If you’ve been on TikTok lately you have most likely come across the latest in a long line of “glow-up” trends. This one starts by the writing “you’re not my type” over an old photo then after “16 Missed Calls” by Brent Faiyaz plays, a current and more desirable state is revealed. Like other viral transitional trends on the app, the results usually show the person now acne-free or after losing a large amount of weight. In fact, many viral videos on TikTok are weight loss before and afters disguised as a new trend or “drastic” beauty transformations that usually just involve removing facial hair and some contouring.
The concept of “glowing up” is simple – you become more conventionally attractive over a period of time and usually document it. Under different terms, it’s existed throughout recent history. There was Khloe Kardashian’s Revenge Body show in 2017, created to show “all those people who doubted you, who rejected you – what they’re now missing”. The show was a flop, but the idea of the post-break up glow-up is still extremely prevalent today, insinuating that whoever becomes more attractive after the end of a relationship somehow “wins”.
The glow-up makeover has existed in countless forms on the big screen. Think back to the 2001 classic Princess Diaries, where Anne Hathaway was suddenly transformed into being beautiful (despite the fact that she already is conventionally attractive) by simply waxing her eyebrows, straightening her hair, and taking off her glasses. Then there’s shows like The Biggest Loser or the controversial Nip Tuck, where the whole source of entertainment is people losing weight or getting a nose job.
Why are we so obsessed with the idea of “glowing up”?
While shows like America’s Next Top Model are no longer able to encourage unkind transformations on air, the glow-up has found modern relevance on social media. A place we already know is harmful to teenagers’ mental health. So why are we still obsessed with “glowing up”? Kirsten Oelklaus, Co-Founder and Program Director, Bellatore Recovery says the idea of change often comes as a result of feeling out of control. “It is not uncommon for individuals struggling with body image and self-esteem issues to feel validated when they can measure change in their worth through numbers – clothing sizes and numbers on the scale,” she told Vogue. “Unfortunately, this path forces the person to continue to seek additional change, reinforcing the frame that they are never enough.”
Oelklaus says that the premise of the glow-up is about the before being unworthy of love and attention, and the after being “good enough”. “This also reinforces a major misconception many have been trying to move away from in our culture, that measures of weight and size are a reflection of someone’s health and happiness,” she says. This, says Oelklaus, communicates to someone who is in a larger body or struggles with acne that they’re not good enough unless they conform and change.
Is there a way to break this self-destructive cycle?
Oelklaus would like to see more “glow-up” videos grounded in activities and environments where people are healthy and happy. For example, dancing, paddleboarding, or sitting in nature in contrast to hiding their body or wearing clothes that aren’t authentic to them. Some creators on TikTok have hopped on the current trend by showing themselves now more comfortable and happy in their non-binary identity after coming out. But is it possible to keep the toxic before and after format, without most people resorting to blatant fatphobia? Georgia Sky (known as Bawdy Queen), an LA-based actress and creator who aligns with the fat acceptance and body acceptance movements, says these trends are a reflection of our current society, which is “just fatphobic and views plus size people horribly”.
When Adele lost weight recently, the internet discussed how she “got hot”, despite the fact that she’s always been attractive. “It’s harmful mentally. I see about 10 before and after videos a day and it starts to weigh down on me,” says Sky. “I question myself, my body, my value, and it makes me feel like I’m not doing enough.” Sky says she has no issue with weight loss journey videos but sees the problem as tying them to the idea of improving. “To glow-up means growth. I think about who I was in high school and who I am now and I definitely had a glow-up,” she says. “I lacked confidence, I didn’t speak up for myself and I always tried to hide, so now I refer a ‘glow-up’ to someone finding who they are and being that unapologetically.”
For 26-year-old cultural worker Maya Finoh, glow-up videos, like other elements of beauty culture, are inherently political. “The fact that having lighter skin, being thin, and having little to no body hair are all characteristics of being a “classic beauty” is directly related to Western European colonisation of the Global South,” they say. “I will say that with the rise of newer social media apps there has been a slight shift in beauty standards so that now the “Instagram face” is heavily pushed for – a racially ambiguous, but still lighter-skinned, person whose features are an amalgamation of various ethnicities but are still rooted in eurocentrism.”
Finoh thinks “glow-up” culture should be put to bed for good, firstly because it’s a term from Black American vernacular that’s been co-opted by non-Black people. The irony is that many non-black creators now use the term to perpetuate beauty ideals rooted in anti-Blackness. “At the end of the day, glow-up culture ultimately celebrates the “achievement” of a more conventional attractiveness and I would like to see us permanently stop attaching morality to bodies just because of how they look.”
2022 is about seizing control of beauty narratives and focusing on positivity
For Finoh, the only “glow-up” worth acknowledging in is seeing people engage in the glowing up of their personalities, values, and beliefs. “Glow-up into an anti-racist, please,” they say. “What physical appearance doesn’t show is the mental or emotional state that someone is in: you can glow-up on the outside but not grow internally at all.” Unfortunately, in an image-driven society riddled with biases, to “glow-up” physically is to access more social currency and privilege. The issue is that only a few people can access it and (like all elements of comparison culture) it always comes at a cost.
With eating disorders on the rise in a pandemic where, despite living through a global health crisis, people on the internet have constantly berated others to come out of lockdown a “better version of themselves” (aka lose weight), it’s time to leave before and after culture in 2021 and start embracing non-linear transformations. From the formation of a beautiful new friendship to the act of learning something new, growth itself is not the issue but the idea that we’re constantly running towards this better, more ideal fixed end state that doesn’t exist. As Finoh puts it, “social media is an extension of the world,” and it’s currently telling us we can always be better. Perhaps it’s the toxic beauty ideals in place that need the true “glow-up” after all.