KnowURbody: Why should we leave the „Glow-Up” culture behind?

Yuliia Vashchenko – absolwentka stosunków międzynarodowych, podróżniczka, uważna obserwatorka relacji geopolitycznych i tych zwykłych, ludzkich. Pierwsza wolontariuszka Laboratorium Zmiany z Europejskiego Korpusu Solidarności. Kreatywna dusza, która dbała o nasze social media, tłumaczyła nasze raporty i podręczniczki na język angielski, a przede wszystkim wspierała w codziennych żmudnych zadaniach projektowych. Niejednokrotnie tworzyła z nami nieszablonowe rozwiązania z zakresu wspierania równości oraz zabierała głos w ważnych dla niej kwestiach podczas naszych szkoleń, warsztatów i wydarzeń. Dziś prezentujemy trzeci z czterech jej esejów, które poświęciła obrazowi ciała w społeczeństwie i kulturze. Zapraszamy do lektury.

This is my project “KnowURbody”, where I try to understand how the image of the woman’s body is influenced by society and how we can deal with it without harmful effects on our mental health. The topic we’re going to discuss today is “Glow-Up” culture and its bad impact on our mental health!

Let’s start with TikTok


If you have TikTok, then you’ve most likely seen Glow Up videos, the main idea of which is to show the changes in the appearance of TikTok creators within some period of time. Tik-Tok has an unbelievable 44.5 billion videos tagged under the term ‘glow-up’. Amazing, right? Let’s find out what a Glow-Up is! According to the Urban Dictionary, glowing up is „to go from the bottom to the top to the point of disbelief. An incredible transformation.” This doesn’t necessarily mean a physical change, but can also mean improvements to your mental state. Despite this, when we think of a 'glow-up’ we usually think of a physical transformation- probably because physical changes are more noticeable than mental ones.

Modern ‘Glow-up’ videos first came about on social media towards the end of 2017 in the form of people sharing comparison pictures of themselves when they were going through puberty. These videos or images usually feature a common structure: a hair transformation, an updated skincare routine featuring at least three or four expensive products, eyelash extensions, a manicure, a few new outfits and a healthy dish. The results usually show the person is now acne-free or after losing a large amount of weight. In fact, many viral videos on TikTok are weight loss before and after 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. 

The glow-up makeover


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. Or “Never Been Kissed (1999)” with Drew Barrymore. Or even „The Devil Wears Prada” with Anne Hathaway. Then there are shows like The Biggest Loser where the whole source of entertainment is people losing weight. 

Why are we still obsessed with “glowing up”? In the article „It’s Time To Leave Toxic “Glow-Up” Culture Behind In 2021″ by Laura Pitcher published in UK Vogue, Kirsten Oelklaus, Co-Founder and Program Director, of 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 a 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.” 

Seeking validation for our appearance isn’t something new – but it seems that in 2022, something has shifted and we’re more desperate to have a ‘glow-up’ than ever before – the idea being the better looking you are, the more charmed a life you’ll lead.  TikTok, Instagram, and other social media platforms have recently created an unhealthy look at Glow Ups. 

In the article „Has our love of TikTok glow-up videos actually turned toxic?” by  Kimberley Bond published in Cosmopolitan we can find a personal story of Narissa about the impact this „Glow-Up” trend has had on her during the first lockdown. 

“People were talking about using lockdown to ‘glow-up’,” she explains, recalling videos that showed people boasting about doing as many as three workouts a day. “I decided: ‘Okay, I’m going to do home workouts every day too.” But Narissa, who previously suffered from an eating disorder as a teenager, found she was quickly pushing herself to unhealthy extremes. “I’d feel guilty when I ate,” she says, acknowledging that she began calorie counting to ‘keep up’ with other fitness influencers. “Bingeing and purging became an easy way out. That was how my bulimia developed in the first lockdown – I wanted to be slim but also look as though I was having the same experience as everyone else on social media,” she says. “I was expected to be making all these cakes and goodies, but also have a flat stomach and work out for hours every day. I was holding myself to an impossible standard.” Narissa adds, “Having a ‘glow-up’ masked itself under the umbrella term of ‘self-care’ – but looking back, it was so toxic.”

And this story is not one case. There are many of them, but most people are not concerned about them. They see this trend as something positive, as we all should work on ourselves to become better.  Let’s turn back to the article from UK Vogue. Dr 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. This trend is damaging to many women because it pushes people to 'get’ this ideal body type, which isn’t always attainable. It may seem harmless since it looks like it’s about self-improvement. But it isn’t. This trend is unsafe since women are already forced to deal with society’s fatphobia and disgust for marginalized bodies.

The cost of glow-up


For most people who live 'normal’ lives and earn an average salary, extreme transformations are near impossible to achieve. Maintaining a 'perfect’ look costs a lot of money and time that most of us simply don’t have. We can’t afford braces, surgery or top-of-the-range cosmetics because all our money goes towards university funds. We don’t have the money to spend on personal trainers, nutritionists and beauticians because we’re saving up for a car, a house, etc. And we don’t have enough time to be at the gym 24/7 or take hours trying to figure out which hairstyle suits us best, because we have to work. 

That’s the problem. The Glow Up culture focuses TOO much on physical beauty rather than just loving who you are. Instead, we feel pressured to find what we hate about ourselves, looking at our bodies as if we are ugly. A glow-up is supposed to include becoming the best version of ourselves in ALL aspects of our lives which includes the mind, body and soul. A glow-up is not going from having a ton of acne and frizzy hair to looking like a top celebrity. We need to stop having these unrealistic beauty standards.

Let’s turn back to the article in Cosmopolitan. “The fast nature of glow-up videos is a risk,” clinical psychologist Dr Marianne Trent says. “They can lead to people taking unhealthy approaches, googling things like ‘how to lose weight quickly’. Seeing repeated clips where people are looking preened and perfect can impact even the most robust of minds.”

Glow up on your terms


Glowing up is more of a life-long process where we strive to improve our lives over time. You may have heard people trying to glow up before the end of the pandemic and rush to do so. That process should not be rushed and you should take your time at the best pace for you. How we look is merely one small facet of who we are; looking and feeling attractive should not be the gatekeepers to our happiness. Instead, we need a full societal shift away from beauty being indicative of someone’s worth. Our appearances may change over time, but our value as human beings will not.

There are other types of glow-ups that people miss out on. For example, financial when you learn how to budget, save for emergencies and your retirement, investing, and becoming financially independent or mental glow-up during which you overcome toxic mental issues, address childhood trauma and get help from a therapist or educational glow-up when you get the degree you really want or enrol in professional certificate programs.