Typing the term ‘glow up’ into YouTube draws up results that are primarily young women teaching a female audience how to physically improve themselves. They promise to teach you how to actually do it this time, for the new year, for Summer, for school, to make your ex jealous, on a budget, at home, in twenty-four hours. Most attempt to incorporate positivity culture into their transformation guides, assuring you that as you become more beautiful you can simultaneously become more confident, lovable, and happy. They attempt to distance themselves from the crude, sometimes misogynistic beauty advice of the noughties and earlier by positioning themselves as caring older sisters, doling out tough love and beauty secrets. However, they all share an aesthetic focus that suggests everything sums up to the physical. To transform yourself, then, begins from the outside in and not the inside out. But what happens to the past self, the uglier, younger self, that you leave behind? 

Glow up content makes use of the before-and-after format, where creators showcase their past ‘ugly’ selves and the steps taken to achieve their shiny new selves. This process is documented over years, months, days, or mere hours. The rhetoric is of transformation and reinvention. It empowers its audience with the idea of autonomy to shape one’s self. Everyone can become beautiful. The idea is compelling, and regularly portrayed in film (think The Devil Wears Prada or Clueless ) and even ‘Halfway Hall’ categories. But what does it do to the idea of self? It seems to suggest that you can only start living, enjoying being truly seen by others, at the point of beauty. 

There’s nothing new about the idea of transforming one’s physical appearance for the better. Beauty manuals were popular as early as 1873 – in an anonymous guide titled Beauty, What It Is and How To Retain It, women were instructed on how to finally achieve that coveted state of being beautiful. This Victorian manual, credited to ‘A Lady’, positions itself not dissimilarly from the influencers who softly croon beauty secrets while crouched on their bedroom floors. ‘A Lady’ encourages forty minutes of hair brushing per day, thorough cleaning of the face, and minimal makeup. The cosmetic products she recommends are household ingredients – rather than the reams of beauty products linked in the descriptions of glow-up videos. But the message of her book is in keeping with modern-day beauty advice. Become shamelessly beautiful. To cultivate and keep beauty is to arm oneself with real power in the world. 

The creators of beauty transformation advice are not total liars. They probably have good intentions, for the most part. There are beauty practices, products, and procedures that will make you more conventionally attractive. It’s proven that we treat attractive people better, especially on first impressions. We assume they are nicer, more honest, more intelligent, and more successful. It’s part of what psychologist Edward L. Thorndike termed the ‘halo effect’, a socialised cognitive bias that regularly causes humans to make errors in judgement. There’s even evidence to suggest that physically attractive people – likely due to their greater confidence – are better paid. So, beauty does translate into real-world power or ‘cultural capital’, whether we want to admit it or not. But the endless pursuit of beauty, and the emphasis on retaining it, can be exhausting, dangerous, and sometimes predatory. 

The ‘glow up’ video content of today seems to react to movements of body positivity and body neutrality popularised in the 2010s. These ideologies encourage us to let go of the idea that certain bodies have more value or desirability than others, or that there can be anything ‘wrong’ or ‘ugly’ in your body at all. These videos push back against that, taking a stance of brutal honesty in their titles. Eleven Habits That Are Slowly Making You Ugly. Bye To The Winter Uglies. Or, simply, how to become more beautiful. There is a clear dichotomy between ugly and beautiful, even if the creators begin their videos with nullifying disclaimers that this is just their opinion and we are all beautiful, beauty comes from within and you don’t even have to watch. Beyond creating definitions of beauty – as much as they might deny it – these videos also encourage obsessive and paranoid thinking patterns. The first title suggests that we have ‘ugly’ habits, insidious unconscious actions that need to be meticulously checked for, eliminated and replaced with beautifying ones. Touching your face with your hands, drinking from a traditional straw, sleeping on one side of your face and causing facial asymmetry (god forbid), and smiling have all been scandalised in recent years. Regardless of whether there is any truth in the effects of these normal habitual behaviours, the constant self-monitoring and mental rewiring that beauty media encourages is harmful. It only becomes more insidious when you remember that there is always profit to be made off of insecurities. Plastic surgeries and non-surgical ‘quick fixes’ have become normalised in modern culture, and positivity culture tells us that anything that makes you happy is good. But when numerous popular procedures like buccal fat removal, facial fillers, and body fat transfers are being exposed for their potential harm and even carcinogenic potential, the lens of positivity begins to falter. 

Despite this, I still think there is value in caring for, and even ornamenting, the body. It’s something humans have done since the earliest days of our history. We have always painted, dotted, scarred, and striped ourselves, to reflect our social roles or our coming of age. Are modern routines of beauty simply natural practices corrupted by capitalism? The process of doing my own makeup has meditative aspects, I think. My hands have memorised the hollows and contours of my face – I’m rarely cognisant of the steps. A cynical reader might see this as a compulsive and performative beautifying practice which has become subconsciously embedded in my mind. But I think I find it as a way of checking in with myself, of remembering my body. Thinking of the body neither as a detached surface nor as the core of my being. Self-grooming can be part of a healthy ego and self-awareness without deteriorating into the paranoid and constantly changing beautification processes of modern online culture. Recently, I saw a post compiling images of women all over the world braiding, twisting, and decorating each other’s hair. The photographs speak of women’s laughter, of the love of mothers and grandmothers and sisters. I love them. I wonder why those beautifying practices are so obviously nurturing when done by others but reduced to vanity and harmful comparison when done for the self. 

I want to believe that to decorate and embellish the body can be an act of care, an act of love.