Dark Wellness Novels Turn Beauty Obsession Into A Cult

Fiction authors are putting the cult of beauty into their own words.

by Madeline Howard

You’ve probably heard art critic John Berger’s now-famous quote: “Women constantly meet glances, which act like mirrors, reminding them of how they look, or how they should look… Sometimes the glance they meet is their own, reflected back from a mirror.” By now, what’s expressed in Berger’s 1972 Ways of Seeing is so accepted as a truth, its message almost feels trite. But has it been fully realized in the zeitgeist?

In a world where Barbie blockbusters inspire not cultural scrutiny, but instead, swaths of viewer assimilation to the aesthetic, I’m not so sure. But a new subset of contemporary authorship is giving me hope. Meet Dark Wellness: a string of horror-adjacent novels released this year that hold a mirror to the cult-like capabilities of the beauty industry, portraying it in fiction as a literal cult.

On women, Berger continues saying: “She has to survey everything she is and everything she does, because how she appears … is of crucial importance, for it is normally thought of as the success of her life.” While written over 50 years ago, Berger’s words on the inherent surveillance and learned voyeurism of womanhood feel just as relevant today, as if awareness of the problem made us not more apt for change, but instead, eager to openly capitalize on it.

And yet, fiction writers have caught on, wrenching our collective ideals out of the beauty industrial complex rabbit hole. Kicking off the publishing trend in late fall of 2022 was The Goddess Effect by Sheila Yasmin Marikar, where protagonist Anita becomes enamored with a cult fitness studio run by a lifestyle influencer, only to realize the leader wants to melt her rib bones for collagen supplements. In Rouge by Mona Awad, a skin care-obsessed woman attends a cryptic spa experience, where a cult kills people to maintain their youthful glow. Then there’s Natural Beauty by Ling Ling Huang, which features a beauty store employee who uncovers a secret about the company’s products that provide smooth skin and slim thighs — namely that the success of the brand facilitates human testing and death to survive.

The books are all creatively admirable, making each a worthwhile read, but the common thread is their use of cults as the vehicle for societal critique. Though in truth, the books’ premises aren’t “particularly fantastical,” Jessica DeFino, beauty industry critic and founder of The Unpublishable newsletter, tells NYLON. Through today’s popular cosmetic surgeries, “you are literally sacrificing a part of your body to become more beautiful, according to cultural definitions of beauty,” she says, citing procedures such as buccal fat removal, fat transfers, and blepharoplasty.

When the mirror reigns supreme, it’s no surprise that authors place the pursuit of beauty at their characters’ cores.

Of course, embracing beauty on your own terms can be a life-affirming source of art and expression. These novels, however, highlight the inverse: the main characters are lost, fragile, and fraught with existential exhaustions like financial precarity, romantic loneliness, and an overall sense of listlessness regarding their purpose in life — a perfect storm for susceptibility to manipulation. When the mirror reigns supreme, it’s no surprise that authors place the pursuit of beauty at their characters’ cores. This gives the women direction and, in some cases, what feels like a higher spiritual purpose.

“As the number of people who are participating in organized religion in the Western world goes down, the [number of] people who are buying into 10-step skin care routines and wellness rituals has gone up,” DeFino explains. The more the characters’ outward appearance falls in line with the beauty ideal, the more cultural capital they possess, temporarily filling the gap left by their metaphysical want.

In these novels, the women’s status is also defined by their proximity and likeness to a higher prestige woman who embodies the beauty ideal to its fullest. It is often a desire to be like this other woman that entrenches the protagonists deeper into the cult of beauty in the first place — and subsequently, it’s the social, fiscal, or romantic validation that keeps them there.

In Natural Beauty, Huang literally named the woman with whom her protagonist is obsessed, Helen, “because she’s the Hellenic ideal,” Huang tells NYLON. Helen embodies all of the features that Huang was told were beautiful: “big blonde hair, blue eyes, a certain body type.” These enticing characters are always white and thin, with a complexion that suggests otherworldliness. In many cases, she is also rich, or moves through wealthy spaces with ease.

It’s worth noting a glaringly obvious flaw in Berger’s original Ways of Seeing episode: the absence of non-white women. However, the oversight isn’t surprising. In our society, “white supremacy is the ultimate cult,” DeFino says. In both Natural Beauty and Rouge, as the women progress further into the cult system, they look physically brighter (read: whiter) in skin tone and their facial features morph toward eurocentrism — the process literally erasing race.

“Beauty always costs something. It’s costing you.”

This is unsurprising, and again, not particularly fantastical, given the very real $8 billion global skin whitening industry. It also highlights the pervasiveness of what DeFino says is a “Frankenstein-ing of features,” where companies capitalize on the manufactured popularity of co-opted ingredients, rituals, and bodily attributes of various ethno-racial groups when it’s financially beneficial.

Perhaps most notable in these novels is the necessity of literal human sacrifice and labor on which the cults rely to exist. This is exemplified in not only the labor of the main characters — the women’s finances and occupations are reliant on the cult — but also in how the cult tests and takes from living human bodies or corpses to continue selling services and recruiting new members.

Given that ingredient extraction and product formulations are intertwined with human rights concerns like environmental destruction and labor abuses, it’s understandable that authors are making such literal narrative connections in their work. “This is exactly what I was trying to go after,” Huang says. “Beauty always costs something. It’s costing you.”

And look, beauty isn’t all bad. But we shouldn’t engage with the industry because we feel we have to, or else suffer the cultural consequences. It seems that Dark Wellness captures the overconsumption and anxiety around the possibilities and pitfalls of the modern beauty landscape. Through contemporary novels, we’re still figuring out how to interact with beauty in a way that feels intentional and real. For now, perhaps authors are telling us that the best path is through pages of fiction — though its resemblance to our reality is, quite frankly, uncanny.