Why the ‘That Girl’ TikTok trend is more sinister than it seems 



When self-improvement turns toxic.

I was scrolling through my TikTok feed recently (as per) when my algorithm started spitting the same type of videos back to me again and again. They usually started with a perfectly made bed, a fresh green juice and healthy baked oats.

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A slim, White woman would come into frame sharing the results of her elaborate skincare and workout routines before taking aesthetic videos of her expensive Le Labo body wash. “Become that girl with me” the caption would say. But who exactly is That Girl? 

@.becomethat.girlbecome that girl with me. we start tomorrow. follow to join our journey. #thatgirl #fyp #4u #foryoupage #follow #like #aesthetic #monday.♬ Seaside_demo by SEB – SEB

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I grew up using the blogging site Tumblr in the 2010s, so this type of aspirational content isn’t new to me. It’s simply been repackaged for the TikTok era. Any early to mid-twenty-something will remember the thigh gap debates and pro-ana content that flooded our feeds and our impressionable teenage minds.  

While the That Girl trend isn’t as obviously damaging, it’s only because of our recent awareness around mental health that this content is marketed as aspirational ‘self-care’ rather than toxic thinspo content. 

The premise of That Girl is, ostensibly, to inspire. The videos feature upbeat music or a motivating speech by the law of attraction guru Abraham Hicks. They’re documenting an aesthetic morning routine or they’re an amalgamation of Pinterest-worthy pictures. So what’s so damaging about these videos? It’s when you realise there’s generally only one type of person represented in them: a slim, conventionally attractive, usually wealthy, White woman. 

Trends such as these are reinforcing (to a predominantly young audience as well) that this one singular type of woman is the ideal. Almost all of the women under the That Girl hashtag give off an air of success and self-satisfaction, and each of them reinforces society’s long-held Eurocentric beauty standards. 

Self-optimising sabotage 

You’ve most likely spent a lot of time by yourself this past year, and potentially endured much more serious challenges like lack of steady employment and the isolation and financial woes that come with that.

Our social distractions dissipated almost overnight and suddenly we were sitting in our room with a Pilates instructor telling us through a screen to do just one more rep. In many ways, what we eat, how we move our bodies and our self-care routines have become the only things we can control in a world that’s increasingly unpredictable. 

That Girl videos capitalise on this. They hyper fixate on self-improvement until all you can think about is if your morning routine is visually pleasing enough to share with your followers. 

A post by London-based psychotherapist Seerut K. Chawla exemplifies this unhealthy obsession with being the best we can be saying, “It’s a funny dichotomy, because on one hand we have the encouragement of a very egocentric, self fixated/absorbed way of being, and on the other, treating oneself like a project that must constantly be improved in order to avoid what is actually going on internally.⁣”

Could the people making the That Girl videos be showcasing elements of their physical or mental illnesses (e.g. disordered eating and self-esteem issues) and encouraging similarly damaging behaviours in their viewers? Potentially.

Over fixating on any one aspect of your life or appearance often points to something troubling bubbling below the surface, and treating yourself like a project is a symptom of our incredibly toxic culture of self-optimisation.

We’re conditioned to believe that we could always be doing better: eating cleaner, exercising more and adopting a more rigorous skincare routine. But most importantly, we collectively understand that there’s an expectation that we showcase our attempts to better ourselves to our audiences (because we all have audiences now, right?)

On this topic, author Jia Tolentino once wrote that “The ideal woman, in other words, is always optimising. She takes advantage of technology, both in the way she broadcasts her image and in the meticulous improvement of that image itself.” 

We’re comparing ourselves more than any generation in history. We’re bombarded with the highlight reels’ of friends, acquaintances and strangers on the daily and now TikTokers are saying that with a bit of discipline, you too could become the most together version of yourself. 

Realistic routines 

Thankfully, other users have also noticed the whitewashed That Girl trend and are pushing back against it by showcasing a more honest depiction of their day-to-day lives. TikTok user @the_peoples_princess uploaded a video with the text caption “When the aesthetics are immaculate but you are also depressed”, showing a clean room, a cup of coffee and an outfit shot before panning to dirty dishes, an overflowing bin and unfolded laundry. 

@the_peoples_princessEverything is a lie ! 🤡 #depressionroom #fyp #lockdown #artoktiktok♬ original sound – crack baby

Another video by user @dveluz even hashtagged the That Girl trend but uploaded a “Not aesthetic Saturday morning routine”. We see her laundry on her bed, watch her drive to McDonald’s at 11.45am and chill out on the couch. 

@dveluzmcdonalds iced coffee do be hitting different tho 👀 #fyp #minivlog #dailyvlog #thatgirl♬ original sound – xxtristanxo

These videos are rare but they’re a much-needed antidote to the toxic, productivity-obsessed content the That Girl sub-genre creates. 

Mindful motivation

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to improve yourself. Sometimes these videos can spark motivation to get out for a walk, make a healthy meal or practice gratitude. It’s when creating or consuming these trends becomes an obsession that they turn into something toxic. 

Because That Girl is the embodiment of the Internet’s fixation on women’s self-improvement. That Girl is achieving her goals with ease. That Girl is the epitome of health and wealth. That Girl is attractive, but in an effortless and natural way. That Girl is the sinister side of success. And the algorithm tells us that with a little hard work, you can become That Girl, too. 

For more on our obsession with self-optimisation, try this.

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