The Myth of the Glow Up: navigating identity after weight changes

By Alana Sullivan

As a mild to moderately fat child, and certifiably fat teenager, I always perceived a distinct difference between the external and internal “me.” And, most importantly, I understood that these two selves were judged by those around me using very different standards and scales, quite literally. I was conscious from very early on that the largeness of my body was viewed in negative terms by certain individuals, but for the most part, I never considered that my internal self had anything to do with my body. If anything, much of my early misery over the size of my body derived from the worry that people would never take the time to get to know the “real” me, a concern amplified when a classmate in fifth grade administered a “test” to see if I could be her friend by asking me to try to encircle the wrist of one of my hands with the pointer finger and thumb of the other to prove I wasn’t fat (spoiler: I failed, and she took her friendship and baby wrists elsewhere). As I grew older and fantasized about what it would be like to be skinny, I dreamed of how incredible it would be to not even think about my body—to finally be recognized as the person I had always viewed myself to be. Which is why, when I began losing weight three years ago, I was utterly unprepared for the realization that actually, to most people, my external and internal selves were intimately linked.

“We’re so happy for you; you’re finally blooming and coming into your own.” “It’s like you’re transformed! Just a totally different person. Where’d Alana go?” “WOW, damn u really glowed up. Holy shit. Ur not even the same person! I barely reckanize you in that pic.”

Omar Din for beauty
Art by Omar Din

While I had, of course, known I looked physically different, comments like these from—respectively—my family, housemate’s father (in the middle of a restaurant, grinning maniacally and using his hands to demonstrate the shrinking of my body), and 16-year-old male summer camp coworker, emphasizing how different a person I was in this different body, sat oddly with me and made my face hot. What I was just beginning to recognize then—but which would become increasingly clear as I moved through the same social world in a different body—was that most observers equate physical transformations that happen to move in a socially acceptable direction as 1. Positive “glow-ups,” no matter the cause, and 2. Undoubtable evidence of the person evolving into their “true” and best self.

This equation of a physical transformation with a self-identity transformation by those around me was unanticipated and, at first, simply confusing. I wasn’t different; my body was. But that wasn’t the message I received from everybody around me. At some point during our society’s love affair with physical transformations, before-and-after photos and, most recently, the Instagram “glow-up,” we concluded that the internal selves of those who undergo physical changes must necessarily also be transformed. Just look at the media obsession with the weight-loss of celebrities like Jennifer Hudson and Adele; it’s not really their loss of physical mass that is deemed worth celebrating, but rather it is their supposed gaining of worth, value, talent, personality, and attraction. As unpopular as this opinion may be, however, the dialogue surrounding the social construct of the before-and-after “glow-up” during my weight loss was incredibly destructive towards the value I assigned my life experiences, and fundamentally, my self-identity.

The message I heard again and again was that my new, smaller body was not distinct from my internal self, but instead, reflected a proportionately better, funnier, more moral, kinder, and more worthy self. The implication was that my past, bigger-bodied self was not only flawed, bad, and inadequate, but was a different person to the core. I was left with the psychologically distressing and painful realization that to live as this smaller Alana, the experiences and life of that bigger Alana—and her apparent worthlessness, laziness, disgustingness, and general insufficiency—would need to be eliminated. I felt paralyzed, fundamentally divided; there wasn’t “Alana,” there was this Alana and that other diametrically opposite Alana, and the existence of one necessarily negated that of the other. And so, armed with this perception and an incredible amount of self-loathing, I attempted to mentally exterminate my old self.

I tried to get rid of pictures on social media of me from when I was fat and untagged myself from photos. I couldn’t stand to look at the framed childhood pictures of my sisters and me, happy and playing together, in my mother’s living room. I blocked out many of my memories from high school and earlier, refusing to allow this present version of myself any history with the other. I became intensely anxious in college when I would talk to new friends about my life at home or the past. It wasn’t simply that I didn’t want people to know I had been fat; it was a terrible, horrible, ever-present fear that I would be “found out” for the bad, disgusting, fraudulent person I had always been, but somehow was fooling people into thinking I wasn’t. I wanted to erase all footage of my life before I became this smaller, better, less shameful person, and I worked hard to construct a carefully maintained psychological boundary between this good self and that bad self, which—in my view, and so many others’—apparently wasn’t even really me to begin with. Anything that reminded me of the boundary, or threatened its fortifications, left me anxious and embarrassed.

This societally and personally imposed pressure to segment myself into usable and discardable parts became not only exhausting, but incredibly distressing, since it goes directly against how our identities work. Humans absolutely love to believe we have a stable sense of self: a coherent, persistent, outwardly recognizable image of who we are as individuals. In fact, nearly every psychology course I’ve taken has taught me that having a continuous, unified sense of who we are is kind of necessary in order to not lose our minds, in more or less academic terms—hence many people’s fascination with horoscopes and personality inventories like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, not to mention the ubiquitous Buzzfeed quiz. While we tend to describe our past selves in slightly more negative terms in order to enhance our current version, in general, perceiving a continuity between our past, present, and future self is crucial to our psychological well-being, not to mention simply the fullness with which we are able to experience our lives. So much of the richness of our present experiences come from their interaction with those of our past selves; so much of music, taste, and smell take on their significance and meaning to us in the present based on what they remind us of from the past. To live up to my new body, these are the things I felt I had to give up. When personality, worth, and almost every positive quality is tied so inherently to the size, shape, and amount of your outer self, the creation of an artificial boundary line dividing and quarantining the bad, fat inner self from the good, new, small inner self begins to seem necessary to align yourself with the “good” version of you that others seem to be seeing, even as it creates extreme psychological pain.

I didn’t hit a specific weight and suddenly become capable of goodness and having value. But that’s how I was treated. I can’t speak for whether the socially enforced dissociation I experienced occurs with all physical transformations, or if it is specific to weight changes. What I know is: living in a fat body in American society wreaks an incredible mental wear-and-tear. This is a burden that I recognize that I no longer have to bear on a daily basis with the body privilege I now have. But I do know that society divides bodies—and as a consequence, the people inhabiting them—into real and false, worthy and unworthy, ugly and beautiful. But selves are continuous, carrying every painful experience, positive interaction in the checkout line, favorite flavor of ice cream, and insecurity—no matter how their wrappers change. They are by their very nature at odds with the binary divisions that rule our social lives. Psychological survival thus means the conscious interrogation of everything we have been taught to believe, think, and judge about the relationship between our minds and bodies.

It became impossible and felt ridiculous to try to create a whole self using only my experience living as a smaller person, let alone to try to pass it off as the one and true self I was always destined to be. That Alana had pain, talents, joys, wants, and needs just as important and meaningful as this current, smaller Alana, because, well, we are the same person. I am ashamed and saddened that internalized fatphobia and self-hatred made me want to erase evidence of my own existence, and I’m disoriented by the mental fuckery that it takes to want to get rid of 18 years of life. Every single past experience and version of Alana is incorporated into the me that is typing this article, and to try to ignore that is a dishonor to everything we—I— have been through. The “real” me wasn’t being oppressed by the larger amounts of fat that made up my body. My “true” self wasn’t lying dormant, waiting years to burst forth dramatically from its confines into a rainy night with its hands raised to a stormy sky like some Shawshank Redemption wannabe.

I am me, and every version there ever was. The me that held the small roll of skin on my 8-year-old stomach between the blades of a pair of small school scissors and tentatively squeezed after being called pregnant by a classmate was younger and quieter, but is still me. The me that held a shaking cup of water to my mom’s mouth after her double mastectomy, trying not to let her see how scared I was, had bigger thighs and chubby fingers, but is still me. The me that drinks my coffee—without a paralyzing, sad fear of adding cream, now—every morning is bigger than last month’s me, but is still me. It’s well past time we all came together again.

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