TikTok’s “that girl” trend: motivational self-help or another capitalist tactic for consumerism?
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
From #Girlboss to ‘that girl’, society has long generated new standards by which women’s social and personal value can be judged. Rooted in capitalism, and often dangerously disguised as forms of self-improvement and female empowerment, women are consistently pressured to conform to impossible ideals of female success via the latest social media trends.
Popularised on TikTok in April 2021, the ‘that girl’ trend promotes the idea that, as women, we should all endeavour to be ‘that girl’. ‘That girl’ has her life together; she wakes up early, meditates, does yoga, eats a plant-based diet and excels in her studies. If we strive to do the same, we too can reach this level of self-perfection. Superficially, it might seem a relatively harmless trend which, perhaps positively, promotes female self-care and goal orientation, but closer inspection reveals it to be an exclusive brand of female empowerment which assumes privilege, disposable income, and does not allow for the messy realities of life and daily commitment.
Sophia Amaruso’s 2014 autobiography spawned the titular phrase #Girlboss, where she describes her own career success as founder of the 2006 fast-fashion business NastyGal. #Girlboss supposedly denotes female ambition in a male-centric world, a concept bought into more heavily by the millennial generation. However, the #Girlboss trend seems to have been left behind in the 2010s, as Gen Zs criticise its problematic promotion of female competition, disguised as ‘hustling’, in a male dominated workplace.
As the initial glitter of Amaruso’s girlboss leadership style wore off, NastyGal became dogged with allegations of mismanagement, favouritism, and a toxic, competitive company culture. A previous employee sued the company in 2015 after allegedly being fired before they went on maternity leave. The irony of Amaruso’s #Girlboss narrative became apparent as the company’s reputation plummeted, filing for bankruptcy in 2016. It seemed the mantra of female entrepreneurship and career success didn’t extend to the company’s mistreated employees, whilst customers grew tired of poor-quality clothes mass-produced by underpaid workers. Instead, the term ‘girlboss’ is now frequently used by Gen Zs as a satirical insult for women accused of pursuing career success at the expense of other women.
This prompts the consideration: is ‘that girl’ just a new iteration of the #Girlboss? A new brand of individualistic feminism that encourages women to isolate themselves, focus on their goals, whilst also transforming their appearances. The same ‘hustle culture’ of the #Girlboss age has simply been translated into a TikTok trend, executed in private rather than in public, with a green juice in hand.
One of the primary issues with the ‘that girl’ trend is its portrayal of the acquisition and sustaining of exercise and diet habits as effortlessly easy. The moral undertone that if you cannot #Girlboss your way through juggling self-care habits with daily commitments, like a job, family, or caring responsibilities, you are simply not ‘hustling’ hard enough. It is this lack of space for the messiness of life and external pressures which results in women being held to impossibly high standards.
As a society, we are already aware of the effects of social media as a way for users to compare themselves to unattainable imagery and fickle trend cycles. In particular, Gen Z are hailed as a generation more acutely aware of the falsity of social media and career burnout than our millennial predecessors. ‘Girlbossing it’ has become a ‘meme’ to Gen Zs (‘girlboss, gaslight, gatekeep’), but maybe our rejection of hustle culture as an aspiration has turned inwards, into the dark obsession with constant self-improvement, reflected in the ‘that girl’ trend.
Meanwhile, dominant trends in the male self-improvement industry arguably present an even greater social threat, where notorious figures like Andrew Tate are indoctrinating men with the notion that masculinity is under threat from women, with their content rapidly circulated via TikTok and other social media. Styled as a self-help guru, Tate urges his male viewers to claim back their masculine power by promoting outdated notions that society should still be run on patriarchal systems; white male privilege is a manufactured farce and women are causing social chaos due to our obstinate refusal to just stay at home. Like much female self-improvement content, Tate’s mock male empowerment is frequently associated with materiality; bragging about his ownership of thirty-three sports cars, used to validate his masculinity, and his profitable subscription-based platform Hustler’s University. Although Tate is now banned from TikTok, his content lives on. Considering how the app’s algorithm functions, the jump from Tate’s faux-motivational content on crypto currency to that which is demonstrably harmful to young audiences is frighteningly fast.
Considering the materiality of such trends, it seems that capitalism will always find ways to make women feel inadequate, with the route to validation often lined with ways to spend your money to make you look and feel ‘better’. The wellness industry, enroute to becoming a trillion dollar market, operates by selling highly priced products and services as tickets to a ‘better’, stress-free life, with the ‘that girl’ trend perpetuating this commodification of wellness. Society’s engagement with the ‘that girl’ trend demonstrates our intrinsic belief that consumerism can equal happiness, but do we really need to buy into this wellness ideal to achieve self-improvement?
Feeding on insecurity, Tate and Peterson’s male self-improvement equivalent perpetuates malignant, misogynistic narratives, whilst the ‘that girl’ trend is just another social media highlight reel making women feel inadequate. Both are, in different ways, fake empowerment, exclusive not intersectional, and support consumerism in the name of self-improvement. It seems that while capitalism maintains its dominance, so will the constant search for self-improvement.