“Succubus Chic” And The Problem Of Glamorizing Illness
The latest reworking of the “heroin chic” aesthetic also has confusing and problematic implications.
At the start of this year, the “cool girl” was declared dead and overtaken by the “ghoul girl.” Describing a specific type of high-fashion goth — dubbed “succubus chic” — it’s the growing trend behind the rising number of skinny brows, hollow buccal-fat-less cheeks, and long black hair paired with bleached eyebrows taking over your feed. Considering that in folklore a succubus is a female demon that appears in men’s dreams and seduces them, to be “succubus chic” is to be tempting and deadly. Unfortunately, it’s also the latest in a long line of examples where the western beauty industry has pushed the idea that looking sick is apparently, well, hot.
For the past year, there have been whispers about the “heroin chic” era returning. In fact, we’re already seeing it on the runway. The heroin chic heyday, popularized in early ’90s fashion, was rife with the glorification of extreme, concerning thinness, dark circles under the eyes, and an overall ill-looking presence. There’s no denying that it was glamorizing both drug addiction and anorexia, as the name makes obvious. In fact, the term was even coined after the overdose of photographer Davide Sorrenti.
“If ‘heroin chic’ glamorizes drug addiction, succubus chic glamorizes cosmetic addiction.”
It may seem like the trend overtaking the fashion industry now is the same “heroin chic” from the ’90s, but it’s actually something much more covertly sinister. The latest update, deemed “succubus chic,” is tied into wellness culture in complicated and confusing ways. Where Kate Moss used to go clubbing all night and eat very little for her waif-y look, now celebrities are getting buccal fat removal, injecting themselves with the diabetic drug Ozempic, and drinking non-alcoholic drinks in order to look like Kate Moss. We’re seeing the same results, only this time with the illusion of health and self-improvement.
Carolyn Day, an associate history professor at Furman University, says the bizarre mix and match of wellness culture and illness-encoded trends comes down to the beauty industry’s long-standing obsession with linking physical appearance to morality. “In the 19th century, doctors actually pushed the idea that the ‘good die young’ from tuberculosis,” she says. “So then, having tuberculosis (or the appearance of it) became a way of showing your virtue and achieving beauty— which was a very thin frame, pale skin, and sparkling, dilated eyes.” By the beginning of the 19th century, tuberculosis had killed 1 in 7 of all people that had ever lived.
Day remarks that today’s moralization of physical attractiveness in the pursuit of appearing “well” parallels the glamorization of tuberculosis. “In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was thought that the exterior revealed your interior character. The more attractive you were, the better a person you were,” she says. “Today’s wellness ideals are also not correlated to actual health because anyone who doesn’t fit into the beauty standard is seen as unhealthy.” In other words, you can look tired and energy-drained in a thin body and still be viewed as healthy, but people with larger bodies will always be automatically deemed “unhealthy” no matter their actual health.
“Illness is only considered cool or chic if it’s put on and if it seems deliberate, signals wealth, or demands money and effort.”
Day says there’s been a long connection between the beautification of tuberculosis and vampirism, with the succubus fitting into the life-sucking narrative. This is where the goth overlap comes in (all-black clothing, pale skin, and heavily lined eyes). However, while gothic trends started as a music-based subculture, the “succubus chic” look is surface-deep and drenched in wealth. It can even often only be achieved through access to nepo baby resources (think Amelia Gray’s high fashion transformation and Kylie Jenner’s brief browless stint). It’s about taking the look (and the literal face) of models like Gabbriette Bechtel, who’s been curating her personal style for years, and using immense resources to copy and paste it — becoming what the Internet has called a human “dupe.”
Beauty culture critic Jessica DeFino says she’s seeing “succubus chic” being called different names online, including “dark bimbo.” She thinks the overall trend is selling a false idea of rebellion — with the benefit of actually not rebelling against beauty ideals. “Darker, goth-inspired looks seem to push back against the feminine beauty ideal but are, in fact, curated via the actions of conforming to the ultimate feminine beauty ideal,” she says. After all, Morticia Addams and Barbie are not so different, except for their preferred color palette. “This glamorizes an aesthetic that signals wealth, excessive product use, and generally funneling money into your appearance. It serves as submission to the beauty industry under the guise of independence and individuality.”
DeFino says it’s also putting an addiction of its own on a pedestal. “If ‘heroin chic’ glamorizes drug addiction, succubus chic glamorizes cosmetic addiction,” she says. “This is a look that’s unachievable without a considerable number of invasive and noninvasive procedures, many of which have to be repeated at three- to six-month intervals.” Some studies even have compared getting repeated cosmetic procedures to suffering from a substance use disorder.
As has been the case throughout history, the essence of illness continues to reinforce traditional feminine gender roles. Vulnerable, weak, or easily controlled women have been “attractive” in the capitalist patriarchy for hundreds of years. If that wasn’t problematic enough, illness-encoded beauty trends still do very little for those suffering from a chronic illness. “Even though the beauty industry glamorizes the aesthetic of illness, it’s still deeply ableist,” says DeFino. “Illness is only considered cool or chic if it’s put on and if it seems deliberate, signals wealth, or demands money and effort.”
Chronic illness advocate and model Gigi Robinson says there’s a difference between portraying disabled joy or chronically ill people who are living a full, interesting life, and picking and choosing when to look “sick” as it suits you. “I think people should be able to express themselves without damaging their body,” she says. “If you want to stop covering your dark circles, more power to you, but people are making themselves sick and developing eating disorders just to fit into a beauty standard fundamentally created by the male gaze.”
Our shift from “heroin chic” to “succubus chic” also marks a change in which we collectively decided to aestheticize life instead of actually living it, says DeFino. “In the ’90s, clubbing and doing drugs led to that messy, thin aesthetic. Today, aesthetic desire comes first,” she says, in a way that is so misaligned with reality. “The current cultural beauty ideal is one that signals wealth and wellness, but we signal that aesthetically with actions that actually decrease our wealth and wellness.”
In order for the “heroin chic” ideal to stop coming back under different names and cultural contexts, it’s clear we need to address the troubling relationship between the glamorization and moralization of illness in the fashion industry. This, says DeFino, might not be possible without completely reexamining and rethinking the industry at large. “I don’t know that the beauty industry can abandon this altogether because the industry survives on a model of sickness,” she says. “People can abandon these sickness-encoded trends by divesting from industrialized beauty.” With this in mind, an act of true rebellion won’t look like bleaching your eyebrows and getting buccal fat removal to look “succubus chic,” but ignoring the trend altogether.