When delving into the depths of pop-culture internet while writing this article, dictionary.com (I know, what a reliable source!) told me that glow-up is actually a play on the term grow up, something I hadn’t considered before despite adapting the new phrase into my vocabulary so seamlessly over the years. The term was popularised (maybe even have originated) by rapper Chief Keef in his 2013 song Gotta Glo Up One Day.
Now that we have the term’s linguistics done and dusted, let me show you what the general consensus on the meaning is:
The key things I’d like to highlight here, which will inherently be the main focus of this article, is the fact that “changes in appearance in style” carry the predominant meaning, confidence and maturity come secondary on an “often also” basis.
Through different social media trends, be it Twitter, Instagram or Tiktok, we’ve kind of begun transitioning from an online community which hides its ‘embarrassing’ old photos at all costs, to one which boasts it with the intention of offering it up as a point of comparison to their current self. The “before and after” or “started from the bottom now we’re here” phenomenon, if you will.
We’ve very much become a community obsessed with glow-ups, obsessed with noticeable changes, and constantly ‘bettering’ ourselves. While in theory all of this is very much a positive, I think we often (retrospectively) find ourselves in a position where we begin to attempt forcing these physical changes for the cherished external validation they bring. We begin incessantly trying to lose or gain weight, change our hair, change our style, change ourselves in order to prove that we’re somehow better than we were before, leaving behind a completely natural course of change.
A trend which floated around Tiktok during the second half of 2021, backed by an excerpt of Champagne Problems by Taylor Swift saw users showing their style transformations with the text caption “POV: You stopped dressing for the male gaze, and started dressing for yourself,” insinuating that their previous style was intended to adhere to the male gaze, versus their current style is somehow immune to it. Although a multitude of those videos gained the ‘viral’ status, soon some people started rightfully pointing out that the only real difference between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of these so-called glow-ups is the trendiness of the items worn. Sure, you may see 2009 fashions as outdated and passed, but your new trendy outfit isn’t breaking boundaries or shattering the glass ceiling. Basically, to make a long story short, the people in these videos wore what was trendy then and simply adjusted to what is considered trendy now, under the guise of rebellion against a societal system older than time itself.
This is precisely where the concept of the male gaze enters the conversation, and we may begin to question whether we’re really glowing up on a personal level, or constantly trying to force changes in order to adhere to the ever-shifting unspoken gaze, always trying to reach or fall within some standard, even if subconsciously. With the rise of ‘bimbo’ culture and Emily Ratakowski’s school of feminism, we’re left wondering- just because I say I’m doing it for myself, does it actually make it true? If I’m doing it for myself, then why does it still directly adhere to the patriarchal standards of beauty that have been imposed on women for centuries?
It’s almost as if we’ve come to a place where we mistake the adherence to these standards and this gaze as a glow-up- the more effort you put into your appearance, the more ‘yours’ it feels, and you think of it as liberation. When the true GLOW in the phrase glow-up will very much come on its own as you begin to find yourself and find your peace.