The end of one year and the beginning of a new one inevitably means an uptick in the amount of toxic marketing around people losing weight, clearing their acne, and–more broadly–being made over into a “better” version of themselves. In this piece, MEDIAGIRLS Editorial Intern Melody Tuan explores why the “makeover myth” in mainstream media and “glow up” culture on social media are so toxic for women and girls and why we should reject the false ideals promoted by these tropes.
Time and time again, we are told girls are merely caterpillars, small and insignificant until the final stage of metamorphosis—the makeover. It is only after the makeover that women become worthy of admiration and respect—after they have been transformed into beautiful butterflies, strikingly alluring, yet delicate.
The idea of “the makeover” in media is a myth rooted in a very specific, performative kind of femininity, based solely on outer appearance, designed to impress men (think about all of those male leads in the movies who don’t think twice about the average girl until she undergoes an external transformation). Women are only valued in accordance to their physical appearance and demeanor: they must be beautiful and demure in order to have significance.
In mainstream media, conventionally attractive actresses are “made-under” to be disguised in the role of an ordinary or “unattractive” woman. After the makeover, the protagonist is awarded with popularity, wealth, and love from the male gaze, but the protagonist’s transformation into a woman of value is only a reinstatement of the glamour and celebrity status of the actress.
Take, for instance, Mia Thermopolis (portrayed by Anne Hathaway) in the cult classic Princess Diaries. Initially, Mia is just a gawky teenage girl with a head full of thick, unruly hair. But, in order to step into her royal duties as Princess of Genovia, she must become more than just an awkward teen: she must be made over. At the end of Mia’s extreme makeover montage, two photos shield her face before the final reveal. The photos showcase her “before” the makeover: thick frizzy hair and glasses and wearing a dumbfounded expression to emphasize the unattractiveness of her former self. Behind the photos, the new Mia appears sitting prettily with a smile on her face. Her hair has been straightened and she is wearing makeup—the metamorphosis from ugly teenage girl to beautiful princess is complete.
Mia’s makeover is only one in a sea of thousands; the trope of the makeover is timeless, spanning many popular films and TV shows: Cinderella, Maid in Manhattan, The House Bunny, Mean Girls, Insatiable, and the list goes on.
While makeovers are a loved aspect in campy comedies, this trope exists all over social media, too. Current trends such as the “How it started/how it’s going,” “glowing up in 24 hours,” and the 10-year challenge are social media incarnations of our love for makeovers. These challenges showcase side-by-side comparisons of what someone used to look like, and how they look now—typically more traditionally attractive. The use of the challenge is divided; some use the challenges for humorous or satirical purposes, while others use it to show off their makeover–or as it is often referred to on social media–“glow up.”
Glow-up culture on social media has taken on an emotional element–in order to feel good, you have to look good–especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Thumbnail from the YouTube video EXTREME 24 HOUR QUARANTINE GLOW UP TRANSFORMATION (affordable at home) by maiphammy)
For celebrities and social media influencers, their glow-up posts often show them living luxuriously and aging flawlessly, with little evidence of the passage of time. It’s important to remember that outside of celebrity and influencer circles, this isn’t normal. Celebrities and well-known influencers can afford to age flawlessly and continuously be “made over” year after year with the help of personal trainers, stylists, professional photographers and lighting, and skilled makeup artists. Furthermore, the depiction of the makeover on social media is often deceitful in nature. Celebrities and influencers often hide the truth about any cosmetic procedures or photo editing they may have utilized to allow for their “makeover” or “glow up.”
Celebrities use social media trends such as the 10-year challenge to showcase how time has had no effect on them.
(Photo from @jlo’s Instagram account)
The “makeover” or “glow up” trope reveals society’s obsession with the omnipotence that comes with beauty after a makeover. The measure of feminine success is dependent on a woman’s ability to attract attention, and in order to attract attention, she must be beautiful. Thus, the makeover is a necessary stepping stone to attaining power and value.
Makeovers also underscore the idealism of consumer capitalism. Advertisers say to girls and women that if you buy a beauty product, you can buy beauty, and because you have bought beauty you have also bought self-worth. The result is that girls and women rely on products to become their idealized selves rather than being confident in their own skin and with their own inherent self-worth.
A narrative of transformation can be empowering because we are all constantly evolving and changing, but we don’t have to have a physical “glow up” to be considered worthy as individuals. Success should not be dependent on our adherence to beauty standards. As the MEDIAGIRLS slogan states—“Media, not girls, needs a makeover.”
MEDIAGIRLS programming is all about getting girls and young women to reject the false ideals that both social and mainstream media sells us, particularly around our physical appearance and our self-worth. For more information about our programming, go to https://mediagirls.org/learn-more/.
Melody Tuan is an undergraduate student at Simmons University majoring in English writing and minoring in Asian studies and Art. She’s an international student from Taiwan who loves rummaging night markets and devouring street food. Deeply inspired by cultural studies and creative expression, she writes with curiosity about identity and media influence.