It’s the end of a long day and I’ve collapsed on my bed. My sneakers and a backpack full of readings lay limp on the floor. Or maybe it’s a little past noon and I’m idling on the Main Green checking my phone between lectures. Either way, my fingers find themselves twitching toward TikTok, a familiar compulsion. I open the app and see a girl showing off her collection of pastel highlighters and Mildliner pens. I scroll. Another girl is styling a pair of flared jeans three different ways. I scroll again, and they keep coming: a hack for folding your hair into a claw clip, a compilation of a week’s worth of “hot girl walks,” someone testing out Emily Mariko’s latest recipe. The videos blur one into the next, and create a smeared semblance of girlhood, womanhood or something in between.
I can’t explain why I find these videos, dozens of little snippets of disparate lives, so compelling. It likely has something to do with the addictive properties of social media altering my brain chemistry, but there’s something more to it. It’s comforting, grounding, even. In a society that sends a thousand conflicting signals about what it means to be a young woman, I find myself constantly searching for some outside instruction, some objective point of reference on how to dress, eat and be. Social media has long amplified these comparisons, which prey on the insecurities piled on women. That craving to look to others in order to better understand ourselves may be near-impossible to escape. But there is a change taking place on the front lines of TikTok, of all places. We’re watching a new, self-directed and refreshingly authentic era of women’s lifestyle content being made literally under our noses.
Vlogs, days-in-the-life, recordings of meal planning and school routines — all of which can generally be referred to as “lifestyle content” — far predate TikTok or the Internet at large. Society has always directed women to look toward people who have their lives “together” for routines and products that will allow us to then replicate their health or happiness and map it on top of our own lives, like some bizarre form of papier-mâché. What once unfolded solely through Cosmopolitan articles and self-help books has merely shifted platforms to YouTube vlogs and sponsored Instagram posts about diet gummies and yoga routines.
These dynamics of influencers and audiences, of self-improvement and image-making, are particularly prevalent among women, young women in particular. They are the linchpin of a vicious cycle that snatches away our sense of security in our own lives before peddling it back to us without ever quite delivering the satisfaction promised. Lindsay Crouse of The New York Times describes that cycle as a “long-standing American tradition: stoking the insecurities of teenage girls to cash in on them.” The broadly-defined “wellness market” of products and services — which center upon beauty, fashion and physical and mental health — depicted in various forms of lifestyle content is valued at $1.5 trillion; there is a seemingly infinite number of corporations with a vested financial interest in building a culture of comparison between women. At 13, I bought bronzer from CVS in an attempt to reconfigure my jaw into the shapes I saw on Instagram. I copied outfits from Pinterest and tried dream journaling, though I never could keep up the habit. What I was doing, I now know, was positioning myself as the audience of my own adolescence, an idealized version of which was being acted out to me, usually by adults who made social media their profession.
With a new generation entering adolescence, the stage was set for a transition to take place. Gen Z, jaded by an oversaturation of online messaging, has consistently proved its cynicism and increasing intolerance for content that feels manufactured. More and more, we gravitate to what we perceive as intimacy rather than idealistic constructions. Emma Chamberlain is perhaps the most obvious example: She rose to YouTube stardom, securing a coffee company and a brand deal with Louis Vuitton along the way, by being one of the first YouTubers to truly understand the appeal of authenticity and create videos that, while edited for hours, managed to feel like the real life of a real teenager.
Yet the phenomena that’s been occurring through TikTok isn’t defined by a few key faces like Chamberlain’s. The app’s complex algorithm and the casual atmosphere of the For You page means that content from another 18 year old with an average lifestyle and a negligible number of followers could easily land in my lap. Some of these female creators have videos with thousands of likes, but many have less than a dozen. Almost none of them will be getting brand deals with major fashion houses. They are making their videos in between classes or after work. They are studying in sweatpants or trying on outrageous eyeshadow looks. They are moving into their first apartments or cleaning up their depression rooms. They are eating salmon rice and donuts and cups of ramen. This collective creation of attainable everyday-ness is something we haven’t seen before, or at least not on this scale.
Even though I still struggle with my need to aspire to something outside of myself, I’m encouraged by the fact that, in these glances at the screen, I can recognize what I’m looking at: something familiar and thrillingly boring. It’s so easy to despair nowadays at the twisted games of identity that social media plays on women — the forces that shape our habits and desires before we even know how to articulate them. There’s something refreshing in playing those games right back, in redefining relatability in 60-second clips and sharing glimpses of lives that are “together” — just maybe in a different way.
Alissa Simon ’25 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.