Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Beauty is Possible With youthjuice by E.K. Sathue

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Former beauty editor E.K. Sathue has given us a gift: youthjuice. Arriving June 4th from Hell’s Hundred, this debut follows Sophia Bannion to HEBE. Named for the Greek goddess of youth, HEBE is a rising star in the beauty and wellness circles. It’s also pretty messed up. The culture is cliquey and the interns rotate faster than clothing trends and celebrity news. At the center of it all is Tree Whitestone, a perfect, flawless, charismatic force of a woman. Through her, and her innovative product, Sophia internalizes HEBE’s mantra: beauty is possible.

Beauty horror has to be one of my favorite subgenres. This book is marketed as a cross between The Devil Wears Prada and American Psycho, and honestly I can see why. Sometimes I find the trend of “x meets y” to be a stretch, but it works here. I want to add Mona Awad’s Rouge to the comparison list. I read it last year, adored it, and subsequently bought a lot more skincare. youthjuice makes me want to do the same. And before you say I missed the point, let’s discuss what the point is.

While the titular product plays a central role in the narrative, youthjuice isn’t critiquing the existence of moisturizer. What it is critiquing is the fanatical social and societal consequences of the industry. This is exemplified in Tree, particularly how everyone around her tries to be her mirror. Sophia quickly joins in, even as she sees—and admires—opposing qualities in others. The women at HEBE all smoke turmeric root, adhere to strict vegan diets, and refuse to drink alcohol. Meanwhile, Sophia’s best friend and roommate, Dom, eats with pleasure and uses substances recklessly. 

youthjuice by E.K. Statue Cover
youthjuice by E.K. Statue Cover

Because Tree’s behaviors are so dogmatic, Sophia’s adherence drives a wedge between her and Dom. It also causes tension in her relationship with her boyfriend, Richard. As she grows apart from her previous social ties, she naturally grows closer to Tree. This is a textbook manipulation tactic, and it is one the beauty/wellness industry employs on a wide scale for monetary gain. There is a morality implied in the messaging of product campaigns and the routines of influencers. And once your moral compass attunes to a person, it is easy to excuse and explain their decisions. No matter how sinister they are.

What makes youthjuice so fun is that Sophia didn’t start innocent. This book has two timelines, with numbered chapters being in Sophia’s present, and flashbacks being in sections simply titled 2008. This creates a compelling parallel narrative. I wanted to uncover her past to help me understand her choices in the present. As such, I can’t rightly call this a corruption plotline; it’s not linear enough for that. But because of Sophia’s history, her darkness, her compulsions, I also can’t say this is a cautionary tale. It’s a twisted funhouse mirror, not a well-lit vanity.

And this is why reading a book like youthjuice makes me want to revisit my own beauty routines. It’s not a book that preaches, it’s a book that asks you to examine, to think. The horror here isn’t about the moisturizer. It’s just the packaging for the deeper themes of belonging. The bloody lengths we will go to be accepted, to impress. The impulses we keep caged and what happens when we are convinced they are okay. Why do we make the choices we do? I said this wasn’t a corruption story, because I think it’s a possession one. At the end of the day, who is in control? Beauty fan or not, youthjuice will ask you to answer that for yourself. 

Images courtesy of publisher.

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