Opinion: Glow-Up Culture: Gorgeously Grotesque

Beauty. This word is quite the hot topic with discussions on body positivity, eurocentric beauty standards and lookism/“pretty privilege” making waves on the internet. Despite these conversations about expanding what we consider “beautiful” and making it more inclusive, there remains a major hurdle in affecting change: glow-up culture.


According to the source of premiere knowledge, Urban Dictionary, to “glow-up” or “glo-up” is “when someone goes from being ugly to smokin hawt.”. Granted, this is the third definition listed when perusing results for the term on the site, but I opted to include it as its emphasis on the purely physical represents the center focus in the larger discussion of “glowing up”. Certainly, as the second definition notes, one may glow up by recognizing their self-worth and not caring about the opinions of others. But as glow-up compilations like those on Youtube demonstrate, glowing up on social media is largely seen as a physical transformation. This great emphasis on physicality is precisely the problem.


Netizens (a user or “citizen” of the internet) who avidly consume glow-up content may grow to feel a sense of inadequacy, with questions like “when will my glow-up hit me?” or “why am I not beautiful?” arising. This gap between an idealized physical self versus the present reality of a person’s appearance may lead to “disappointed or discouraged emotions…which are dejection-related emotions that relate to depression” as suggested by self-discrepancy theory. This becomes more problematic when taking into account the fact that eating disorders often coexist with depression and that a fair amount of glow-up and “self improvement” tips found online promote disordered eating practices. In fact, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen says that through internal studies, Facebook determined that Instagram, an app chock full of influencer’s “glow'd up” posts, makes eating disorders worse. Haugen notes that this consumption of eating disorder content leads to consumers becoming “more and more depressed” and makes them “use the app more” to continue to view and seek similar content.


To play devil’s advocate, glowing up in the physical sense can occur in a healthy way. It can simply be a result of puberty or a healthy and balanced diet and exercise regimen. While that is perfectly fine, putting physical appearance on a pedestal above other things like mental health, social and financial stability, personality/character, relationships and overall happiness isn’t. To be clear, not every creator showcasing a physical transformation is attempting to elevate their appearance above all. In fact, there are creators who attribute their metamorphosis to things like escaping toxic relationships, taking care of their body in a healthy way or simply glowing up for themselves rather than to appeal to an ideal touted on social media. Comments that some of these creators receive are concerning though. Examples include, “see, this is why you should never bully people” or “this is why you should never treat people badly,” as if to imply that if the creator did not undergo physical transformation, ill treatment would be justified. Even worse, it implies that kind treatment is only deserved when a person meets the beauty standard or glows up.


This brings me to the “freshman 15.” The freshman 15 refers to the belief that “students gain 15 pounds during their freshman year.” This has been demonstrated to be false, as a study published by the National Institutes of Health observed an average gain of 2.7 lbs. My Google search about the freshman 15 also provided results on how to avoid or get rid of this weight gain. Conversations I have overheard on the issue similarly demonize it, and there is often a sort of shame emanating from those who claimed to have “fallen” to it. Here’s the thing: bodies change, grow and develop. The demonization of something all too common (and natural!) rubbed me the wrong way. It sends a clear message; change in a manner that deviates from societal ideals (despite the fact that this change can be healthy) is a big “no.”. The freshman 15 is part and parcel of the larger toxic glow-up culture.


However, as previously mentioned, there is some hope. The narrative surrounding beauty is slowly changing, and people are dismantling long-held beauty standards in favor of a more accepting and inclusive version of beauty. We can see this in music for instance, where songs like Beach Bunny’s “Prom Queen” and Lizzo’s “Juice” tackle the subject of beauty head on. Remembering that physical change is natural and healthy is important, and bringing up outdated ideas like the freshman 15 or glowing can often be more harmful than helpful.


If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health, suicidal thoughts or disordered eating, please reach out. Some mental health resources are listed below:


National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)


By Amal Heda, Contributing Writer

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