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McGrath ’24: 'That Girl' and the illusory promise of online wellness culture

“That Girl” — freshly manicured and acne free, social media’s new wellness darling is the pinnacle of physical and mental fitness. She’s ravishingly thin and typically white, and she definitely woke up earlier than you did. After downing a bottle of cold-pressed celery juice, she pops on her SKIMs loungewear set for a quick round of gratitude journaling before heading to class or the office. “That Girl” has become shorthand for the girl who has it all together. She’s everything you're not but desperately want to be — “That Girl” is aspirationally unrelatable. 

Highlighted in a series of “That Girl” morning and nighttime routines, this notorious TikTok trend first gained mainstream popularity last April. Now, after a brief hiatus, these trendy routine videos have started to reappear on my For You page just in time for January's annual diet reboot. Currently, #ThatGirl has a whopping 2.4 billion views on TikTok

While New Year's resolutions might be slightly out of vogue, it’s pretty easy to spot the parallels between “That Girl” and the traditional “New Year New Me” mindset. Whether it be eating healthy, getting to the gym, reading more or saving money, January is notoriously a month focused on self-improvement. And when it comes to optimizing your daily routine, “That Girl” is the archetypal “girl who has it all.” But just like most New Year's resolutions, it’s also a fantasy destined to fall short. As the name suggests, becoming “That Girl” is impossible to separate from the fantasy of becoming someone else entirely — ensuring that all attempts to imitate this new wellness fad will inevitably fail to provide the cinematic life that these videos implicitly promise. 

We tend to apply a form of magical thinking when it comes to self-help, convincing ourselves that simply adopting a new healthy habit or losing those last five pounds will miraculously transform everything we don’t like about ourselves. The common “New Year New Me” mantra is telling. The fantasy isn’t just that we’ll start waking up before the sun, but that in doing so we’ll somehow become the type of person for whom waking up early comes naturally. That we’ll suddenly adopt the extroversion and uber-productivity that we associate with “morning people,” but that isn’t necessarily caused by waking up early. 

To this same effect, “That Girl” is not an actual person that exists but a persona you can attempt to adopt (you might not want to go running and drink green juice every day, but don’t you want to be the type of girl that does?). And while influencers will insist that “That Girl” is a trend focused on “wellness” rather than aesthetics, it’s probably not a coincidence that these social media “It” girls are almost always thin and conventionally attractive. Thus, the appeal of “That Girl” is not just her aspirational productivity, but the implicit promise that if you follow her routine, you’ll achieve her physique, beauty and luxurious lifestyle too — all things that can probably be better attributed to some combination of genetics, luck and wealth rather than apple cider vinegar gummies and “Hot Girl” walks along Sunset Boulevard. 

Perhaps tellingly, “That Girl” routines rarely highlight the user’s face and typically don’t include a voice-over. Rather, they all feature some form of inspirational music, an Emily Mariko-inspired editing style and, of course, an abundance of ab shots. With this predictable format and the notable lack of identifiable features, all of these videos eerily seem like they could have been made by the same person. This anonymity is a crucial part of the fantasy — it maintains the illusion that anyone can become “That Girl” if they just work hard enough. 

And the “That Girl” work ethic doesn’t just extend to physical fitness. Not only is she ultra-productive when it comes to her workout and career goals, but between her crystal collection and daily meditation practice, she’s similarly dedicated to a set of new age self-care habits. “That Girl” has managed to optimize her R & R regimen as well. Self-care is no longer just something to enjoy, but something to achieve. 

This drive towards self-optimization has obvious ties to capitalism — our wellness routines need to be maximally productive because we quite literally can’t spare a single second in a world with such a dominant gig economy. And in a culture where individual success has become paramount, self-optimization starts to take on a moral value as well as a financial one. It’s a phenomenon that experts have deemed internalized capitalism — in the words of Anders Hayden, a political science professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, the “idea that our self-worth is directly linked to our productivity.” 

Growing up in a culture that worships at the altars of “self-made” billionaires, most of us place a high moral value on conventional success and the supposed self-discipline required to achieve it. It’s what explains the twisted yet all too relatable impulse to walk into a crowded room declaring that all you’ve had to eat today was an iced coffee or that you pulled an all-nighter writing an essay. The implicit notion is that my ability to delay self gratification, while unhealthy, is inherently impressive because it was difficult to achieve. And while hard work can certainly be virtuous when it's in pursuit of something good, we tend to place this moral value on self-discipline itself rather than the actual goal it’s servicing — allowing us to effectively rebrand self-obsession and even self-mortification as somehow praiseworthy. 

With these implications in mind, the “That Girl” trend looks eerily similar to traditional social media virtue signaling. I wrote last summer about the intersection between social media and performance — how the ability to consciously craft our online personas can easily become an exercise in projection rather than self-expression. If you’ve ever opened Instagram just to stare critically at your own profile, then you likely know what I’m talking about: The more chronically online we become, the more we start to view ourselves as characters from the outside looking in. Similarly, adopting the “That Girl” persona on social media is inherently performative — it allows us to act out the fantasy lives we’ve long attached to our New Year's resolutions, only now for an external audience. When “That Girl” posts a sweaty post-Soul Cycle selfie or a picture of her new “favorite” green juice, she’s not just showing off her perfectly optimized routine, but flexing the self-discipline and work ethic supposedly required to maintain it. 

Whether it be jade rolling, slugging or going gluten-free, social media never fails to remind us of all the ways we could be doing better. There’s always something else to improve, another element of our routine to optimize. And with our productivity so deeply entangled with our sense of self, ignoring these constant messages can feel almost neglectful. It’s honestly the perfect marketing scheme: We’ve been conditioned to associate moral worth with achievement, and with the algorithmic badgering of the Internet, there’s always going to be another way you’re failing to measure up. It’s a paradox designed to leave us unsatisfied. 

In a culture intent on pointing out your every flaw, there is innate power in accepting that there might be nothing wrong with you after all. That resisting the impulse to tear ourselves apart might actually be a source of social solidarity, rather than a sign of individual weakness. In a world that currently pushes individual achievement at the expense of almost everything else, once we finally set aside the endless competitions and corrosive self-criticism, we’ll be surprised about how much more time we’re left with to actually show up for ourselves and one another.

Sarah McGrath ’24 can be reached at sarah_v_mcgrath@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.




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