By Cara Rogers

For me, multiple lockdowns and an overhaul of everything I loved about my daily life were a recipe for mental health disaster. I struggled with anxiety, feeling overwhelmed and like everything around me was too difficult to face. Now things have changed, and life is in some ways back to how I knew it to be. I’m ever so slightly more well-adjusted than I was a year ago when we were in the depths of Covid chaos. It’s not just circumstances that have changed though – I’ve changed. I found new ways to cope and make myself feel better when all my usual ways weren’t attainable. Enter the ‘That Girl’ trend.

Morning routines and lemon water, Pilates and green juice, ice rollers and whole foods, yoga and matching activewear sets are just some of the things that make up the ‘That Girl’ trend that has saturated my social media feed over the last six months. But this trend is not just a stream of pretty pictures and shortform video clips pasted together in an incredibly aesthetically pleasing TikTok – there are repeated mantras underlying the visuals: the importance of self-care, of routine and discipline; of nutrition and hydration, of moving and resting your body; the peace and productivity of early nights and early mornings; the benefits of journaling and gratitude.

I began to notice the ‘That Girl’ trend around a time when I was really struggling. Super anxious and nearly always on the brink of tears, I was finding day-to-day life difficult. ‘That Girl’ content started to become a source of inspiration for me, showing me ways to structure my days and activities to fill them with, helping my mental and physical wellbeing. Since then, I’ve realised that the things encouraged by this content aren’t particularly revolutionary: sleep, exercise, nutrition and fresh air are all things we’ve been told for years are good for us. Maybe it’s the Gen Z in me, but somehow these things only really clicked in my mind when I saw them in beautifully crafted video compilations.

Now I want to make a disclaimer here – the ‘That Girl’ trend did not single-handedly revolutionise my mental health. Circumstances have changed for me, I’ve dabbled in some counselling, and have found some medication which has helped me out a whole lot (three cheers for Sertraline!). I would never want to suggest that mental health issues can be ‘fixed’ by watching a few TikToks, because mental health is far more complex than this. However, I do maintain that being inspired by this content set off a chain reaction for me, where I started reassessing my daily habits, asking whether they were doing me any good.

Nowadays, I always try to get a good night’s sleep, setting the vibe at night with my diffuser, salt lamp, and (sometimes) a book. I try and think about the food I’m putting into my body, whether it’s fuelling me and making me feel good. I try to move my body everyday – even if it’s just a short walk or a stretch on my yoga mat.

Here’s the difficulty though (because every good article needs a line of argument, right?). My sociologist’s brain makes it difficult to look past some of the more ethically sticky and questionable areas of this trend. It has personally done me a huge amount of good, but that doesn’t mean it is beyond critique. Firstly, ‘That Girl’ content encourages viewers to buy into the latest trends, and the commercialisation of discussions around health and wellness makes me a little uncomfortable. Secondly, common features of the trend have important backgrounds which are often overlooked – yoga, for example, has ancient Northern Indian origins which many argue have been whitewashed in its popularisation. 

Finally, the women I see in these videos are nearly always slim, white, able-bodied, and well-off (the home gym is usually a big give-away). It’s an age-old critique by now, but they’re very privileged. And put simply, not everyone can do all the things idealised in these videos. Not everyone can afford fresh weekly produce or a gym membership, not everyone has the time to exercise daily or keep a gratitude journal. The vision of health and wellness that’s promoted here is one that must be enacted in a very specific way and is only really open to a very narrow subset of society, and I’m unsure about whether that’s something we should be glorifying.

And so, I ask myself what I’m supposed to do with these realisations. Should I be loudly and proudly condemning the ‘That Girl’ trend as just another problematic classist neoliberal ideal? Should I be refusing to engage with any of the creators promoting these ideals? What should my level of engagement be with a trend which has personally done me good, but which is also fundamentally vulnerable to critique? I don’t believe that it’s right to argue that because this trend has helped me, it must be perfect and beyond reproach. But I’m also unsure about how we deal with the fact that the things we love can be caught up in uncomfortable ethical debates.

Here’s how I’ve started to think about these questions. Many of the things we consume, particularly on social media, could be analysed from a critical angle, or could be in some way problematic or harmful. To put it simply, I think some things are not wholly good or bad – especially within popular culture. And maybe this is an ambivalence we need to get comfortable with; we can enjoy and benefit from some things, whilst also critiquing them and challenging their more harmful aspects. Our engagement with social media and pop culture doesn’t have to be an all or nothing situation, and I don’t think it’s productive to approach it as such. 

Now this isn’t an argument for passivity or relativity. From my perspective, there are some social media trends or TV shows which are really damaging, and which I don’t think should be participated in or praised. But I think that some elements of popular culture are in a little more of a grey area, like the ‘That Girl’ trend. Thinking of the participation in and consumption of some social media trends as neither inherently good or bad leaves us room to soak up their good and joy, whilst also making sure to challenge the bad. Personally, when it comes to popular culture and social media, I want to try to spend a little more time being stuck in the middle of these conversations, and being okay with that.

Essentially, you’ll definitely catch me journaling and sipping on my chai latte in a coffee shop, but you’ll also catch me debating with my friends about the harmful ramifications of female ideals of perfectionism and TikTok’s capitalist agenda – I can and I want to do both.

Featured image: collage created by Cara Rogers

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