TW: This article talks about mental illness, body image and appearance.
Something went horribly wrong with my TikTok algorithm a couple of months ago, and since then, scrolling through my For You page has felt like a guilty, voyeuristic peek inside a breeding site for the romanticisation of mental illness, in explicit or subtle forms. Unreleased Lana Del Rey tracks play behind flashing photos of her 2017 snuff spoon merch drop, Bella Hadid sobbing into the camera and screencaps from Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides or Black Swan. The next video might be a shrine to Kate Moss or Effy from Skins or a teenage girl body checking. Albeit depressing, the videos don’t seem particularly sinister in isolation (and they may often be well-intentioned, as is much of the key media that inspired this content, like Skins) but captions and comments that draw the attention away from fictional characters or otherwise serialised icons and into the reality of the predominantly teenage girl hive mind reveals the existence of a damaging subculture defined by the romanticisation of mental illness and its presentation of those who struggle with disorders as beautiful, fragile victims of society to be worshipped and martyred.
This is perhaps most clear with some of the anonymous blog-style accounts posting quotes from poetry, essays, and film, some of the favourites being Fleabag’s “women are built with pain built in” and Plath’s “there is a certain clinical satisfaction in seeing just how bad things get”. Even less explicitly damaging posts, those which lie outside of this My Year of Rest and Relaxation-core, cherry emoji twitter, in-my-Fleabag-era subculture and which capture a less niche demographic, have similar undertones and highlight an obsession with physical as well as mental illnesses. Makeup time-lapses see mainstream creators applying blush below their eyes and on their noses to mimic a cold, a trend beginning in Japanese Lolita styles, or smudging eyeliner below the eyes to accentuate eye bags. The message is clear: to be sick, or to appear as such, is to be beautiful, desirable.
We might mock these trends or point to them as symptoms of the toxicity of social media, with this ‘new’ subculture just being an animated reiteration of Tumblr’s Soft Grunge obsession circa 2013-2015, but this is a message inherent to the perception of beauty in Western societies for centuries. Something about the nature of certain illnesses captures the Romantic imagination of the public and influences beauty and fashion trends.
“Consumption, I am aware, is a flattering malady”, wrote Charlotte Brontë, in a letter referring to her sister’s fatal struggle with the illness. Consumption, which we now recognise as tuberculosis, was a leading cause of death throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, responsible for 25% of deaths between 1780-1850. Despite its deathly reputation, it was often, as Brontë presents, glorified as a ‘beautiful’ way to die. The physical manifestations of consumption’s feverish symptoms, like pale skin, visible veins, rosy cheeks, red lips, glossy eyes, and a waifish, stooped figure were thus replicated in beauty and fashion trends. The limited makeup used by women at the time was focused on paling the skin and blushing the cheeks, whilst fashion plates depicting steam-moulded corsets of separate parts encouraged a stooped posture and popular neo-classical nightgown-style chemise dresses (popularised with Marie Antoinette’s Chemise a la Reine and modernised post-revolution) focused on revealing the collar bones.
In the same way that mental illness today is romanticised potentially for its relation to rich, beautiful women and fictional characters we internally venerated growing up, consumption was admired for how it was believed to have been caused: by the overexertion of the body through dancing or mind through intellectual endeavours, only available to bohemian members of upper-class creatives like Keats, whose dying days were immortalised in letters and poetry.
And it’s not like the beauty of illness is something that is experiencing a revival after a 200-year hiatus – the deaths of tortured creatives have always been romanticised. Nineteenth-century society’s fixation on the romantic deaths of Keats, La Bohème’s Mimi, and the Brontë sisters can be seen to be reflected in the worship of celebrity deaths by narcotic drugs and their associated illnesses in the second half of the twentieth century, bringing about heroin chic beauty trends in the 1990s. Heroin chic, which has its origins in the idolisation of models like Gia Carangi (who died of HIV/AIDS complications in 1986) and fashion houses like Calvin Klein, describes the 90s fascination with a hollow-faced, pale appearance, which was reflected in the rise of the low-waist jean, monochromatic outfits, grunge-inspired flannels and fishnets, dark eye makeup and limited blush and bronzer. I argue that the timing of heroin chic’s conception reflects a specific fixation on death and illness rather than the emulation of the rock-n-roll drug habits of the idolised rich and famous. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, when heroin and HIV first hit the western hemisphere, there was a distinct focus in mainstream culture on tanned skin, voluminous hair, bright colours and an hourglass silhouette, reflected in the designs of Gianni Versace, Dona Karan and Diane von Furstenberg. It was only in the second half of the 90s, after Grunge toppled Glam Rock and New Wave pop, AIDS deaths reached their peak, and the American Medical Association recognised addiction as a disease when heroin chic became hip.
This consistent focus on emulating illness in fashion and beauty throughout history may reflect humanity’s inherent morbid fascination with death, or perhaps – hot take – the long-standing tendency of women’s fashion to present the wearer as vulnerable, sensitive, helpless to the overpowering effects of unknown illnesses and addictions, and thus ultimately feminine. The understanding of the male gaze’s influence on fashion and beauty is usually limited to those 70s and 80s trends I discussed earlier (with their tanned, curvaceous, wavy-haired, dazzlingly smiley supermodels). However, maybe these norms of evolutionary beauty are overthrown in times of particular hardship, like the pandemics and epidemics of consumption, influenza, AIDS, narcotics and COVID, in favour of those evoking period-specific vulnerabilities.
However, whilst blaming the male gaze for society’s problems is a hobby of mine, it would be dangerous to suggest that the recent subculture of young people that I described who express struggles with mental illness through irony and relating their experiences to media are doing so to intentionally appeal to the male gaze. Rather, the phenomenon, so similar to that seen on Tumblr in the early 2010s, is more likely a result of the combining forces of increasing life stressors and their use of social media as an output alongside the eternal tendency of teenagers to group bond via shared aesthetics and the tendency of society to fetishise said aesthetics (see American Apparel’s controversial ads) and idealise teendom, turning private expressions of angst into trends.
Is that to say that the romanticisation of mental illness online is a healthy coping mechanism for young people? Absolutely not. However, the idealisation of illness as associated with a sense of victimhood, intellectualism, creativity, and the capital R in the Romantic is far from a new phenomenon. Fashion and beauty have always had the ability to be physically and psychologically harmful to the consumer, as are all other art forms, as they express the darkness of the individual and public psyche, which has always been fascinated by the big questions of life, pain, and death. Let’s not demonise the 14-year-old, who in 2022 hasn’t grasped the point of Lolita yet, in 1994 is considering taking up smoking to stay skinny, or in 1850 admires how rosy her tuberculosis-stricken sister’s complexion is – we’ve all been there.