Illustration by Beth Nicol
Like many others, I too am guilty of succumbing to the mindset that it is somehow my duty to ‘better’ myself during quarantine. I’ve started self-teaching myself a new language, come up with a killer exercise routine and used up all my Cult Beauty coupon codes. Although at first glance this does not necessarily seem unhealthy, I have had to ask myself whether I am genuinely doing this for my own benefit or simply to show people (once we’re done with social distancing, that is) how amazing I’m doing. In many respects, ‘glowing-up’ is a bit of a humblebrag. But what of those who simply cannot afford this luxury? We need to take a look into the double-edged sword that is ‘glow-up’ culture and suggest alternatives to the toxicity currently plaguing the net.
Society has been obsessed with self-improvement for a very long time – from ABC’s Extreme Makeover and TLC’s What Not to Wear to Netflix’s Queer Eye, this genre of programming dominated the new millennium. Ordinary people with average jobs would apply to be on these shows, and with the help of money granted by production companies, the makeover teams would ‘change that person’s life.’ One might argue that part of the appeal is that, sadistically, we like watching the plights of those who are worse off than us because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Few can say that they’ve never laughed at a bad picture of somebody else. Another reason might be due to a sense of hope that these shows grant us; hope that we can change and become better versions of ourselves. It is precisely from this that today’s toxic transformation culture was born.
‘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 (read: unattractive) juxtaposed with the current day. As a video genre, they started to gain traction on YouTube in 2018-19. These videos usually feature a common structure: a hair transformation (which can involve going to an expensive hairdresser for a new cut and/or colour), a skincare routine featuring at least three or four expensive products, eyelash extensions, fake nails, a few new outfits, a healthy dish or two, and an impressive amount of makeup. They are also predominantly produced by young, middle/upper-class women.
At first, whilst people were certainly entertained by this content, they never dreamed of it being accessible to them. After all, very few people have access to a personal trainer or can feasibly afford to buy hundreds of dollars’ worth of groceries in one go. After some backlash, vloggers finally got the memo. Now, it’s common to see titles such as ‘$50 GLOW UP TRANSFORMATION (DIY)’ floating around in your recommendations, giving out tips on how to do all of this at home for cheap. This, however, functions on the presumption that everyone has time to spare. It’s incredibly tone-deaf in a time where key workers are at their jobs for up to twelve hours a day and could probably care less about anything other than sleeping and spending time with the other members of their household when they get home. It also presumes that everyone wants to change something about themselves. Let me ask you this: unless you were encouraged to make any changes to yourself, or told that it was a societal requirement, would you?
In addition to this, ‘glow-up’ transformations also fail to address an increasingly important sphere of life: the mental one. Very few of them feature somebody taking up a new trade or hobby, or doing something for themselves to benefit their mental wellbeing. The focus on perfecting only what we physically present to the world makes the assumption that even in 2020 we still only care about appearances. One of the main things we can do to better ourselves is to educate ourselves and others; be it on coping techniques or simply resources we can use when we’re struggling. It takes getting to breaking point for people to begin talking about their struggles in a candid, honest way. We see this with celebrities all the time, and online influencers are no exception. They create multitudes of transformational content for weeks, only to later end up posting a video or Instagram rant announcing their hiatus from social media as things have gotten too much. This isn’t their fault at all, but this could also easily be evaded by just being frank about the pressure to be perfect.
You might point out that face masks and regular yoga are, in some ways, forms of self-care – and I am not arguing otherwise. However, these actions are still surface-level at best. We do not see clips of influencers Skyping their therapists or taking their medication on time or making time to check in with their friends. The reason for this is that it’s not instantly validating. A physical change can be noticed and commented on immediately; mental changes need time and patience to work. Thus, nobody wants to share the sometimes painful process of actually growing up and changing for the better when they could get likes or views for dying their hair blonde. In effect, we’ve created a culture of narcissists.
Whilst it is okay to change, it is also okay to stay the same, if you are happy with who you are. We do not need to constantly ‘level’ ourselves up or improve ourselves, and putting pressure on us to do so is inherently unhealthy. What we need to do is foster a culture where people genuinely accept themselves for who they are, and amplify the voices of those who are not skinny, cis, white people. To truly ‘glow’ is to grow as a person, which we won’t do by envying people on the internet all day. And in order to grow, we have to do actions purely for ourselves, not for people to validate the new versions of us.
Written by Katja Kraljevic