Social Media Loves A Glow Up. This Author Says F-ck It

Author Sable Yong has a bone to pick with the beauty business. A former beauty editor and journalist, Yong has spent the past 12 years covering the trends, culture, and 400 billion-plus industry behind the beauty economy. But following the Covid-19 pandemic, she noticed something was changing about how people talked about attractiveness online

“There were very polarizing groupthink ideas,” Yong tells Rolling Stone. “A lot of it was either use femininity as a means to attain power that the patriarchy possesses, or reject beauty wholesale and don’t be a pawn to the system of oppression. It felt very, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. But for me, beauty can be hilarious. It’s so silly, so unserious. Like, we’re putting star stickers on our faces. Please, let’s be real.” 

It’s from this frustration, and the sudden influx of content surrounding our appearances from social media apps, that Yong was inspired to write her debut collection of essays, exploring why we can’t seem to stop posting, commenting, and yapping about the way we all look online. “Media is almost going back to the blog era and I’m seeing all of these really smart cultural critical analyses, especially when it has to do with beauty culture and girlhood. So I’m glad people are talking about this,” she says. “My hope is that my book and as well as all of these materials are just fuel to detach ourselves from standards and to really just be the freaks that we are.” 

In this excerpt from Die Hot With A Vengeance: Essays on Vanity, available now, the author unpacks how the beauty industry became a minefield of self-optimization, and why “glow-ups” don’t have to mean choosing to fall in line with everyone else. 


Becoming “your best self” feels like the modern mantra of being a person today. It’s one part self-competition and one part redemption arc. It’s also a widely encouraged goal for nearly everyone, at any point in their life, because what are you even doing if not striving to be your best self? Anytime I don’t feel like I’m in control of my own narrative, fucking with my appearance is usually a reliable first response to reclaim my physical self. When I look like a different person, I feel like a different person — someone more capable, formidable, perhaps even intimidating — and that’s always the feeling I’m after. The beast must be fed, by which I mean my ego and its sometimes inconvenient cravings for external validation — the mortar in between the bricks of my pride and resolve.

I know I’m not alone in this. I mean, that mentality of glowing up is baked into our culture. Just look at Hollywood and how makeovers are depicted as fun, glamorous, and an extremely successful fuel for a character arc. They were a very common cinematic device to show women stepping into the power afforded them by the culture that determines what power women are allowed to wield. Plus, makeover scenes always have the best soundtracks in movies, consecrating them into our impressionable little hearts and minds. She’s All That, Clueless, Grease, Miss Congeniality, The Princess Diaries, Cinderella, The Fly — all makeover canon from my youth. They taught me that all it takes to find true love (or become super popular and asked to prom) is removing your glasses, chopping your overgrown coif into a cute bob, dyeing it a cherry-cola red, cropping your tops, ditching the farmer clothes, and eliciting the help of a benevolent witch (or Larry Miller with a Mason Pearson hairbrush). The fluffy makeover plot device is great for convincing teens that all you have to do to stop being invisible and finally catch the attention of the guy — or many guys — is straighten your hair and trade your glasses for contacts. And then you can finally learn to love yourself . . . once you realize you were indeed hot the whole time.

Makeovers are simply a rite of passage for nearly anyone engaging in our appearance-based society. The gratification of a good makeover montage relies on the happily-ever-after images being a dramatic distance from the befores. The drama is required to reinforce empirical proof that anyone can be hot if they just try hard enough. We are always rooting for everyone’s secret hottie within, shrouded under a layer of bad clothes and excess body mass. It’s almost as though all you need is a charitable new high school friend to show you how hot you are on the inside, and subsequently how to manifest it on the outside. With all the abundantly consistent messaging of love, validation, and self-esteem earned in a post-makeover life, the glowup has become mythologized as a virtuous pursuit — the one thing that stands between you and Your Best Self™.

Courtesy of Sable Young

Glowing up is a softer and more vaguely optimistic rebrand for makeover madness. Glow-up culture may have similar intentions as revenge bod, except it’s not necessarily wielded as any specific form of damage control. Glowing up has no deadline. There is simply no end to how you can self-optimize in all parts of your life — professionally, romantically, personally, creatively. Extreme makeovers require a kind of capital that adds up and can also be costly to maintain. And their most recognizable blueprints are usually always the flashiest: expensive workout regimens, expensive salon visits, expensive new teeth, new wardrobe, aesthetic treatments — it’s so much lead-up to a “new me” that may appear shiny and renewed but doesn’t necessarily guarantee any sort of profound revelations. (Because and then what? AND THEN WHAT??)

In the words of Kacey Musgraves, healing doesn’t happen in a straight line. But some paths are better tread with thoughtful compassion for oneself rather than frantically glamorous flailing. The resources you’ll sink into chasing a transformation that finally feels complete can be a sunk-cost fallacy. Art may imitate life, and media can often be propaganda — usually when it’s in favor of antiquated cultural values that are increasingly unsustainable the more you invest in them. The empowerment you’re meant to gain from all this can easily become a scam when it conflates external validation as the proof of success. I am not immune to external validation, of course. But it does hit differently when it’s about something I’ve defined on my own terms. The empowerment rewards supposedly granted in your post-makeover and post-glow-up self is not without value. But again, it’s power gained by conforming to systems that also disenfranchise you by determining your self-worth by appearance.

Measuring how being yourself and how you prefer to look, against the existing messages about why something looks good (or doesn’t look good), introduces a lot of cognitive dissonance. The relevant truth that the patriarchy’s all-day menu of attractiveness hasn’t changed in centuries (thinness, femininity, youth) narrows your options between conventional standards and however much your personal authentic expression strays from them. If you haven’t defined the latter, it’s almost always easier to slide right back toward the first, impersonal though it may be. Beauty isn’t in the eye of the beholder so much as it is in the power of the beholder, which classically, historically, and boringly has been a male gaze. It sets the stakes by stoking tension between those who strive to extricate themselves from the ideals of beauty’s standards and those whose entire agenda involves embodying the shit out of them. It’s a very effective patriarchal device that validates beauty by devaluing other women’s appearances, establishing an automating system in which comparison and competition keep us all scrambling to outdo one another. A woman choosing bodily autonomy on her own terms is chaotic, beyond control, and unpredictable. And since controlling women is pretty much the entire job of the patriarchy, it’s a bit useless if it can’t do that. It’s useless even when it can. That the entire basis of makeovers, glowups, and revenge-bodding rests upon a well-established foundation of patriarchal lust, the idea that you can glow up out of it feels naive at best and self-defeating at worst.

But! It’s important to know that makeovers are not practices of self-hatred by nature. And changing yourself isn’t inherently self-betrayal. Sometimes we’ve outgrown certain styles or looks and want to be intentional to reflect who we truly are or who we want to be. I am fully a new person, year after year (every seven of which I fall into the trap of thinking bangs will work for me, when I have ample proof that they always annoy me). We’re constantly striving to evolve as people, and for better or worse, makeovers are about chasing transformation. More drastic transformations may promise greater rewards, but it’s not all that realistic to transform our bodies, minds, or habits overnight or within some ideal optimized schedule. You must be your own true north because you can’t underestimate how deep the hooks of many toxic beauty standards are sunk within your brain as you innocently believe something so simple as glowing up is without influence. Nobody glows up in a vacuum — the scripts are written far before you even make a go at it.

What does “pretty” even mean when it’s on your own terms? How can we even imagine a world devoid of a male gaze — it’s impossible to retroactively unknow. It’s something I always think about when doing my hair or makeup, deciding what looks “pretty” and why. Who am I dressing up for and what am I trying to communicate about myself? Not to say that loving yourself and your own appearance, even when they’re on someone else’s terms, is void of value, but it bears reminding that our choices aren’t without influence. It’s also important to remember that validation isn’t the same as peace or contentment, just like revenge is not satisfaction, and just like pain is not progress.

And yet of course, in the face of mortality’s anxieties — the external being the primary way we communicate with the world — it’s the external that gets the polish. I’m aware that I say this in my relative youth wherein I’m still in the age bracket appearing broadly desirable by some measure of conventional expectation. Glowing up can feel like a way of delaying the aging process. And since I am not yet reckoning with the cumulative angst of time and gravity in my late thirties, I default to relying on my excellent exterior to try and stake some guarantee of security against loneliness and abandonment. While we may all be loosely aware that there is no warranty or promise for those efforts to pan out, the cognitive dissonance often spurs many of us to plow further down the rabbit hole that beauty will save us, and as long as we possess it, we will have at least some immunity from grief. What beauty grants in personage, however, it lacks in mercy. And in its pursuit, we often make martyrs of our own bodies. No matter how we strive to overcome them all, the result is the same: We’re all going to die one day. Even hot people die eventually. If we are lucky, we have the privilege to live throughout the entire span that our telomeres can sustain, to earn the experience of age and spend our lifetime learning to love ourselves on our own terms, and to love others on theirs as well.

And not to get even more morbid (I’m about to get more morbid), when you die, as your body decays it will return to the earth as recycled energy that goes on for infinity throughout the cosmos. Consider it the ultimate glow down. Sometimes I think about how everyone who was ever alive on this earth is still around in the dust you breathe, the dirt that brings you flowers, and the trees that make the atmosphere livable (for now). We all become food for fungus, joining the ultimate mycelium hotline (which from what I’ve learned about mushrooms sounds really cool, by the way). It’s a comfort to know that no matter how I spend my one precious life in this one bod, I’m only borrowing it for a little while anyway. I’ll be sticking around here, one way and then in many others.


So, for the blip of time that you get to steer your body around the universe, it seems like a better idea to enjoy it. Why spend your life resenting your body for someone else’s gain? Or body-ing at anyone spitefully? There is no satisfaction to be had resenting how the length of your life is in opposition to impossible standards that (so far) nobody immortal gets to hold over you because nobody is. Bodies are always changing, sometimes of your own accord, and always of its own. Seems more pleasurable to make it a team effort, innit? Celebrate smile lines, shave your head, grow a wig collection, get freckles, show some skin — stretch marks, scars, wrinkles, cellulite, and all. Be gentle with your soft spots (the ones held with affection by others). Flip your hair in the face of danger or color it some hue not found in nature if you want to. Grow some abs if you want to, and don’t worry if they go away because technically, they’re always kind of there underneath. Get a cool tattoo. Get a stupid one too. Smile with lipstick on your teeth. Die hot with a vengeance. 

Excerpted from DIE HOT WITH A VENGEANCE, provided courtesy of Dey Street/HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2024 by Sable Yong.