The Phenomenon of “That Girl”

February, 2022
Fiona O'Brien, Blog Correspondent

TW: Discussion of eating disorders and restrictive eating

This morning, I woke up at noon. Really, it was an accident; I hadn’t even gone to bed that late. I rolled over to grab my phone off the charger, and for some reason opened TikTok. I would not recommend this to be your first visual interaction in the morning. Immediately, I was served with your typical, bright-pastel, cheery music “Morning in the Life.” A beautiful woman, probably younger than I, waking up at 6am to immediately begin her beachside yoga routine, followed by an extensive skin care routine, lots of lemon water, and a five mile run.

When the video began to replay and I was jerked from my reverie, I began to survey my surroundings: my bedroom was still a pigsty after my busy weekend, and the view out my window was a wall of concrete covered by what appeared to be an early November frost. Not exactly beachy. I felt dirty, unhealthy and unproductive. I do not regularly get into the habit of comparing myself to others, but the young woman in the video seemed so real. She was thinner, with clearer skin, smoother hair, and cuter clothes. But most of all, she had seized control of her life and health, but I can’t seem to. So what am I doing wrong?

Showcasing your productivity has arguably become one of social media’s most pervasive trends yet. On TikTok, the term “That Girl” has been coined to describe the young woman who is able to capture all the necessary tenets of such a hustle. Young girls will post videos to motivational music featuring flashing photos that they believe capture the energy of being “That Girl.” Generally, each photo involves a twenty-something, thin, white, wealthy woman on a treadmill, buying green juice, or lounging in her immaculately clean New York City apartment. A quick glance into the comments reveals the permeating desire to emulate this kind of person: “imagine having your life together like this;” “goals goals goals;” “wish that was me.” Some accounts go so far as to add a link to a podcast or video they’ve created to outline how to transform into “That Girl.” The trend continues on Instagram: snippets of the day captured in zoomed in stories, featuring protein powder, crystals, journaling, and long walks. Sometimes, a comment on either social media will ask: “How do you go to school?” “When do you go to work?” The answer will come in a response video in which the creator demonstrates how they seamlessly maintain their active, healthy lifestyle alongside their other commitments. Rarely do they describe midnight sobbing sessions in the library or the eyebags caused by 6 am shifts.

Social media becomes dangerous when we begin to view it as a lens of reality rather than a carefully curated piece of art. In this sense, it has value: if it weren’t for the way it makes me feel empty, I would celebrate the ways in which many of these young women have crafted a beautiful life. But even when we are aware of the subversion of social reality, we still find ourselves being tricked. No matter how kind, transparent, or feminist we may believe ourselves to be, we will always only showcase our good moments publicly. Technology links us to others, but is it ever linking our genuine selves to theirs? Sherry Thomas touches upon our curation of our online selves in a 2016 article, reminding us that “a virtual life is shiny and bright. It’s where you post your prettiest pictures and tell all your best news.” As a result, we use social media to “re-create ourselves as online personae and give ourselves new bodies, homes, jobs, and romances.”  In the same way that we spent our childhoods crafting new characters, we find that playful option available in our adulthood through social media. Who wouldn’t want to craft a reality in which we are perfect? That is why we do not share the bad. It’s a game, and games do not have to be truthful. However, the issue here is that social media is fundamentally tethered to life- real life. Every little white lie that we share becomes a moment of comparison for another.

So, though I could simply remain quiet, simmering with a quiet envy of the life of “That Girl,” it is important to confront the fact that “she” too is playing a game. However, her game is a dangerous one. Though we spend our happy moments sharing our lives, we spend our sad ones comparing them to others. Therefore, those in moments of transition, particularly young people and teens, are particularly at risk of developing dangerous habits in order to recreate the lifestyle they see presented on social media. The restrictive eating habits and often over-exaggerated thinness of “That Girl” can inspire an alarming desperation to change one’s appearance, with the potential for disordered eating and more severe illnesses to develop later on. The National Center for Biotechnology Information stated in a report as early as 2003 (before social media had risen to the divine status it has reached today) that there was a significant link between eating disorders and the rising relevance of media. At the time, 44% of female adolescents were reported as believing themselves to be overweight, while a shocking 60% were actively attempting to lose weight. Despite these surveys, the study revealed that they had specifically chosen girls considered by standards at the time to be typically “thin,” or within the average weight range of those in their age group.  Later, in 2017, the same institution performed a study in which they discovered that 49% of followers of Instagram health accounts exhibited significant symptoms of orthorexia nervosa.

Furthermore, the “That Girl” phenomenon leaves very little room for racial diversity. Blogger Stephanie Yeboah reminds readers that  “it is disturbing to see a continued pattern of blatant sidelining and absence of women of colour in this relatively new industry” of social media influencers. Young black women and women of colour do not see themselves depicted in spaces that claim to be the pinnacle of health and beauty, which, as Yeboah states, is essentially stating that they do not belong. “Purity” and “cleanliness,” both tenets of the “That Girl” lifestyle have historically been interchangeable with whiteness, and today are simply a masked version of it. Beyond a disturbing encouragement toward weight-loss and whiteness, the phenomenon of “That Girl” also only seeks to include the wealthy and able-bodied. Essentially, there are very few people who can actually fit into the strict requirements of being “her.” 

Even once we are aware of the toxicity that is created by the social media archetype of “That Girl,” we still fall prey to it. I do not think I will ever stop comparing myself to her, unless I find some way to exist completely free of social media. In many cases, I believe it is our ardent desire for reinvention that draws us so magnetically to the “freedom” of social media identity. As a young woman in my early twenties, I have found myself relating far more to Taylor Swift and Phoebe Bridgers’ “Nothing New” rather than “22.” The phenomenon of “That Girl” gives us hope that we can do better; more importantly, it emphasizes the idea that our current routine and lifestyle is somehow wrong. We can change our dusty old ways, and become a shiny new jewel desired by all. But the way that we live without the unwarranted advice of those behind a screen is a product of constant, gradual reshaping and movement. It never settles. However, the changes are so minuscule that we find ourselves staring in the mirror and wondering if we’ve even changed since seventeen.

We all fall prey to this mistake, spitting in our own faces and disrespecting the work of the mind and body that got us to this moment in one piece. How and when I eat, what time I study best, how I work out problems with my friends: even inadvertently, these are all a result of every single step I have taken in my life. The idea of becoming “That Girl” is a tantalizing offer, but no matter how hard we strain to reach the fruit or bend to drink the water, we will never succeed. Being “her” is defined by the chase, rather than the result. But the chase is dangerous, as statistics tell us. Why lose our identities and beauty in a fruitless quest? Anyway, I tried lemon water this morning. It was gross.

No matter how kind, transparent, or feminist we may believe ourselves to be, we will always only showcase our good moments publicly. Technology links us to others, but is it ever linking our genuine selves to theirs?

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