The first time I remember being disappointed with my appearance, I was five years old. There was a large, full-length mirror on the inside of our coat closet in the house my family lived in at the time. For some reason, at this age I would often forget what I looked like. As I attempted to conjure the image in my head, picturing myself being observed from the outside, I went to the coat closet mirror to see how closely my real appearance matched my imagined one. As I examined my tiny face in the mirror, a mouth full of baby teeth that still couldn’t pronounce ‘th’ sounds, I felt a crushing sense of disappointment that the girl in the mirror was uglier than the girl in my head. I shut the door and returned to my Barbies.
My relationship with my physical appearance didn’t get easier overtime. In sixth grade I was allowed to start wearing makeup and shaving my legs — I hadn’t considered begging my mom to do the second part until I was made fun of for having hairy legs at age 11 by another girl and wore jeans the rest of the year. Those new freedoms combined with my newly acquired babysitting certificate made me feel invincible, grown-up, and for the first time ever: pretty.
Like many women, I can recognize the various phases of my life through the way my makeup looked. Clumpy Covergirl Lash Blast Mascara and the scent of cucumber melon Nair signifies sixth grade while eyeliner taking up space in my waterline screams seventh grade. Winged eyeliner became popular while I was a sophomore in high school, and while I never did learn how to contour my face, I can still pinpoint which pictures took place during my junior year of high school by noting my matte liquid lipstick. A desperate quest for beauty has left my past self trapped in a timeline of insecurity, chasing down every trend that could possibly get me complimented as soon as it appeared. Months and years of my life have been wasted by feeling ugly in the moment, then even more was wasted looking back on those times and wishing I still looked as I had rather than how I looked now. More than anything, I was always desperate to like the way I looked, or to finally look the way I could like.
Enter: fourth-wave feminism.
I learned about feminism around 2012, the same time the fourth wave of feminism began. I was 14 years old, an avid Tumblr user, and feminism had started to become destigmatized for my generation via the social media platform. Popular feminism at this time has today been rightfully summarized as “eyeliner so sharp it could kill a man” feminism. Rather than the popular idea of feminists as bra-burning, makeup-hating, masculine man-haters, today’s feminist weaponized her beauty and femininity in order to get what she wanted. The feminist of 2012 did makeup for herself, actually, thank you very much, and if she just so happened to only feel pretty while wearing it, that was just a coincidence! Not only that, it was empowering. Rather than attempt to truly change the status quo when it came to beauty, fourth wave feminism instead just attempted to repackage it all as empowerment. Looking pretty is empowering because you do it for yourself, it doesn’t matter that what is considered pretty plays directly into patriarchal ideals. This trend of look pretty feminism has only continued as the years went on, but in the mid 2010’s, a new component was added to the conversation around beauty: the Glow Up.
When looking at Google trends, it appears that the searches for either ‘Glow Up’ or ‘Glo Up’ began rising in 2013, then spiked and peaked in 2016. The term could be traced to Chief Keef’s song “Gotta Glo Up One Day” from 2013, where the term “glo up” refers to acquiring a lot of wealth. It’s not the phrase I have a problem with, it’s the way that terms like these tend to mutate and be reappropriated to reinforce beauty standards.
For me, having a Glow Up (or Glo Up) is most notably linked in my mind to a period on Instagram and Twitter where mostly women would post pictures of themselves in elementary and middle school compared to a picture of them now, either in high school or even older and most often wearing a full face of makeup. The Glow Up posts existed as a message that this woman has made a great accomplishment by finally being attractive, and by working hard to attain this attractiveness. These were often accompanied by phrases about learning to do makeup, or thanking god for her Glow Up since she was so embarrassed by looking like a 12 year old at age 12. While ‘Glow Up’ was not feminist terminology by any means, its popularity amongst young women who would consider themselves feminists was made entirely possible by fourth-wave feminism’s obsession with beauty as empowerment. For women, their beauty was being further tied to their morality, showing whether or not they were a good person. You Glowed Up because you deserved it! External beauty indicated internal beauty, as simply as if it were a Disney movie. If Snow White had been made in 2016, the Evil Queen would have eventually Glowed Up into Snow White by purchasing a Kylie Lipkit and learning the phrase “that’s the tweet.”
Eventually, the Glow Up was being noticed in others beyond the self and women began to apply the term to anyone they saw fit. Most often, these were female celebrities whose Glowing Up process was entirely done via extremely expensive procedures, makeup no one else could afford and the best skincare money could buy. Again, the morality of these celebrities was tied to their miraculous beauty. “This is how you age when you’re unproblematic” reads thousands upon thousands of tweets regarding anyone from Anne Hathaway to Jennifer Lopez. Now, there is some pushback against these sorts of tweets. With class consciousness in vogue, most of this pushback amounts to what I said above: this is how you age when you’re ridiculously wealthy and can afford procedures no one else can. However, this pushback feels less as if people are arguing that it is alright to age, and more as though they are insisting their aging is excusable. Still, people are pushing preventative botox and anti-aging creams to teenagers on TikTok as if it is their moral duty, and the Glow Up trend has found a new life on that app as well.
Lately, I have not seen people refer to this transition from awkward middle school pictures to flawless edited selfies as a Glow Up, but I have seen the exact same culture surrounding young girls on TikTok. They will post several pictures of themselves in their most awkward state — which, of course, just means looking like the child they were — then follow it up with a video of them lip syncing to whatever song is most popular with this trend at the moment, showing off their now perfectly manicured appearance. Beyond this, trends happen over and over of girls making fun of the way they used to do their makeup, or the way that other girls tend to do their makeup. In the winter, girls would do their makeup like a Republican while playing the song “God Made Girls.” Frequently, trends will arise where women make fun of the way they would do their makeup during childhood and adolescence. All of this, while meant to be in good fun, fulfills several purposes: communicating that there is one morally correct way to be beautiful and if you do not fulfill it, you should be socially punished, and if you catch yourself failing to be beautiful or have ever in your life not fulfilled your purpose of being beautiful, you should punish yourself publicly.
I remember looking at pictures of myself in middle school around the time of the height of the Glow Up popularity. I was 17, and embarrassed to have ever been caught not performing beauty. There shouldn’t have been proof that that vulnerable girl with twig legs and frizzy hair ever existed, unless I was comparing her to the winged eyeliner donning, matte lipstick wearing girl that I was now. An empowered girl, who knew I was better than her because of my ability to look how I was told to look but for myself. But at that time, I thought that girl was unattractive too. It wasn’t until a year or two ago that I looked at a photo from that time and thought it was the prettiest I’ve ever looked. And now, looking back at the girl who thought that, I wish I were her.
Participating in showing off my Glow Up only makes me look that younger, more sensitive version of myself who considered herself ugly in the eyes and tell her she was right. She should have been ashamed to exist in her body and dare to be seen doing it. It only makes me look inward, never freeing the little girl inside of me who still wants to look in the mirror and see a pretty face staring back at her. Still, the mirror is home to the ugly girl I felt I was at 5, 9, 13, 18. Now, it is also home to the aging face I have despite the goodness I feel I possess, and a woman I am sure I will look back on in several years and wish to be again despite wanting nothing to do with her now.
However, placating my past self by insisting that she is beautiful only keeps me in this cycle forever. Younger versions of myself will always exist inside of me like Russian nesting dolls, waiting to find out whose beauty will be validated next. I cannot keep the young girl inside of me tethered down with the promise of one day being pretty any longer, and I cannot keep the future versions of myself stranded on pedestals in the hopes they will one day be pretty. All there is left to do is let go of my past self, let her know she did enough. Let my future self know she will do enough. All I can do is age and be good.