In beauty, as in most industries geared around selling you things you probably don’t need, buzzwords are everything. Take the latest to enter the beauty fold: “glow”. Abstract and ethereal, it is loaded with meaning. Put this on your face, says the cream, and you will look … what? Healthy? Young? Pregnant? Because glow is the ultimate signifier of inner health. But we do it. We put the cream on, in an attempt to look … shiny?
The word “glow” appears in the descriptions of more than 300 products on Net-a-Porter’s beauty site, relating to everything from body oil to blusher. It is a selling point, used on a swath of products by the makeup artist Charlotte Tilbury, and has also inspired a new Givenchy range, which includes a “radiance rosy glow highlight”. The glow trend isn’t just confined to US and European brands, either; one of South Korea’s biggest beauty export sites is called Glow Recipe. Beauty salons and millennials use the word, too, often dropping the “w”. At this stage, we could view the rise of glow as indicative of an industry audacious enough to try to commodify nature. But we also need to take a long hard look at ourselves because it seems to be working. People are buying the stuff because they think it will make them shine, literally.
To gain traction, a buzzword needs to utilise words we are familiar with. Some beauty buzzwords work, of course, because they are fun or funny-sounding (take “baking”, which is the process of caking on powder to create an even finish and accentuate angles, or “strobing”, which is more or less whacking on highlighter to catch natural light). But there has been a marked shift in what we’re after. This year, the term “anti-ageing” was banned from various titles, including Allure and Elle. According to Allure’s editor-in-chief, Michelle Lee, the term “[reinforces] the message that ageing is a condition we need to battle”. By contrast, words such as glow are ageless.
It is really only this past year that “glow” has entered the wider beauty lexicon, despite its appearance in all manner of activities, for example, post-workout glow or yoga glow. It is also more abstract, even poetic, as an aesthetic. In his poem She Walks in Beauty, Lord Byron used various glowing metaphors to encapsulate his cousin’s beauty. And, of course, it refers to pregnancy, wherein oils produced by an influx of hormones, coupled with an excess of blood flow to the face (up to 50% more, says the Mayo Clinic Complete Book of Pregnancy & Baby’s First Year), create the much-coveted pregnancy glow. To appear glowy somehow evokes those fundamental qualities of motherhood. It makes you feel more womanly. Glow could be the most pro-woman adjective to enter the beauty vernacular for a long time.
The term probably came from the world of South Korean beauty, the fount of all aesthetic fads, where “glassy” is another word bandied around on social media. But to understand why it’s happening now, it’s worth looking at its almighty predecessor: contouring. The feature-enhancing technique dominated the beauty world for at least five years, regardless of the fact that very few people understood how to do it correctly.
Perhaps this was the point – it became a fundamental signifier of wealth and health, and time. It was a Kardashian trademark and, of course, a product of Instagram, but it also indicated you had the inclination to sculpt your face. But with that came societal grenades. The idea of using various shades of foundation and cream sticks to whittle down your nose, slim your face or change your skin tone was, well, problematic to say the least. It wasn’t contouring’s fault – as a method, it has been in the fashion industry for years, mainly because it photographs well – but it soon became one of the main tricky tenets of social media, turning enthusiasts into facsimiles with a certain look. It also, and perhaps this is key, can look appalling off-camera. Anyone who has seen in bald light someone professionally contoured will be likely to never use bronzer again.
Rose Beer, health and beauty director of Grazia magazine, is loth to use the word “contouring”, preferring “bronzing”. “For a long time, swooshing layer after layer of bronzer was the solution to being tired, ill, spotty or whatever,” she says. But then we reached critical mass. “I think it’s in part a backlash against that overdone makeup look.” Beer has, on a micro level, embraced “glowing” by switching from Armani Maestro Fusion foundation (which is mattifying) to Armani Maestro Glow. And, it seems, social media is in agreement with her shift. At last search, the word “contour” had been hashtagged more than 4m times on Instagram, while the word “glow” was at more than 5m. “Health and beauty brands know this – ‘glow’ is a word that sells,” she says.
However, unless we’re treating the skin from within, we’re not implementing any structural change. Enter nutricosmetics, another movement in the beauty industry that has been vital to the success of glow, and which views skincare as an oral supplement. In other words, beauty products are as much to be ingested as rubbed in. An early adopter of the term was the Beauty Chef, an Australian nutritionist who starting selling ingestible beauty products a few years ago, with a real push in 2015. Its bestselling supplement is called Glow, and contains various nutrients and probiotics that “synthesise collagen in the skin and help contribute to normal skin function as well as support digestive health”. Selfridges also has a large range of ingestible beauty supplements at its Beauty Workshop. According to a retail assistant at Space NK in Covent Garden, London, collagen-building pills are among their bestsellers.
Glow is, then, one of the few words that straddles the internal and external, what we eat and what we slather on our skin. Theresa Yee, senior beauty editor at trend forecasters WGSN, reckons that this is “perhaps why it’s taken off”. It is about looking like you feel, or want to feel, the epitome of aspirational beauty, and going as far as you can to make that happen. This may seem harmless, but does in fact take us back to social media, where truth and reality are compromised. If the elusive glow is about obtaining a look of health, rather than youthfulness – of appearing fresh, gym-fresh or even pregnant – what are the ethics of faking it?
The beauty industry is under duress to come up with new ways to sell stuff. It promises a lot of things and relies on an arsenal of buzzwords to do it. Previous words – contouring, strobing, baking – are big, but most tend to apply to a product or method of application. Few have the multitasking properties of “glow”, which is as much about how you feel as how you look. Glow may be another confection of a multibillion pound industry, but it comes from something deeper than that. And no serum will make you look pregnant.
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