Pin It
Juno Calypso
Photography Juno Calypso

Is our obsession with a healthy glow more complicated than we think?

From feeling well to looking well, we examine at the emotional, psychological and physical cost behind pursuing that healthy glow

Welcome to the Dazed Beauty Digital Spa. From the role of placebo in extreme wellness to the problem with our cannabis obsession, here we explore the complexities of the wellness industry and how it might evolve.

When it comes to common beauty industry parlance, words like “luminous”, “radiant”, “glowing”, “dewy”, and “glossy” are the dominant buzzwords du jour. These key terms have replaced traditional ones like “anti-ageing” and speak more directly to millennial markets with their affirming, rather than corrective language. This age of luminosity has crowned new beauty icons, companies and products.

Glossier, Milk Makeup and Fenty Beauty have become industry titans precisely because they design with that “glow” in mind. The faces of the Kardashians, Rihanna, the Hadids and Ariana Grande beam through our social media feeds, setting new beauty standards that require shining both online and in real life. Light reflecting, illusion providing highlighter has broken out of professional circles, film sets and drag shows to become a staple component of daily make-up routines worldwide. There are Instagram filters that, with a click of a button, give you instant radiance. But what exactly is driving our obsession with eternal glow?

There’s no doubt that the quest for radiance has also developed in tandem with the wellness industry, whose steadily growing economy now amounts to roughly £3.2 trillion. “Wellness and spirituality are top of mind for everyone right now, and whether subconscious or not, I think luminosity is an attempt at expressing one's inner spirituality, a way to control and exhibit your aura that also happens to get the most thirsty, life-affirming likes. Perhaps we are all just doing our best impersonation of sacred healing crystals,” says co-founder of Milk Makeup Georgie Greville.

This new aesthetic ideal is reflective (pun intended) of a societal shift, in which beauty is pursued from the inside out. As science and technology have progressed, things like diet and general wellbeing are being increasingly taken into account in mass beauty pursuits. Not only are people investing in rituals which are corrective, but they’re also investing in rituals which are preventative. For most, it’s a battle that’s dependent on holistic practices like diet and stress management as much as it is store bought beauty products. It’s about skincare, make-up and a medley of other wellness practices (think hot yoga, breathing work, sound baths, crystal circles) – which, when added up, can be costly.

“Even though a “healthy” glow as aspiration is a step in the right direction, it’s important to acknowledge that for most, it's still unattainable.”

Take skincare for example. The basic “cleanse, tone and moisturise” routine has proliferated into a much more complicated regimen for those chasing radiance, that includes an oil cleanser, a foam cleanser, exfoliant, toner, essence, moisturiser, serum, spot treatment and the occasional mask. Speciality products which make use of key terms, like Kiehls’ Glow Formula (£30), Dr Barbara Sturm’s Glow Drops (£105), and Goop’s Luminous Melting Cleanser (£83) are everywhere. These key terms are also found in make-up. There’s Laura Mercier’s Face Illuminator (£32), Charlotte Tilbury’s Glowing Pretty Skin Palette (£49) and Anastasia Beverly Hills’s Dream Glow Kit (£46).

The make-up artist behind Glossier’s campaigns, Katie Jane Hughes, revealed in a recent tutorial that she uses no fewer than 13 products and steps to attain that perfect glow (Glossier Solution, Caudalie Premier Cru, Glossier Primer Moisturiser Rich, Glossier Perfecting Skin Tint, Glossier Stretch Concealer, Laura Mercier Flawless Fusion Concealer, Glossier Wowder, Glossier Cloud Paint, Glossier Fawn Lid Star, Glossier Lily Lid Star, La Roche Posay Respectissisme Waterproof Mascara, Glossier Boy Brow, and Glossier Haloscope), at a cumulative value of roughly £320. For a brand heralded for its minimalist approach to beauty, establishing a 13 step routine as the new “normal” can have a damaging effect on our bank accounts. But what about the effects on our psyche?

The shift toward luminous appearances that exude health and wellness seems an undeniably positive one, especially when compared to the more noxious days of heroin chic when dark circles and meek frames were all the rage. But even though a “healthy” glow as aspiration is a step in the right direction, it’s important to acknowledge that we’ve simply swapped a 90s Kate Moss for an alternative ideal — that’s still for most, unattainable. There’s now a new pressure to look radiant all the time, a pressure which simmers in both the analogue and digital worlds. Mass media and social media inundate society with (often digitally enhanced) images of glowing, aspirational individuals sharing their intricate wellness routines. Subconsciously or not, audiences compare and despair, and strive for a similar kind of perfection just in order to keep up.

“The quest for a glow has, for some, developed into an unhealthy obsession.”

Heather Widdows, author of Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal explains the psychology: “We are told that we need all kinds of lotions, potions and technical procedures to achieve luminous, wrinkle-free and blemish-free skin. The beauty demands on us shift. They increase, and meeting them becomes necessary to be normal or good enough. (Now) they’ve just become hidden as health demands, rather than beauty demands.” The illusion of a more meaningful goal of “wellness”, rather than the more surface level “beauty”, is driving us to invest more than ever before, as the matter feels more urgent.

The need to adhere to this new standard is pushing consumers to new extremes. The quest for a glow has for some, developed into an unhealthy obsession. The kind of wellness anxiety that drives orthorexia (obsession with “clean” eating) is now at play in the realm of beauty. With phenomena like Snapchat Dysmorphia contributing to record-breaking percentages of cosmetic surgery in young people (the American Society of Plastic Surgeons said more than 200,000 teens had plastic surgery last year), it’s reasonable to assume those with something akin to “luminosity dysmorphia” could resort to more and more cosmetic interventions, like Botox, derma fillers, micro infusions, microneedling and vampire facials.

“Unattainable beauty will always be an essential ingredient in the industry. It’s all a business at the end of the day, driven by fantasy,” says professional make-up artist Ashley of @strashme. “Under the pressures of visual and virtual culture, it’s no longer enough to be well made up, you have to be made up in a certain way,” adds Heather Widdows. “The bottom line of the glow trend is that it’s more work pretending that it’s not.”

Luminosity has developed a mythology of aspiration that speaks to societal ambitions beyond beauty. “We are aspiring to unrealistic and inhuman beauty ideals, to ‘filtered faces’. This is all the more pressing because we equate beauty with success, and now also with wellness,” says Widdows. A glowing complexion suggests more than beauty and health, it suggests wealth, control and achievement. “It’s as if the light on our faces has come to represent the statuses we have in our lives,” agrees Ashley.

Even though our obsession with luminosity may be more sinister than we think, there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to healthy skin and looking well. It’s the unattainable “glow” as a beauty ideal and the mass pressure to conform to it that’s damaging. Discovering our most radiant selves should be a unique process, driven by internal motives, rather than attempts to measure up to photoshopped standards. Greville adds perspective, “For us at Milk Makeup, we are looking to give everyone modern, clean beauty tools to help express their individuality. However, we also like to remind people that it is not just about how you create your look, it’s what you do in it that matters. So glowing is cool, but try to share the light.”