as the treatments are only meant to firm up the body.
"There are women who come to my office and I turn them back and tell them they first have to go to the gym. The procedure works on a person who has some little excess fat in particular areas," Ms. Mwangangi says.
Butt lifts or what is now known as bubble butts are common amongst the young generation as backsides that wobble or hang low are no longer fashionable.
"People have become a lot busier than they were before and sometimes getting a few hours at the gym and doing 100 sit-ups or squats to get that small waist and round butt can be difficult. But there is a machine that will exercise the muscles on your butt, it will be as if you are doing the squats and this happens when you are just lying down. The results will start showing in two months," Ms. Mwangangi divulges. A session costs Sh6500 and the full treatment requires six to 12 sessions.
Peer influence is also another factor that is driving women to take drastic measures to change their appearances.
Hair and beauty guru Jayne Awino explains, "I cannot tell you how many times I have had clients showing me pictures from the internet of famous people saying that they want me to replicate the look on them. And they are ready to spend whatever amount as long as they get the desired look."
She says that looking good is now full circle, with women no longer just focusing on one particular area.
She has clients who spend approximately $500 to $1,000 on just one visit.
"Apart from just wanting to look like celebrities, they also want to be associated with a certain class of people. Appearances matter for you to be accepted into these circles or not," Jayne says.
According to Jayne Covid-19 also led to more women chasing after instant beauty.
"Before the pandemic, people were just too busy to look after their bodies closely, but with the restrictions, women noticed their damaged skin and thinning hairlines. They started seeking easier, quicker ways of solving the problem. With virtual classes and meetings wigs became popular," Jayne says.
The increased purchase of wigs was a business opportunity for entrepreneurs like Mercy Kahai who opened a hair studio specifically for wig care and maintenance. AfricanTaji was born in 2018 after Mercy moved back home from Europe with her husband.
"I have always been fascinated with hair and I remember I would go to random hair shops in Nairobi and I would not get the kind of wig I wanted. Maybe the colour won't be right or the thickness. So I would buy the wigs and go back home and rework on them," Mercy says.
The wigs she would recreate would receive a lot of praise. Since then she has never looked back. Synthetic wigs are still in fashion but human hair wigs have taken over. "We all know how expensive human hair wigs can be, I have worked on clients' wigs worth Sh150,000. And these women treat these wigs as investments," she said.
Some of her services include making a customised wig from scratch according to what the client needs. Mercy's hair studio also does repairs on wigs and cleaning or what they call a wig spa.
Most people today demand effective solutions that deliver benefits quickly. The beauty industry is not an exception to this trend. As media promotes the image of flawless beauty in celebrities, the desire to resemble their appearance builds up consciously or subconsciously among the public. In this environment of instant gratification, cosmetic injections such as botox, fillers, and laser skin resurfacing, have become increasingly popular.
According to the Kenya Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons (Kenya – SPRAS), the number of cosmetic surgeons practicing in the country has almost doubled from 10 in 2010 to 19 in 2021.
Some of the popular treatments in Kenya include liposuction, breast and chin lifts, gluteal enhancements, vulva enhancement, nose reshaping, labiaplasty, lip fillers, and hair transplants.
Vlogger Murugi Munyi (formerly known as Yummy Mummy) recently went public after undergoing a liposuction procedure on her waist and thighs. During an interview with a local radio station, she admitted that although she had the option of working out she opted to go for the procedure since she could afford it.
Posting the before and after photos on her Instagram page, the YouTuber said that the liposuction procedure cost her Sh600,000. Liposuction is a surgical procedure that uses a suction technique to remove fat from specific areas of the body, such as the abdomen, hips, thighs, buttocks, arms, or neck.
Another Vlogger and social media influencer Maureen Waititu agrees that women are now spending a lot of money on advanced beauty treatments.
This she says is because of the social pressure that has been brought by the internet. Firm breasts, a tiny waist, and a round butt is the illusion of being sexy that is being sold.
"Women in the 80s had to wear corsets but now we have body contouring, and things are changing. Technology has played a big part in the change. Although it means we have to pay more than what the corset costs, you get your waistline after a few days," Maureen Waititu says.
Being constantly under the scrutiny of the public Maureen understands only too well what social media pressure can do.
One of the insecurities Ms. Waititu has had to deal with is her belly. Her stomach will hang on the left side this is because while pregnant with her second child she would favour sleeping on her left side.
"Years after giving birth I have not been able to fully recover and have that flat tummy. Whenever I eat a piece of bread it happens, it hangs on one side. But I am okay with it. I accepted the journey that I will never longer look like what I was at 21," Maureen says while adding that accepting your body, does not mean staying unhealthy.
However, even as cosmetic clinics that promise quick and effective results have multiplied in most metropolitan areas in response to the higher demand for such services, there are consequences.
One of the side effects of slim thick becoming popular is the rise in body-idolisation – where people strive to achieve a 'perfect body' shape due to its desirability or social acceptance. Experts say it's important to remind ourselves that all bodies are worth love and acceptance, no matter their appearance.
"Let us not forget the risk of mental health associated with trying to achieve the "perfect body" – which doesn't exist, says the founder of The Lifestyle Code Clinic, Dr. Mishkat Shehata.
A study conducted in 2019 by the Mental Health Foundation states that 1 out of 10 women have self-harmed because of their body image. 10 percent of women have felt so bad about their appearance that they have self-harmed. Another survey done by King's University found that 87 percent of women compare their bodies to images they consume on social and traditional media.