Article Thumbnail

The Enduring Cult of David Kibbe’s Body Types

An out-of-print fashion book from 34 years ago spawned a legion of acolytes eager to decode it

“Long before the media barrage of television shows, print coverage and internet blogs promoting an entire culture based on what is now called ‘Makeover,’ there was — David Kibbe,” writes David Kibbe.  

Kibbe is a style consultant. In 1987, he published David Kibbe’s Metamorphosis: Discover Your Image Identity and Dazzle as Only You Can, where he details his Image Identity System™ of 13 image archetypes and offers a guideline on how to dress to bring out your best assets. The book is no longer in print, but can be found on Amazon and eBay if you’re willing to pay hundreds of dollars to get it — and there are many who are. 

Kibbe is also the elusive Sun King around which a niche, but dedicated online community revolves. If you’re already familiar with Kibbe, chances are you first heard about the system not through him, but through one of the many YouTube videos on the Kibbe methodology. Or through Reddit, where the method is the subject of its own subreddit and frequently discussed in communities like the “system agnostic” r/DressForYourBody or the red-pill adjacent r/FemininenotFeminist. The Kibbeverse is so well-formed it has its own satire subreddit, r/kibbecirclejerk

Discovering Kibbe often represents a trip down a rabbit hole — in part because the system, which uses principles of yin and yang and Hollywood archetypes to divide women into groups like dramatic classic, flamboyant natural and theatrical romantic, requires a distinct vocabulary to decipher. But also because the man himself remains behind the online curtain, with seemingly no trace of Kibbe’s many purported media appearances on YouTube and no interviews with him online save a few quotes in New York Times pieces from the 1990s. 

In the online forum where he is most active, the private Facebook group Strictly Kibbe, Kibbe’s words are posted by his wife and muse Susan Slavin (no men are allowed in the Strictly Kibbe group). His inactive Twitter account reveals snippets of his particular joie de vivre, with photos of him and Slavin peppered with ellipses and all caps-filled inspirational quotes. He still works in New York offering head-to-toe makeovers, but refrains from posting his transformations outside the Facebook group. Somewhat paradoxically, the difficulty in finding clarity from the original source is precisely what draws so many deeper down the Kibbeverse. 

“Because it’s so complicated and seems pretty unclear, especially when you first get into it, that alone draws you in. Where I’m like, ‘I feel like I don’t get it after watching this 20-minute video. Now I have to watch another one,’” says YouTuber Tiffany Ferguson, whose channel offers social commentary on internet culture. Last summer she published a two-part Kibbe series featuring multiple bloggers and YouTubers analyzing Kibbe’s widespread appeal. “Even through watching so many of them, I’ve never really found the answers. But for some reason, I feel like I still wanted to know for sure, what is my type? What does that mean? Does that affect my life?”

“It came out of desperation to talk to someone about Kibbe. Because my friends were getting tired of hearing of it,” redditor MoanaHoliday says with a laugh of her decision to join the Kibbe subreddit. She is a member of the 15,000-member strong Kibbe subreddit, which was founded in 2019 and is perhaps the most concentrated Kibbe community, as well as moderator for the subreddit for her specific type, r/theatricalromantic

She first found Kibbe through Aly Art’s “How to Be Beautiful” YouTube series. “When I came across the Kibbe system and how Aly Art explained it, every single body type, at that time 13, was honored. Every single one of them was all about harmonizing with your lines,” she says. “My journey through the body types was intense. I went through, I’m not even kidding, three different three years of thinking I was different body types.”  

The endgame of unlocking the Kibbe labyrinth is, like any style philosophy, at the surface level about finding the right clothes to flatter your figure. But the depth of the online Kibbesphere shows that its appeal goes far deeper than whether or not you can wear a halter top. “I love that aspect — that they didn’t want to try to change you. It was all about you, your personal identity and your uniqueness,” MoanaHoliday explains. 

The categories may seem simple at first: If you’re all angles and long lines, aka “yang-dominant,” you might be a “dramatic,” a la Tilda Swinton. Add a bit of flesh and perhaps you’re a “soft dramatic,” like Sofia Vergara. If you’re all sharp angles but on a small frame (yin features with yang bone structure, one might say), then you’re in the “gamine” category, like Emma Watson. Broad but blunt features and you could be a “natural.” If you’re all rounded yin lines, you may be a “romantic” like Marilyn Monroe. “Essence” is also important, though far more ephemeral to define. Various online Kibbe quizzes ask you to assess how tall you look (not how tall you are), whether your arms and legs are long and lean or soft and fleshy and the size and shape of your feet and hands in relation to the rest of your body, among other factors, to determine your type.  

Except there are no more true naturals or gamines anymore, according to Kibbe, only soft naturals and gamines and flamboyant naturals and gamines. And comparing yourself to celebrities is a parlor game, even while Kibbe videos and guides are rife with celebrity comparisons (there is also a “verified” Kibbe celebrity list floating around allegedly taken from the private Strictly Kibbe group). The face no longer matters in typing as well, even while Kibbe tests floating around online ask about nose, mouth, eye and jaw shape. 

Still confused? You might ask yourself if you’re a rose or a snapdragon, like an r/Kibbe post on types as flowers (a recent r/kibbecirclejerk post presents bread as Kibbe types — cottage loaves are romantics, look at that double curve).  

the kibbe types as bread from kibbecirclejerk

“His technology is spreading faster than he himself,” says Alyona Yarushina, a Russian singer and the beauty blogger known as Aly Art. “I researched so much about myself and about other types, so I wanted just to share it. And I wanted to make Kibbe himself more famous, encourage him to do his YouTube or somehow show it on other platforms,” she explains of her decision to create Kibbe videos. Yet Yarushina, whose 58 Kibbe videos have led many down the Kibbe path, has never spoken with the man herself and is demure about her Kibbe expertise. “Only David knows for sure.”

So what does Kibbe say about his online fame?

“The book was meant to be a journey,” Kibbe tells me. “What’s happened is, people always want to take the shortcuts. So they jump to a quiz, and think it’s going to give you the answers. But if you don’t know how to answer the questions in the quiz, then the quiz is pointless.”

Kibbe points to the arts and metaphysics as the basis of his worldview. “I could read music before I could read. I started with teachers when I was three years old, and I was a prodigy,” he says. He began his career as an actor and his fascination with the Old Hollywood studio system of developing individual personas for its stars has driven much of his style philosophy. “Hollywood was created to be America’s dream factory,” he says. In the Kibbe world, style is merely a conduit to achieving your dreams — if you can see it the right way. “You have to learn to see yourself in a different way first, and you have to learn to see yourself with loving eyes. This is a love-based system. It’s all based on self acceptance,” he says of his methodology. 

He explains that he was approached to write Metamorphosis following a Wall Street Journal story on his practice. In 1987, he never imagined that one day the quiz would be uploaded in bits and pieces online and that online communities would be filled with people asking to be typed-based on a photo alone — an impossible task he says, as photos are deceiving. “It’s not like putting people in categories. That’s the big mistake,” he explains. “It’s the opposite of that. It’s really about working in harmony with you, and then giving it a name that helps you— that’s what we call your image identity.” He came across the Strictly Kibbe group only when a client made him aware of its presence; though it took time to turn around the misconceptions in the group of his work, since joining, he’s developed online exercises to help members follow a DIY journey through his methodology — for example, by creating dream mood boards or drawing their silhouette on paper. 

Along those lines, Kibbe has also refined his philosophy over time, including the controversial move to narrow his image identities into just 10 types. But as the community has evolved, it’s fractured into different camps — originalists versus loose constructionists if you will. The Strictly Kibbe Facebook group, established in 2015, is “only for David’s application of his work.” The Freely Kibbe Facebook group was founded in 2020 and allows for more open interpretation — “Kibbe’s word isn’t gospel” reads one of the rules. 

Followers of Kibbe have also developed the methodology into their own systems. Merriam Amani discovered Kibbe through Aly Art as well and founded her own YouTube channel, Merriam Style, in 2018. She has posited certain controversial Kibbe theories, such as that the 5-foot-11 Taylor Swift is a gamine despite height limits for the type, and last year wrote that she was moving away from using Kibbe terminology. “There were a lot of stereotypes online that were associated with each of those words, and I felt it prevented people from finding their most harmonious lines,” Amani explains. “My approach also allows for ‘in-between’ types, and maps some of the original types as being in between each other. As I continue to develop my approach in my own way, the equivalence you see drawn in the blog post between my types and the Kibbe types becomes less so.”

To her point, while Kibbe and his followers attempt to use positive terms to describe all types, the terminology doesn’t exist in a vacuum; in the online sphere, it’s nearly impossible to assign adjectives to women’s bodies that are entirely free of negative connotations. r/kibbecirclejerk has satirized the frequent use of “width” in describing naturals by comparing them to hulking refrigerators, and also poked fun at the position of theatrical romantics as the most desirable category for their supposedly delicate and sensual figures (with frequent references to our theatrical romantic overlords Kibbe and Slavin, and Rihanna). 

“Just the process of doing the test can be triggering or upsetting, and I hadn’t thought of that,” Ferguson says of the viewer feedback to her Kibbe videos. “I haven’t really had major body image issues, but obviously for people who have, to have to go through this quiz and be like, ‘Is my chin big compared to my face?’ can be very hard to do.”

The Kibbe method has faced criticism too for its Eurocentric basis of beauty. Quizzes that ask you to assess your nose type include five slight variations of white button noses, while celebrity assessments often point to Katharine Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe as representing the full spectrum of female beauty. A r/kibbecirclejerk post by u/algeriennementelle (a “SN in Denial”) sends up the limitations on women of color with a collage of “stylish Black girls of every type” showing Rachel Dolezal and DaniLeigh. 

Stylish black girls of every type from kibbecirclejerk

But MoanaHoliday, who is Filipina, believes the expanded online interest in Kibbe has helped the system become more racially inclusive than what may have been presented in a book from the late 1980s. “When I first came across it three or four years ago, it was harder then,” she says of finding representation of different ethnicities in the system. “But now, more people are bringing more diverse beauties into the mix.” Meanwhile, Kibbe maintains that though the media references may lean cacausian, the system works for everyone, with 100 nationalities represented in Strictly Kibbe. 

Ultimately, the beauty of one system or another remains in the eye of the beholder. “Those who disagree with Kibbe and agree with Merriam Style, Cozy Rebekah or other Kibbe bloggers will look to them as authority, and vice versa,” says UnreasonableBerry, a moderator of r/kibbecirclejerk. “And if you go deeper, I feel it’s related to body image and self-esteem. You’ll align with those whose approach makes you feel better.”

Therein lies the paradoxical nature of the Kibbe system. Like astrology, it espouses individual identity while simultaneously fitting participants into one of a dozen or so neat boxes. Even as Kibbe emphasizes that the categories are meant to be a “lodestar” rather than a restrictive set of rules, the basis for many followers’ interest in Kibbe remains wanting to know precisely which group they — or their favorite celebrity or blogger — belong to. “It makes you feel like you have this connection to other people if they’re in the same group,” Ferguson says of the popularity of systems like Kibbe or Myers-Briggs types. 

Either way, the online proliferation of Kibbe’s work has inevitably skewed his intent to spread a message of self-love — for better or for worse. “I have a global reach. That’s enormous. And that’s the beauty of the internet,” he tells me. “The bad side of it is like toothpaste getting out of the tube. You can’t do anything about it.” But he is working on a project that could allow more to access his work firsthand: a new version of Metamorphosis, though he can’t disclose a publishing date.

A new Metamorphosis may offer clarity to those who can’t find what they seek on YouTube, but it won’t necessarily change those who are committed to seeing themselves in one way. “People crave this because people crave authenticity,” he concludes. “Everybody wants to be seen, there isn’t a person on the planet that doesn’t want to be seen for themselves.”