It used to be that wishing yourself fitter was the prelude. When the goal was a smaller arse, bigger tits or invisible pores, the action was usually a purchase. Dream Matte Mousse, Spanx or a 28-day subscription to BooTea, a temporary fix to the age-old problem of being born less attractive than the Great and Good.
Then along came Gen Z and, with them, a shift. The act of dreaming itself has become the work. While their millennial siblings continue to drop £80 at Space NK, buy Shreddy bands and fail to burpee in their cramped flats, the kids are simply asking the universe to make their dreams come true.
Word on the street is it works. In 2020, manifesting – the act of realising your desires and dreams through positive thinking – went mainstream, as teenagers and twenty-somethings excitedly shared the abundance granted to them via the power of dreaming. From March to mid-July 2020, Google searches for the term jumped by over 600 per cent, with over 8 million ‘How to Manifest’ videos uploaded to YouTube in the past 12 months alone.
The crux of manifesting is this: if you focus on what you want hard enough, it’s possible to will that desire, whatever it may be, into physical reality. Believers like to quote the so-called ‘Law of Attraction’, which states that your thoughts, feelings and beliefs have a certain frequency, which then attract events and situations of a similar frequency into one’s life. A high frequency is attributed to positive thoughts and feelings; a low frequency is bad vibes.
On TikTok, a teen with rainbow bed sheets and a scrunchie manifests her dream boyfriend by “writing down every single characteristic you want in your new boyfriend”. You can manifest your dream career, acceptance into university and even cash payouts. Guaranteed success is just a dream away.
Naturally, because modern beauty standards dictate that one can never be too rich nor too thin, you can also manifest weight loss, clearer skin and a bigger bum. Searches for “manifest glow up” on TikTok throw up hundreds of results. On YouTube, videos for manifesting appearance changes range from the vague – “How to Manifest a GLOW UP” – to the startlingly specific – “How I Lost 70 Pounds Using the Law of Attraction”.
Carys Leah, a twenty-something TikToker with 154k followers, has dedicated a whole podcast episode to her own manifested glow up in preparation for 21st June. “If you decide that you’re hot and that you’ve had a glow up, then you will have that glow up,” she tells listeners.
On her TikTok, she shares before-and-after photos of her lips, inflated without filler, purely using manifestation techniques. “When you manifest, you’re hacking your brain,” says Leah on her podcast. “You’re rewiring the code. Then things are happening on the universe level – your energy is aligning to the new version of you”.
The theory of “alignment” is popular in the manifestation world. In one tutorial, blogger Judy Rina tells followers of her journey, via manifestation, to clearer skin: “I didn’t use any cleansers or soaps. You have to align yourself to the vibration of having clear skin.”
26-year-old influencer, mentor and confidence coach Victoria Spence uses manifesting both in her own life and with her clients. “A huge part of manifesting is about showing up to life as yourself. It’s about confidence, it’s about self-belief and trusting in the process,” she says. For her, the process involves physically writing down her gratitude for the goals she is yet to realise. “It has to come from a place of abundance, of thankfulness”.
But Spence is skeptical about some of her peers’ claims. “The only way you can actually change your appearance is if you pay for it. But if you build on your confidence, you’re going to raise your vibrations and change your energy – and high energy is so attractive”.
Some of this beats a familiar drum. Many a primary school classroom is decorated with that syrupy line from Roald Dahl’s The Twits: “If you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.” Saccharine, but not exactly scientific. However, the power of positive self-perception does have some credence when it comes to attractiveness, with studies showing that confident people are seen as more attractive.
Except that, well, some of the before-and-after-manifestation pictures do in fact look edited. And, although manifesting makes dubious parallels with the law of physics (“everything in the universe vibrates with its own frequency”), there’s only one way to physically achieve a smaller nose: rhinoplasty. “Obviously, you can’t change your physical appearance through positive thinking,” says consultant clinical psychologist Dr. Julia Coakes. “It’s just not possible”.
Plus, gassing yourself up too much in the name of manifestation could even have the opposite effect. “People will always see what you see,” Leah tells her podcast listeners. But that doesn’t equate to the truth. A more recent study into the correlation between confidence and attractiveness found that those who have a more positive perception of themselves than is objectively warranted are actually seen as less attractive – arrogant, even.
Yet merely sneering at manifesting or ironically leaning half-in, as we did with crystals and Co-Star, ignores its more sinister undertones. “You have attracted every single thing into your life, up until this very moment. You can attract negative things into your life and you can attract positive things into your life,” 17-year-old Naomi Rosenthal tells her 200k subscribers on YouTube.
This mindset essentially disregards the existence of luck, be it bad or good. “The idea that traumatic events or ill health have been attracted into people’s lives via ‘negative energy’ fosters blame,” says Coakes. “It implies that they’ve created those circumstances.”
But the implications of manifesting’s central argument have deterred neither its celebrity proponents – among them Oprah, Will Smith and Jim Carrey – nor the teens propagating the trend like glandular fever.
“Human brains collate patterns,” says Coakes, “and coincidences happen. But just because A leads to B, it doesn’t make it causal”. She points out that gratitude journaling and goal-setting both work as effective therapeutic techniques, if practiced consistently for six to twelve months. “Repeating that pattern of being thankful and positive builds a filter through which we see the world. But gratitude works because it focuses the mind on what we already have, not what we’d like to have.”
Coakes advocates the use of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) as a verified method for working towards change. The key principles of ACT involve working with patients to identify their personal values and increase psychological flexibility, allowing users to engage with the present moment to enact behavioural change based on their values. “ACT enables users to create what they want from life,” says Coakes. “But again, it’s not manifesting. It’s about being fully present in your reality.”
Humans have, historically, struggled with reality. It’s perhaps no coincidence, then, that manifesting took off just as our worlds became airless and tiny, with our freedoms handed over to authorities. It’s kind of nice to believe that a power higher than Boris Johnson might be at play, right?
“People who have beliefs – religious ones, for example – can find coping easier,” says Coakes, pointing to studies that show prayer has positive effects on psychological perspective and emotional acceptance. “Faith or belief systems can be reassuring and comforting”.
For Victoria Spence, spirituality plays a huge role in manifestation: “That’s what makes it different from just goal-setting. You do have to believe in a higher source, whether that’s the universe, or a god, if you’re religious. You really have to trust the process.”
In the Western world, we’ve moved further away from traditional religions than ever before. In the UK, 52 per cent of the population identified as not belonging to any religious group in 2018, while the percentage of Christians has fallen steadily since the 1980s.
But that’s not to say Westerners aren’t spiritual. A 2018 survey found that roughly 4 in 10 Americans believed that spiritual energy can be found in physical objects, like mountains and trees. As younger generations reject the organised faiths of their parents and grandparents, they’ve found purpose and guidance in astrology, meditation and tarot. “Life can be really overwhelming in your twenties,” says Spence. “Just believing in something higher than yourself allows you to trust that what’s for you isn’t going to pass you by.”
Weaving tenuous webs between gratitude, goal-setting and spirituality, the Gen Z version of manifesting is anything the user wants it to be. It’s also anything that social media algorithms want it to be.
People love transformations. It’s why Instagram’s algorithms repeatedly throw up weight loss before-and-afters, even to those in the depths of eating disorders. It’s why we used to watch shows like 10 Years Younger, What Not To Wear and You Are What You Eat, and why compilations of America’s Next Top Model makeovers still rake in millions of views on YouTube. They’re addictive. They’re fascinating.
But there is something about the nebulous pseudo-physics of manifesting that sits directly at odds with the concept of a ‘glow-up’, a physical transformation that hands so much control directly to the individual (get those fillers, do that diet, watch the results fly in). “Trying to change your physical appearance like that goes against what manifesting is,” says Spence. “It goes against what Mother Nature, or that higher source, has given you”.
In the 20-odd years since Trinny and Susannah graced our screens, beauty standards have changed. The methods for transformation now involve vibrations, rather than veneers. But in the trend of manifesting yourself prettier, the perceived end point is the same as it’s always been. “Write those goals down, make a list,” advises one TikTok, uploaded last month, with examples including an “hourglass figure” and a “plump, juicy booty”.
I think I’ll be sticking to Spanx, thanks.