Spoilers ahead. Late into The Summer I Turned Pretty, Isabel "Belly" Conklin, played by newcomer Lola Tung, comes to a realisation. Surrounded by other giddy teens doing their makeup and immersed in the somewhat patriarchal but changing world of debutante balls (think lots of white — both clothing and people — and ballroom dancing), Belly gazes at herself in the mirror and says in a voiceover: “Girls aren’t supposed to know if we’re pretty or not. We’re supposed to wait for other people to tell us before we’re allowed to feel it about ourselves. But isn’t that bullshit? Because, we’re all beautiful in our own ways.”
The moment comes near the end of Prime Video's adaptation of the popular YA book, which premiered on Friday, and the end of Belly’s summer at Cousins Beach, where she’s been coming for years alongside brothers Conrad and Jeremiah Fisher — but this summer is different. Belly has a glow-up. At 16, she looks different and, more importantly, feels different, and those around her notice too. After a summer-long back-and-forth love triangle with Conrad and Jeremiah, and months of Belly seemingly hinging her value on the opinions and views of those around her, it’s a monumental realisation that echoes the message of the show: that beauty is personal, and ultimately, how we view ourselves needs to be dictated, and embraced, by us. In a way, Belly is reclaiming the idea of beauty and glowing up — specifically, the idea that hers is for anyone but herself.
“I love that line,” Tung tells Refinery29. “I loved saying that line, and I love that Belly gets to say it at the end of this journey that she's had. Because I think it's the perfect way to sum up [the] message of the show.”
The idea of the glow-up isn’t anything new. For years, young people — especially young women — have been tasked with the idea of levelling up both their appearance and their personalities. The glow-up is something we’re culturally always in pursuit of. We look for one after a breakup or losing a job, and search for it in every side-by-side photo of ourselves from high school to now. It’s even ingrained in our social media culture. It's the incentive behind viral TikTok trends and posts on our Instagram feeds. It’s also, most typically, viewed as physical, which seems out of touch with today's wider conversations around beauty and self-love, primarily that it’s what’s inside that counts.
The Summer I Turned Pretty initially seems like it might fall into the glow-up trap. In one of the first scenes of the series, Belly, on her way to Cousins with her mum and brother, is hit on by an older guy at a convenience store. Both she — and her mother — take note. Later, Susannah (Rachel Blanchard), Conrad and Jeremiah’s mother and second mum to Belly, is the first to explicitly point out Belly’s physical change. After seeing Belly for the first time since the previous summer, she looks to Belly’s mum Laurel (Jackie Chung) and mouths, “She’s gorgeous.” Laurel’s reply? “I know.” Susannah later follows up by telling Belly, "You have always been lovely, but oh honey, look at you," and emphasising "you do not look the same at all." It’s a moment of motherly love and affection, but also sets up a theme for the rest of the season: Belly is maturing, and everyone is aware of it — including Belly herself.
For executive producer Jenny Han, who also authored the 2009 titular book and consequent trilogy, and 19-year-old Tung, that feeling or awareness of the way you’re perceived as a young woman is something familiar — and kind of scary. Han wrote The Summer I Turned Pretty when she was a nanny to a family with a tall 13-year-old daughter. “We would walk around and I would notice men looking at her,” Han recalls. “And I thought, she's a kid and people have no idea how old she is. But it gave me this kind of awareness, and I think there's something about that moment where you're realising, okay, this is how I feel about myself on the inside and this is how people see me. There's something that feels scary about that, and there's also something that's a little bit like you feel some sort of surge of power that you didn't have before.”
It’s also, as Tung notes, really confusing and relatable, an experience she compares to filming the series. “Filming everyday and being on camera and seeing myself on camera and being aware of how I look all the time and that people are going to have their opinions on how I look can be really difficult,” she says. “It's important to remember that I don't think anyone is alone in those feelings.”
The nuance of the tenuous relationship you have with yourself and with others is most aptly highlighted during Belly’s mid-season fight with Conrad when, after several episodes of Belly catching her reflection in the mirror or examining her face while she carefully applies makeup, Conrad spits out: “Why don’t you go look at yourself in the mirror some more?” It’s meant to shame and belittle Belly, but the exchange hammers home the complexity of this dynamic — the idea of beauty being weaponised against young women when they notice and embrace it, while still being simultaneously and unabashedly consumed by men. In other words, Belly is chastised for taking note of her appearance by the very guy who's obsessed with it.
Which is what makes Belly’s statement at the end of the season so impactful, as a recognition that her value and worth, be it physical or emotional, can only truly be dictated by her. As it should be.
That realisation comes through with her real glow-up: personal maturity. And it’s the way Han always intended it to be. “To me, the title is really about growing up and the summer that she is coming into her own, and not necessarily about a literal hot girl summer or glow-up,” she says. “The way that she feels is what's different, and I think that's one of the really lovely things about summer is that you can go off and be a different version of yourself and then you come back and you feel somewhat changed.
This emotional change ultimately leads Belly to her romantic choice (we won’t spoil the ultimate pick, but it’s worth the watch — and the episodic wait). The person she ends the series kissing isn’t someone who she waited for to choose her, something the Belly at the start of the summer would have done, but rather the person she decided she wanted to be with, entirely chosen by her.
“[That emotional growth is] what this really is about,” Han says, “coming into her own because in actuality she doesn't look a lot different than she did [the summer before]. Where the inspiration came from was really about young women in a moment of feeling different about themselves and feeling like they've come into their own and feel the power of that.”