Perfect Pressure: Should we want to be 'That Girl'


Pheobe Leonard explores the true meaning behind the seemingly aspirational ‘that girl’ aesthetic

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Image by Felipe Borges

By Phoebe Leonard

She gets up early and makes herself avocado toast and a fresh smoothie. She dons her expensive workout gear and takes herself for a run. When she comes back, she reads, does yoga, meditates, and fills in her daily gratitude journal. Her room is tidy, and her clothes are stylish but in an effortless way. She is productive, likeable, and seems to have her entire life together. Who is she? She’s ‘that girl’. She’s not a particular person, but rather an idea and aesthetic that has taken over our TikTok and Instagram feeds.

Born out of, TikTok became the most downloaded app in the world in 2020 as we all went into lockdown and looked for easy entertainment to stop us from going crazy. It was known for lip-syncing and dance videos, and the creation of ‘content houses’ such as Hype House. However, Pinterest and Instagram-style videos surrounding wellness, fitness, and all-round being ‘aesthetic’ inevitably began to spread to TikTok too, and the beginning of ‘that girl’ in 2021 is the perfect example of that.

The interesting thing about the ‘that girl’ trend is that it doesn’t seem to be going away. Though it started over a year ago, the trend appears to have stuck around on Instagram and TikTok and has even spread to YouTube. This puts it aside from other trends, which normally fizzle out after a little while. The #thatgirl tag currently has over 721,000 posts on Instagram and 3.2 billion views on TikTok.

What is it about the ‘that girl’ craze that continues to make it still so popular? And should we want to be ‘that girl’?

The trend is rooted in the wellness culture that has witnessed huge levels of growth in recent years. With celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Kourtney Kardashian, and, more recently, Ashley Tisdale launching their own wellness brands, it is clear that such content can garner and keep the attention of the masses. The ‘that girl’ trend utilises this by encouraging viewers to become the ‘best’ version of themselves, taking their own wellness just as seriously as the influencers they watch appear to. The videos focus on getting up early; exercising; practicing mindfulness with activities such as yoga, meditation, or gratitude journalling; eating healthy meals; and drinking smoothies. Some of the content within the trend also focuses on self-improvement from a psychological and social perspective, such as watching TED Talks that will help you become more confident in yourself and have better relationships with others.

This content can be motivating, with many viewers saying that the videos inspired them to become a better version of themselves, and even pulled them out of a bad place. There are lots of comments on the videos online thanking the creators for showing the things they do to fulfil themselves. Seeing someone else “living their best life” may help to realise what is missing in your own life – you may decide you need to work out more or drink more water, for example. The trend also encourages activities such as reading, yoga and meditation, which are proven to be good for your mental and/or physical health, in addition to encouraging personal and spiritual growth through confidence and self-love. And of course, the videos are very aesthetically pleasing to watch, which is one of the main features. But the aesthetic nature of the trend is also one of the main downfalls.

If you look at the thumbnails of ‘that girl’ themed videos, a lot of them are very similar. They most often consist of a collage of photos, including things such as healthy foods, a girl working out, sunrises out of high-rise apartment windows, and journals. Whilst these collages and videos look pretty, they also show just how well shot, edited, and structured the photos and videos in the trend are. Everything is captured in a way that makes it look perfect, with the minimal and clean aesthetic that has become so well sought after on apps such as Pinterest. Presenting life this way without acknowledging that it is carefully shot and edited can be dangerous as it can so easily lead to users comparing themselves to others, which is one of the biggest pitfalls of using social media in general.

Natalia Seliger, a 22-year-old content creator living between Los Angeles and California, noted this in a video she uploaded to TikTok in February. She pointed out that the seemingly perfect lives of people in the videos can create “a lot of unhealthy comparison of what a healthy and productive lifestyle looks like”. It is easy to feel like your own life is messy and lazy compared to the clean and active young women who are posting this content. The videos suggest that you must be doing something all the time to be productive and that you can’t waste a minute, therefore promoting what has become known as ‘hustle culture’. Though Natalia has created some wellness and self-improvement content herself, she admitted that the trend has made her feel the pressure of being perfect, needing to be productive enough and has left her wondering if her own posts aren’t up to scratch.

Amelia Stallworthy, a student at the University of York, confesses that she has a difficult relationship with the craze due to this pressure and comparison. “I want to be ‘that girl’ but I also hate her because I aspire to be her, but I know I won’t be,” she told me. Experiences like Amelia’s show that the trend can inspire people to become a better version of themselves and give them a lifestyle to aspire to, which means it does have positive effects. But it can also have a negative effect and instead create jealousy if people don’t feel able to fulfil being ‘that girl’. This could be due to several factors, such as struggles with their mental health, lack of time to do all the activities that are suggested, or financial issues.

It's not just comparison to other people's lives that the trend can promote but also comparison to their bodies, including disordered thoughts and feelings around food and exercise. Being ‘that girl’ appears to include wearing minimal makeup and looking flawlessly gorgeous, which can easily create insecurities around appearance.  Another incredibly important factor in being ‘that girl’ is eating healthy meals and working out regularly. Of course, it is important to eat healthily and get regular exercise, as we all know and have been told by doctors: but everything should be done in moderation, and 'that girl’ videos don’t show this due to the lack of nuance in a short Instagram or TikTok post. The creators don’t show themselves having a rest in bed or eating food that is considered less healthy because this isn’t part of the ‘clean’ look that they’re aiming for, but it is an important part of living a balanced lifestyle. When fitness and healthy eating are promoted without the counterparts of rest and allowing yourself to indulge in your favourite foods, it can create negative mindsets around food and exercise and possibly even encourage disordered eating.

Jess Burtenshaw is a University of York student who has experienced an eating disorder and is passionate about eating disorder awareness. She argues that though it calls itself a well-ness trend, ‘that girl’ continues to perpetuate ideas around diet and fitness culture. She also believes that the trend “almost shames” people for living a normal life and creates an idea that you have to “eat healthily and work out constantly to be attractive”. Though the content creators that are posting these videos most likely do not intend to maintain the unrealistic standards of the diet and fitness industries, it demonstrates just how praised these ideas are in society currently.

It’s also worth noting that the trend itself is not very diverse; ethnically or financially. It typically appears to be led by seemingly affluent (almost always white) young women with significant disposable income. So many of the shots within these videos are views out of gorgeous houses or high-rise apartments in expensive cities, a lifestyle that is inaccessible for a huge portion of people, particularly young adults. There are various types of pretty lamps, blenders for your smoothies, aesthetic coffee table books, LED lights and fancy workout gear that the videos insist you ‘need’. The promotion of such products creates financial shame if young people can’t afford them and then feel like they don’t fit in as a result. Though the intentions of the trend are positive, wellness culture is often tied up in consumerism and capitalism rather than simply just focusing on health and happiness as it often suggests. And given the lack of cultural and ethnic diversity within the trend, it can make it very difficult for viewers who don't see themselves represented in the posts they see to find the content within remotely inspiring or motivating. Intentionally or not, the exclusionary undertones are clear.

Of course, if you find the ‘that girl’ trend motivating and it inspires you to become a better version of yourself, then I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t engage with it. I just think it’s important to recognise that trends like this can lead to damaging consequences for many people, especially when we fail to consider the nuance that is needed around them. If you truly want to make the changes that the ‘that girl’ trend encourages and you think it will help you“live your best life”, then all power to you. But don't feel pressured to do things to somehow compete with the seemingly perfect lives you see online; lives that are likely not that perfect in reality. Remember that social media is a highlight reel, and the ‘that girl’ trend is just another part of that.