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Looks to Die For: An Exploration of the Horror of the Beauty Industry

By Holly Butterfield, Brittany Holness, Imogen Bristow and Gemma Mathers

For years, the horror genre has used dystopian realities to create a backdrop for the gruesome and psychological terrors that come with these tales. But a recent shift has moved the focus to the beauty industry, with plots of extreme surgical procedures and obsession reflecting current societal realities. It’s almost second nature to see beauty products and fad diets plastered across social media and magazines and taking over the thoughts of many. But now it’s being taken one step further with several recent and upcoming releases rooting their tales in these horrific realities. 

What is it about the beauty industry that’s inherently scary? There’s an intrinsic sense of control that the industry has on our society, influencing the behaviours and thoughts of individuals through media and magazines, telling people how to look and how to dress. It’s the reality of this situation that resonates with audiences. It’s not so out of the realm of possibility that surgical and beauty procedures could be taken to extremes, leading to lack of control over your own being. Or, that this desire to be seen as perfect can lead to obsession, taking over every waking moment. There’s something dystopian about it, making it the perfect backdrop to these stories. This also isn’t necessarily a new concept. Over the years we’ve seen classic stories delving into similar horrors. One example is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood which showcases the extreme control of women’s bodies in a dystopian society. 

A key theme in this trend is obsession – a psychological element that can become all-encompassing. Often these authors use obsession to expose the ways in which we manipulate our bodies in our day-to-day lives and how we use the beauty industry to do it, creating a metamorphosis of what we once were and the distorted image in the mirror. What is very potent about this trend is the translation between fiction and our reality as consumers of the beauty industry; the impact of the make-up industry on our everyday lives and the ways in which our bodies and our ideas about ourselves are irrevocably changed. These books take moments that everyone can relate to and showcase them in the extreme. For example, the obsessive moment in which you realise you’ve picked at a blemish on your face until it’s devolved into a full-blown wound that will take days, if not weeks, to fully disappear. These books focus on moments of easy and often relatable imagery to distort what we see, creating horror from the everyday. 

Ling Ling Huang’s Natural Beauty sees a talented young pianist abandon a future in music to work in a high-end beauty store in pursuit of a stable career. At the store, our protagonist readily consumes products which ‘perfect’ every inch of her body. However, something sinister lurks beneath the veneer of beauty, wealth and privilege the shop embodies. Reminiscent of Ira Levin’s feminist horror The Stepford Wives, Huang’s debut uncovers a dystopian world where greed, consumerism and beauty are used to serve a wicked plan. 

Fitting in the Korean horror genre, If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha follows four women struggling against the expectations of beauty and patriarchy in modern day Seoul. Kyuri is a sex worker who relies on plastic surgery to become more successful among her wealthy male clients. The other characters, Miho, Ara and Wonna, experience the varying shades of sexism in Korea, facing issues surrounding body image, class, difficult relationships and women’s lack of access to money. The novel’s risqué exploration of contemporary Korean womanhood reveals a dark tale of sexism and the necessity of female friendship. 

But it’s not only adult fiction that has seen this trend. Holly Bourne’s You Could Be So Pretty continues these tales for a younger audience. Known for breaking down these issues, Bourne’s most recent novel is set in a dystopian universe where impossible beauty standards plague the inhabitants and sexual violence has become second nature. These obsessions with appearance and beauty are known to start young, well before teenage years, and this book explores a world that, arguably, is not too dissimilar from our own. 

A juxtaposition of sorts is what occurs when beauty and horror meet in these authors’ works. Two otherwise separate entities can overlap to bring about a riveting story in a way that doesn’t detract from either theme, but rather enhances the storytelling elements. By creating worlds that act as a representative of current beauty standards with heightened issues and conflicts, these stories are almost satirical in nature. These recommendations are only a few of several that can introduce you to a more hyperbolic twist while depicting the reality of beauty standards in society.



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