From Khloe Kardashian to Taylor Swift: is it healthy to use revenge to motivate yourself?

Could the current cultural celebration of vengeance cause us psychological and societal harm? 

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The premise of Khloe Kardashian’s Revenge Body – which began its second season this week – is very simple, if a little nonsensical. Participants on the show visit the third Kardashian sister to complain about someone – sometimes a mum or a friend, but most commonly an ex – who has told them to lose weight. Khloe then helps them to do it. This action, of internalising someone’s insult and dramatically altering your lifestyle in order to obtain their ideal version of your body, is presented as revenge. Someone told me to lose weight, so I did. That’ll show ‘em!

The faulty logic of the show does not change the fact that in recent years, the concept of a “revenge body” has become extremely popular. Khloe first debuted the term after signing her divorce papers in 2015, and use of the phrase has increased dramatically since her show premiered in January 2017. Though improving yourself after a breakup may seem a tale as old as time, Khloe has now both popularised and normalised the concept of getting hot as a form of vengeance. “A great body is the best revenge,” she declares in the opening credits of every episode of the show.

Much has been written about how problematic this premise is, as it clearly and unapologetically advocates changing your life for someone other than yourself, upholds society’s beauty standards, and promotes unhealthy motivations for losing weight. Yet the show is also part of a larger cultural moment in which revenge is being commodified and glorified in the media. Beyond the obvious issues Revenge Body presents about body-shaming-people-while-claiming-to-take-down-bodyshamers, is there a danger in glamorising revenge? Is it healthy to use revenge as a way to motivate yourself?

“People expect lashing out at someone who hurt them to make them feel better,” says Professor C. Nathan DeWall, a professor of social psychology who has undertaken multiple studies on revenge. He explains that brain imaging studies have actually proven that the same areas of the brain are activated when someone enacts revenge as when they’re doing something pleasurable like eating cake or having sex – but there’s a catch.

“What we find is that when people seek revenge after social rejection, it doesn’t make them feel elated, it doesn’t make them the happiest person on earth, it simply resets them to where they were before the rejection happened,” he says. “This is the false promise of revenge, that people think they’re going to be happier than they were before. Actually, they’ll get back to where they started.”

Glorifying revenge as a shortcut to happiness is therefore arguably troubling, but the trend isn’t going anywhere. The songs of Taylor Swift have always been threaded with a note of vengeance, from the literal in 2010’s “Mean” (“Someday I’ll be living in a big old city / And all you’re ever gonna be is mean”), to the even-more-literal in 2017’s “Look What You Made Me Do” (“Ooh, look what you made me do / Look what you made me do / Look what you just made me do / Look what you just made me –”) Swift's gothic new look when she debuted her latest album, Reputation, arguably means her body and face were used as revenge in a similar way to Kardashian's show.  

On television, Just Tattoo of Us takes the concept of bodily revenge even further, by encouraging family, friends, and couples to choose each other very real and very permanent tattoos. In one episode, Geordie Shore star Holly Hagan gets revenge on her ex by having her face tattooed onto his leg. In another, a different reality star breaks up with her boyfriend by giving him a tattoo of a dumpster emblazoned with the word “dumped”. Online, people frequently go viral for their stories of revenge, whether it’s a woman rejecting her former bully who asked her out, or a man spell-checking and grading his ex-girlfriend’s apology letter.

“Be Careful Who You Call Ugly In Middle School” is the internet meme equivalent of Khloe Kardashian’s Revenge Body, in which someone uploads a picture of themselves looking “ugly” as a child next to an up-to-date picture in which they look attractive. The trend originated as a way to challenge bullying, but much like Kardashian’s show, it relies on proving that the person who insulted you is technically, not morally, wrong. “You’re wrong because I’m hot now,” is a vastly different message from “You’re wrong to judge people’s worth based on their appearance”.

DeWall explains that the reward mechanisms in our brain that provide us with pleasure for seeking revenge are “very ancient” and “something that humans, monkeys, cows, and even dogs have”. A desire for revenge can therefore be almost instinctual, particularly after rejection. “Social rejection is one of the biggest threats that people can experience because relationships are necessary for survival,” he adds. Yet although we assume that seeking revenge will give us pleasure, DeWall says he “wouldn’t recommend” the concept of a revenge body.

“Here’s the thing,” he says, “there are healthier ways to restore your mood than seeking revenge.”

Children’s movies, music, and literature are laden with messages about turning the other cheek and finding it in your heart to forgive. As these children become teens, they are now confronted with songs, memes, and TV shows which glorify and normalise vengeance. Before the new season of Revenge Body started, a young person took to Twitter to share their thoughts about the show. “Revenge body by khloe kardashian makes me want to hit the gym and lose all the weight i don't even have,” they wrote. Although arguably a joke, it highlights the problems inherent in pop culture’s glorification of revenge. 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh