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Are TikTok 'Glow Up' And 'That Girl' Videos Bad For Our Mental Health? An Investigation

Turns out, becoming 'That Girl' can be really bad for your health.
Is The Glow-Up And That Girl Trend Dangerous
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I pore through a selection of selfies on my battered iPhone 8; a vignette of nights out whirls past me. Snapshots of last summer and pouty pictures at parties stare back at me, my forehead lines as I debate which photos to upload.

I’m not particularly bothered about what strangers on the internet have to say about me (as a tabloid journalist of six years I've had to grow a thick skin), but as I hit "publish" on a selection of snaps for Reddit’s "am I ugly?" forum–a virtual lion’s den where people post pictures of themselves online, allowing for deeply personal and cruel critique from strangers–I feel nausea claw at my stomach.

While it may seem brave (or foolish) to risk your pride by encouraging faceless Redditors to rate you out of 10, it’s something that many are diving into headfirst: around 240,000 users have asked strangers how to be better looking since the page’s inception in the 2010s.

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Seeking validation for our appearance isn’t just relegated to masochists on forums though, nor is it new–but it seems that in 2022, something has shifted and we're more desperate to have a "glow-up" than ever before–the idea being the better looking you are, the more charmed a life you'll lead. Case in point? TikTok has a bewildering 44.5 billion videos tagged under the term ‘glow-up’, with girls as young as 13 posting clips of themselves sincerely asking how to be prettier.

While "glow-up" was once charmingly defined on Urban Dictionary as "when someone who was ugly is now cute," it seems the notion of having a transformation has evolved and has taken on a far more insidious, wider-reaching meaning.

So, when does an interest in self-improvement tip over into a pathological obsession–and what happens when our entire belief system hinges on the way we (or our lives as a whole) look?

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"Glow-ups are seen as self care, but it was so toxic"

It was the first lockdown that saw Narissa struggle the most. The 23-year-old from York spent the early weeks of the pandemic alone; turning to Instagram and TikTok to fill the void, which soon saw her mental health decline.

“People were talking about using lockdown to ‘glow-up’,” she explains, recalling videos that showed people boasting about doing as many as three workouts a day. “I decided: ‘Okay, I’m going to do home workouts every day, too.’”

But Narissa, who previously suffered from an eating disorder as a teenager, found she was quickly pushing herself to unhealthy extremes. “I’d feel guilty when I ate,” she says, acknowledging that she began calorie counting to ‘keep up’ with other fitness influencers, some of whom shared 'inspirational' What I Eat In A Day videos, too.

"I wanted to be slim but also look as though I was having the same experience as everyone else on social media"

Bingeing and purging became an easy way out. That was how my bulimia developed in the first lockdown–I wanted to be slim but also look as though I was having the same experience as everyone else on social media,” she says. “I was expected to be making all these cakes and goodies, but also have a flat stomach and work out for hours every day. I was holding myself to an impossible standard.”

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Narissa adds, “Having a ‘glow-up’ masked itself under the umbrella term of ‘self care’–but looking back, it was so toxic.”

After a friend moved in with her, Narissa could no longer hide her habits and realized she needed to seek professional help. When she could eventually return to her family in Malaysia, she received treatment and has now curated her Instagram feed to ensure she no longer sees potentially triggering content. But many others still find themselves still caught up in the toxic glow-up cycle.

Our inability to treat the growing number of people suffering from their mental health has only worsened in the last two years too; a study by YoungMinds found 80 percent of respondents agreed the pandemic had made their mental health worse, with 41 percent noting a significant decline in their mental health in lockdown–meaning, we're now more susceptible than ever to the darker sides of glow-up culture. When professional support isn't there, but a steady stream of TikTok videos promising to make you feel better, healthier and happier are... it's hard to ignore them.

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The sheen social media puts on transformations also glosses over the realities and effort it actually takes to “glow-up”, according to Ruth Micallef, a BACP counsellor who specialises in body issues.

“[Modern day] glow-ups are a progression of the Hollywood trope we saw in the 90s and the 00s, where the main character has a speedy montage makeover,” she says. “Now we’re seeing young people go through these transformations on a wider scale: veneers, surgery, fillers and clothes [all condensed into 60 seconds or less], making them seem more accessible when they’re really privilege in action.”

"We’re told beauty equals goodness and likeability"

However, it’s too simplistic to blame all of our insecurities on celebrities and social media, given that Reddit’s r/amiugly page long outdates the boom of TikTok and Instagram.

After a particularly rough day at college, 19-year-old Ally Hall needed a pick-me-up: but posting a sexy Instagram pic wasn’t going to cut the mustard. Instead, she selected five photos of herself, and sent them to Reddit’s appearance-appraisal bear pit.

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“I was feeling bad about myself,” Ally, from South Carolina, explains to me over Reddit’s instant chat feature. “I wanted to know how others perceived my attractiveness in an honest setting and I knew I could get that here.” She believes glow-ups are now so popular as attractive people have pretty privilege, also known as the halo effect” - a cognitive bias in which we associate a person’s attractiveness with other positive traits.

“Pretty privilege is 100 percent real,” Ally says. “Women recognize the negative impact in the pressure to ‘glow-up’ but it’s so ingrained into our culture that if you consume any media, you're subconsciously told you won't be worth a second look if you’re not cookie-cutter beautiful.”

Micallef believes the hugely popular "That Girl" trend–which goes beyond looks and perpetuates an ostentatious notion of an "ideal" and "balanced" lifestyle for women–ironically only amplifies insecurities.

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“The ‘That Girl’ trend promotes an unhealthy standard, it’s the behavior of a perfectionistic over controller and implies that if you behave in this manner, you will be popular and healthy and loved.” She adds that it’s “not sustainable to wake up at 6 a.m. every day and run 10k. It’s performing perfection for the camera, and it’s dangerous.”

“The fast nature of glow-up videos are a risk,” clinical psychologist Dr. Marianne Trent agrees. “They can lead to people taking unhealthy approaches, googling things like ‘how to lose weight quickly’. Seeing repeated clips where people are looking preened and perfect can impact even the most robust of minds.”

And while exposing yourself to a furious crowd of anonymous commentators may not be the boost your self-esteem may be craving, Ally actually appreciated the feedback.

“I've gotten a lot of people DMing me personally with a more in-depth review of what they think, which is nice,” she explains, adding her baby face features are what people focus on, with tips on how to accentuate or mature them. “I do find it helpful for strangers to give their opinion for the same reason people choose to cyberbully; they'll never see me again. There's nothing tying them to their comment, so they can be as blunt as they like.”

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"Traditionally attractive people are more likely to be high earners, have more friends and generally be given better opportunities"

While we’re taught it’s the inside that counts from a young age, the halo effect is linked to studies showing that traditionally attractive people are more likely to be high earners, have more friends, and generally be given more opportunities. And on the topic of money, Micallef confirms that the ability to have a glow-up is overwhelmingly tied to wealth–both in terms of cash, but also in being time-rich.

It’s easy for influencers such as Molly-Mae to assert that we all have the same "24 hours in a day as Beyonce", but we certainly don’t all have the same resources or support, be that a glam squad or people who can take chores or work off our hands, in order to free up more time to focus on aesthetics.

“Social media puts the privileged one percent [on a platform], but we typically don’t have access to their influencer lifestyle,” Micallef says. “If we look at people like Kylie Jenner, she has a whole team to make her look like her. Historically, people who haven’t performed prettiness have been ostracized. Over time, society has told us beauty equals goodness and likeability.”

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So, where do I fall on the beauty scale? Should I be embarking on a glow-up journey of my own in order to get ahead in life? With my iPhone in hand, I carefully select pictures to upload to r/amiugly, overcome by morbid curiosity about the comments I might receive in response.

Whilst I've now reached the point where I like to think I'm hardened and genuinely don't care about my looks – thanks to bitchy DMs, years of Tinder rejections, and even random men calling me ugly in the street – things weren't always that way. As a teenager, I was deeply insecure about my appearance, and a flutter of those feelings wash right back over me as my finger hovers above the 'post' button. I still don't even have a proper Instagram account, so this is quite a break from the norm for me.

I upload with trepidation, captioning my snaps with false cheer: "Just curious! Apols for the poor lighting in the last photo lol."

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When I dare to check back hours later, not all the comments are particularly kind. My "‘chubby cheeks" come under fire, while someone helpfully observes that I’m not ugly but there’s "definitely some crazy in them eyes" [sic]. Meanwhile, a third person seems personally incensed by my face, saying I was "everything wrong with the internet."

Throwing my phone across the room, I sit at my dressing table and use the palms of my hands to pin back my full, fleshy cheeks until I see a suggestion of cheekbone. My mind begins to race. Should I think about losing a couple of pounds to slim out my face? Start doing my makeup so that my eyes look smaller and less bulging? Is my appearance really the deciding factor when it comes to making friends, getting a job, and determining my overall happiness?

But as I continue scrolling through the reams of remarks, many of which innocently just suggest a different hair color or a pair of contact lenses may improve my appearance, it dawns on me just how stupid–and subjective–this all is.

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One person says I "could" be a 10 if I restyled my hair to include a sharp, choppy fringe, while a second disagreed, saying I should make like Megan Fox and dye my hair a dark chocolate brown. Another Redditor chastises me for my makeup, saying I should make more of my large eyes–while another said I should leave my "bug-eyes" bare, and focus on my lips to balance out my features.

In reality, I could meticulously follow all the makeup tutorials and glow-up tips in the world, and there would still be large swathes of people falling over themselves to tell me what I need to change about my appearance. Wouldn't it just be easier to embrace, or try to accept, what's already there?

Disengaging with and dismantling the rigid beauty standards that so many of us are chained to isn't an overnight process, but there are signs that things are changing for the better. Micallef points toward celebrities such as Lizzo, Winnie Harlow, and Ashley Graham, and brands like Rihanna's Fenty, who rebel against and promote a range of broader range of "ideals."

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“While there needs to be significant changes to society before norms are entirely overhauled, it doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen,” the counselor says. “But it’s up to us whether we become part of the bigger change or not.”

After having my looks appraised by hundreds of strangers on an internet forum, I’m now making more of an active effort to encourage others to practice body neutrality: where we stop ascribing any value to our bodies and see them merely as vessels that allow us to live – because, really, that’s all they are.

How we look is merely one small facet of who we are; looking and feeling attractive should not be the gatekeepers to our happiness. Instead, we need a full societal shift away from beauty being indicative of someone’s worth. Our appearances may change over time, but our value as human beings will not.

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STRUGGLING WITH YOUR SOCIALS?

The online world exposes us to the imagery that can perpetuate unrealistic body types, which can cause difficulties for people experiencing eating problems or issues around body image, says Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at mental health charity Mind.

“While low self-esteem isn’t a mental health problem, the two are closely linked. Having a mental health problem can affect your self-esteem, and low self-esteem could contribute to depression or other mental health problems, so it is vital to use social media safely.”

If you’re finding it hard to take a break from social media, try the following:

  • Switch on your device’s "do not disturb" mode so you won't receive notifications from apps, text messages, or phone calls.
  • Use an app that helps you monitor and restrict your app use.
  • Put your devices in another room or somewhere else out of sight.
  • Switch off your devices for a while, so you aren't tempted to check-in online.
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READ MORE STORIES ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH

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Pinays Share Their Best Tips On Keeping Your Mental Health In Check

How Wearing Makeup During Quarantine Helps My Mental Health

I Let Go Of Some Beauty Habits During Quarantine—And That's Okay

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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com/uk. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.

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