A Pandemic Glow Up? No Thank You

The expectation to have gotten hot during the pandemic is totally unreasonable.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
Blond woman in bathroom - stock photo

By some miracle (science, mask orders, not one but several effective vaccines, etc.), the end of COVID lockdown feels now like something tangible and near. There are good and bad ways to respond to this news. The good way is to get extremely hyped to see friends, hug family members, and go hog wild in a dingy bar—isn’t this all we’ve wanted and whined about for going on 13 months? The bad way is to use the emergence from a year-plus of disease, death, and isolation as a deadline by which you must “get hot.” 


Over the past few weeks, my TikTok feed (which is appropriately catered to an extremely basic woman from Texas, if that tells you anything) has run amok with an emergent trend of quarantine glow-up videos, each one showing a given (usually very young-looking) person’s “glow up” from March 2020 to March 2021. They tend to involve weight loss, clearer skin, new clothes, straighter teeth, or, in a stupefying twist, all of the above. (Others seem to show a teenager simply going through puberty, which, fine, I’ll allow it.) A recent article in Cosmopolitan UK quotes women who hired personal trainers and downloaded calorie-counting apps to prepare for the UK’s projected June reopening. Just this week, The Atlantic ran an essay about wanting to look “damn good” when the world reopens. 

I get it, I really do. The desire to squeeze some juice out of an objectively terrible year is strong. Something about it feels like winning: What’s more powerful than emerging from a year of prolonged, acute stress somehow looking better, instead of worse? It would be satisfying, in a narrative sense, to be able to say you experienced some sort of personal growth as the world shut down and burned. 

It also feels deeply unrealistic, and like an impossible standard. Never mind that there’s almost no healthy way to drastically change your body composition between now and this summer, there’s something twisted about feeling pressured to showcase physical improvement after a year in which survival was at the front of everyone’s minds. 


For most, the past year has been more sedentary, more indoors, more stressful, and more drunk than any other. Those things come with health effects, many of which can be “bounced back from,” so to speak, in due time. To expect not just a return to pre-pandemic health, but actual physical improvement, feels unrealistic and unnecessary. 

Who are we trying to impress? The friend we  haven’t seen since January 2020 is not likely going to look us up and down and say, “Gee, you look like ass; what have you been up to all year?” We know what we’ve been up to the past year, and that is: diddly squat, mixed in with some sitting and exorbitant drinking. As my coworker Katie Way put it, “Your friends think you’re hot because they love you.” And to paraphrase my coworker Amy Rose Spiegel, who actually goes around saying “nice glow up!” to people they like and don’t want to insult?

Personally, I’ve visibly aged in the past year. There are these little wrinkles near my eyes that certainly didn’t exist in March 2020. I think my ass got smaller (probably from sitting on it for so long—does this happen?). My eyebrows—don’t get me started. The energy it would require to look better than I do right now feels out of my reach and beyond the realm of “things I care about.” It’s enough to wake up each morning, stare at my series of screens, and maybe get a crumb of exercise in. I doubt my lovely, kind friends are going to admonish me for looking different—by that I mean, slightly worse—than the last time they saw me. Do they remember what I look like, IRL? Probably not, considering I barely remember who my friends are! 

As the world reopens, the best personal goal we can hold is to be forgiving with ourselves. Extend the same level of cool grace to your own physical form as you do to every other piece of what we’ve had to do to make it through this, at all. When we crawl back into society in a meaningful way, I imagine we’ll simply be happy to see one another. What we see, exactly, won’t matter so much.

Follow Hannah Smothers on Twitter.