September is feeling slightly surreal as the reality of a new academic year finally approaches, which during all those months at home has long been a glimmer of impossibility. After being rather anticlimactically released from Easter term, students found themselves suspended in a rare, strange sense of potential: the instinct to maximise productivity wrangled with the novel ability to relax while there was still time. (I ended up doing neither, but killed a lot of time deciding.)

It seems that this chronic pressure — the hyperawareness of opportunity, potential, and possibility — has culminated into a heightened sense of expectation along the way. Ultimately, the expectation is that we’ll return to Cambridge as relatively different and, crucially, better, people than those who went home in March: perhaps in part due to #lockdownglowup — trending on TikTok with 500k+ views in high demand.

Ultimately, the expectation is that we’ll return to Cambridge as relatively different and, crucially, better, people than those who went home in March.

Of course, it should probably be acknowledged that TikTok users lack complete control over their For You pages. I’ve found that the app allows and encourages you to fixate on certain types of videos, as it monitors the types of videos that you not only actively interact with, but spend longer watching: ‘one of the strongest indicators of interest is whether a user finishes watching a longer video from the start to finish, which adds greater weight to the recommendation algorithm than other factors such as geolocation,’ TikTok says. It’s incredibly easy to unintentionally spiral into endless variations of ‘what I eat in a day to lose 2lb a week’ videos out of sheer boredom. The expression ‘glow up’ appears in hashtags beneath videos as such, as well as ‘my style before lockdown vs my style after lockdown’ and ‘my lockdown weight-loss journey.’


Mountain View

Social media: to give up or give in?

Individually, these videos are innocuous. They can be inspiring, or just weirdly addictive. Together though, they represent and reinforce a mass expectation to transfigure. Together with beauty companies and personal trainers commercialising the Lockdown Glow Up, it’s easy to see how the algorithm can become quickly unforgiving and necessitate change even in individuals with the most secure relationships with their bodies, or their image. Interspersed comfortingly throughout the For You page are people actively responding to these trends — ‘Miss Rona really gave me 6 months to glow up and I said no<3.’ This refreshing dialogue between TikToks may be reassuring enough to refrain from deleting the app, but it also shows that people are bearing with the negatives to enjoy the positives.

What does it really mean to glow up, anyway? Referring to the most reliable of sources, Urban Dictionary defines a ‘glow up’ as ‘a mental, physical and an emotional transformation for the better.’ This encompasses rounded aspects of an individual. Wiktionary similarly describes ‘a major and impressive transformation in appearance, talent, power, etc.’ and Collin’s Dictionary as becoming ‘more mature, confident, and attractive.’ But as people’s online lives are reduced down to the physical and aesthetically pleasing by the camera, personal achievements feel assessed accordingly. TikTok trends and lockdown vlogs have latched onto the physical element that only partially constitutes a ‘glow up’, at the expense of the other (arguably more valuable) aspects of the term. This creates unrealistic pressure to stride back into college bearing superficial Lockdown Achievements.

To be fair, the expectation has always been for time and personal progress to be positively correlated. In this way, ‘glowing up’ sounds linear and directional, and there’s even the suggestion of an unfortunate alternative glow-down (which I feel slightly called out by). But to apply this correlative relationship to lockdown leaves us at serious risk of slipping into a final month of self-criticism and regret towards ‘wasted time,’ before we’ve even suffered a DoS meeting. Finding an optimistic to-do list made back in April made me want to disintegrate on the spot — I couldn’t tick more than two boxes.

The assumption that lockdown has been the golden once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for any ‘glowing up’ at all is absurd; while these last few months often felt like a sigh of relief after the panic of Easter term, they’ve also been incredibly taxing, on a personal and societal level. The strange stasis of life at home was contradicted by distressing daily broadcasts, including the palpable uproar universally felt in response to the murder of George Floyd on the 25th of May. For some students, time at home will have been far from harmonious, and academic pressures simply replaced by different ones.

There’s time to wrest the concept of glowing up away from this narrow, superficial narrative, and reclaim it with our own definitions before term starts.

The media has managed to imbue lockdown with a transformative quality, as if it’s been precious time spent in a rejuvenating chrysalis, if you will. We’ve collectively arrived at the conclusion that we’ll begin October at our primarily physical, but also mental and emotional peaks. But there’s time to wrestle the concept of glowing up away from this narrow, superficial narrative, and reclaim it with our own definitions before term starts. Personal development doesn’t require bouts of empty time, nor does it have a deadline. Note your personal achievements in spite of everything, even if they’re small improvements in perspective or habits to take into next term. It might not be material for a flashy before-and-after-lockdown picture, but these changes deserve an equal sense of accomplishment, though they may feel overshadowed at the moment.

It’s completely plausible to feel worn down and exhausted, contrary to the pressure to re-enter society with an unrecognisable glow and perfect DIY bangs. Growth is a working progress that transcends perceived deadlines and superficial tweaks — even though it may not quite fit the cut to become a hashtag.