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The Quad: A quick quarantine ‘glow up’ may be both unachievable and unhealthy

(Warda Sahib/Daily Bruin)

By Danielle Pigeon

May 1, 2020 5:41 pm

Hot cinnamon water cleanses, 21-day beach body challenges and new multi-step skincare routines: We may be in a coronavirus pandemic, but that hasn’t stopped the “glow up” trend from once again going viral.

So much so, that the week in which California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued the “shelter in place” order the search question “how to glow up” peaked in its popularity on Google. On YouTube, the global average daily viewing of videos with titles containing the phrase “workout at home” has increased over 200% since March 15. And on TikTok, as of Friday the hashtag “#coronaglowup,” which began during this period of quarantine has more than 4.6 million views.

The term “glow up” emerged in the early 2010s as a play on the phrase “grow up,” and sparked a trend in the latter half of the decade of pitting a recent photo against an older one from adolescence to show off one’s positive physical transformation.

While at first “glow up” referred to holistic development (i.e. both mental and physical maturity), over the years, the phrase was narrowed to usually reference physical change. Now, the process of “glowing up” is a self-initiated one that typically entails weight loss, clearer skin and anything else that leads to appearance “improvement.”

Noelle Cho, a fourth-year business economics student, suggested that while “glowing up” began with a positive motive, it carries with it many negative cultural consequences.

“It was like a boost of self-confidence when most people start that (process),” Cho said. “But gradually it’s turning into a person pressuring themselves to conform to this ideal image of the beauty standards of society.”

Interestingly, it seems that the pressure to perfect one’s physical appearance hasn’t disappeared in times of self-quarantine, even when most of us aren’t seeing many people day-to-day.

Helen Zhong, a fourth-year gender studies and sociology student and co-director of UCLA’s Body Image Task Force linked this pressure for self-generated improvement to the desire for control in the midst of this anxiety-inducing time.

“It feels like a very easy thing to latch onto if you’re stuck at home with nothing to do, and things feel really overwhelming,” Zhong said. “Maybe people are kind of looking for a sense of control, and it’s a very common belief that your appearance or your weight or your body is something that you can control. … I think that that is kind of the dominant narrative.”

Similarly, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health adjunct professor, William J. McCarthy, further said that this idea of complete control of your outward appearance and inward emotional state is an illusion.

“What you think of as yourself is really a super-organism that indeed contains human cells, but it also contains a lot of stranger cells (called) microbial cells that are not human,” McCarthy said. “No one has total control, because we are dependent. We are interdependent with these microbes and in fact with our fellow humans.”

Clearly, some things about our bodies are not possible to change. But, “glow-up culture” also seems to encourage another impossible feat: expecting dramatic bodily transformations to occur over increasingly short periods of time.

The unrealistic expectation can be observed in the thousands of workout videos with such titles as “Intense Ab Workout (Flat Tummy in 1 WEEK) 5 minute Fat Burn” and “1 Week Flat Stomach Workout (Intense!).” These types of videos and extreme diet plans garner millions of views, but promise results that may be unattainable and feed into a culture of “fast” results.

Perhaps the greatest current example of this is the massively popular “2 Weeks Shred Challenge” created by Chloe Ting, a fitness YouTuber. In fact, just one video from the program, “Get Abs in 2 WEEKS,” has more than 75 million views, and the TikTok hashtag “#chloetingchallenge” that was inspired by the program has more than 87 million views.

However, McCarthy argues that these rapid physical changes are not the best way to approach improving one’s health.

“This (trend of “glowing up” is a) very natural human tendency to want to make good changes in a very short time,” McCarthy said. “And I understand where it comes from because people are frustrated, and they want an answer immediately. But that’s not the way Mother Nature works. She works slowly.”

The search for a quick transformation can lead to unhealthy weight control practices, including fasting and extreme caloric restriction, compensatory exercise and stimulant consumption, such as ephedrine and caffeine. These extreme “solutions” and rapid weight loss attempts are not only ultimately unsustainable but can damage one’s physical health.

Additionally, the cultural obsession with “glowing up” is a breeding ground for eating disorders, which can arise as a result of popular culture’s unrealistic beauty standards and peer pressure. In fact, the greatest environmental contributor to eating disorder development is the sociocultural idealization of thinness – the very thinness that is encouraged by “glow up” culture.

“It’s all good intentions at the beginning, like, ‘I’m trying to be fit, I’m trying to be healthy,'” Cho said. “But it’s so easy to go overboard because … you look in the mirror, and you see the difference and you see that, ‘Oh, I’m losing weight, I’m thinner, so I feel better about myself.’… People are trying to make their bodies fit into a cosmetic mold”

So then, what does well-being look like in this age of pressurized improvement?

“It’s important to keep in mind that you deserve all the things that everyone deserves,” Zhong said. “You deserve to eat and to take up space and to, you know, be happy. And you don’t need to … look a certain way to deserve those things.”

Self-improvement is good. Healthy choices are good. Physical activity and nutritious food have been proven over and over again to improve both mental and physical health – things which are especially crucial now.

“My two pieces of advice (for quarantine): 30 minutes of exercise a day, and make sure you feed your microbes well,” McCarthy said.

But, as Cho advised, it is important to not be swept away by the results of healthy actions rather than enjoying the process.

“Feel happy that you’re doing something exciting, instead of, ‘Oh, I need to work out because I sat in my room for however long staring at my Zoom lecture, so I need to burn this calorie off,'” Cho said.

With millions of people around the world confined to their homes, shelter-in-place creates a place for self-focus, and it might seem like a great idea to undergo a complete physical, mental and spiritual metamorphosis.

However, as Zhong suggested, this metamorphosis should not take priority.

“There’s so much talk about self-improvement during quarantine, and that’s not something that we owe to ourselves or to anyone,” Zhong said. “This is a pandemic, you know, it’s a global disaster basically. … We shouldn’t feel like we need to do anything except get through it.”

Not to worry, Bruins. The world is not going to fall apart if you don’t have abs in two weeks. It has enough to worry about at the moment.

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