This year, I’ve spent more money than I feel comfortable admitting on making my life and myself more beautiful than ever. I’ve always found inspiration, solace, and energy in enhancing myself and my surroundings — while also being critical of what I consider to be appealing. But this year, I’ve been absorbed in it completely.
Lockdown felt like quicksand — an inertia that led to a frenzied effort to restart the engine of my life. The vibe was supposed to be: nest, rest, and reset. But the false starts of dipping and spiking COVID numbers have had me constantly twisting the ignition. So I self-medicated with Spanish minimalist videos, Korean silent vlogs, and Healing Diaries. I now shop at farmers markets, drink plenty of water, workout daily, journal religiously; I read so much now, and my style is so much more refined. Thanks to the carefully curated guidance of many online creators — I can say that I’m closer to my personal ideal self than I’ve ever been. But that only goes so far.
That Girl — the internet’s daunting image of female perfection — is everywhere now. According to TikTok, uses of #thatgirl started climbing in April and continued to grow through July and there are now fifteen times as many videos. That Girl is a Gold-Star member of the #5amclub, she drinks lemon water before breakfast and has the cutest little rib cage rubbing against the inside of her tiny little torso. She has a bouncy ponytail and despite being so irritatingly perfect, she looks like she’d be a kind and diligent friend. There are over 600 million views under TikTok’s #thatgirl. The earlier video sketches making fun of a range of pick-me girls have been taken over by sunrise matcha lattes, bullet journals, and workout routines.
Alexa Elizabeth is a 17-year old TikTokker (@virgohabits) living in San Diego and she regularly posts #thatgirl content to her growing community of followers. She explains how she felt compelled to be #thatgirl: She was scrolling through her FYP when a video came up, she explains, “saying it was time to become ‘that girl,’ the girl who uses her time productively, takes care of herself, and puts herself and her goals first.”
That Girl is a trend right now, but she isn’t offering anything totally new. In fact, the internet has already seen so many versions of this girl that she doesn’t even need a name, so she has a non-name: That Girl. It’s specific (girl), but still amorphous (that). She exists at a remove (that) but hovers close enough to recognize (girl). That Girl is super-hydrated and majorly self-affirmed; she looks like a combination of Sex and the City’s Natasha and Pixel Perfect’s Loretta Modern. Except she also doesn’t look like anyone you know at all. “I feel like ‘that girl’ isn’t someone specific.” Alexa explains: “She is very different from person to person. It’s who you believe… that ideal girl is.” In a way, the ambiguity gives people space to plug in their own version of perfection but it also creates space for repetitive, socially constructed versions of what’s ideal to seep in. “A lot of what is depicted on social media includes becoming the most productive, best version of yourself — working with what you have,” Alexa says, “and making the most out of it.”
In the realm of womanhood, though, the ideal is a curse. In “Always Be Optimizing,” an essay from her book Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino establishes that the ideal woman has always been generic: “an ordinary woman reproducing the lessons of the marketplace.” The ideal is “that girl” who is able to turn self-care into productivity and productivity into self-care, to the point where she simply is productive and well. We turn ourselves into an ouroboros of productivity and self-care, with the hope, Tolentino writes, that “this will one day stop being ‘work’ or ‘effort’” and that it will soon become “a byproduct of being well.” That ideal girl is everything society wants her to be, which in turn makes her happy because she is being rewarded for being her pretty and productive self.
That Girl walked into the post-vaccination world a threat to the ideal selves I’d settled on during lockdown. My ideal self shops at the farmers market and always knows what’s in season. Rare is the Saturday, though, when I wake up on time to grab my first pick of peaches. That Girl has made me wonder if my life would be so much better if I got up early enough to enjoy the cool morning air and have my pick of the very best peaches.
That Girl demands our attention. Notice how early she wakes up; notice her aesthetic; notice her perfect skin, and her Protestant work ethic soundtracked to Olivia Rodrigo’s “Jealousy.” Fear of That Girl is totally justified: Anyone deemed a woman is measured up against all kinds of superhuman standards while being stripped of any real agency, to the point where we only feel empowered by achieving the very standards that tear us down. But there’s more to That Girl than enviable perfection.
Alexa reminds me of the Golden Rule of being online: “Everyone knows that social media is a highlight reel,” she explains. “It’s this particular type of lifestyle that is highlighted, that helps motivate people to become the best version of themselves.” Sometimes, the trend feels more like an opt-in accountability club, if not a community. One of TikTok’s most popular That Girl accounts, @.becomethat.girl, also hosts a Discord where like-minded youths can gather and exchange the tips and fears they’ve encountered on their paths to That-Girlification. The account’s feed is dotted with customized morning-routine videos, designed in response to follower requests. Alexa’s comment section feels similarly communal: “Even if someone comments that they have ‘no idea where to start’ or they ‘could never achieve that lifestyle,’” she says about it, “there are always supportive people who give tips and advice to help others out.”
Aspirational content is tricky territory, and That Girl is definitely a high-risk candidate for girlbossification, as both a marketing ploy and a meme. That Girl is extremely put together, a quality frequently showcased in highly shoppable TikToks such as “that girl car necessities” or “that girl phone cases from Shein.” But, while these have the look like serious videos that help young women buy their way to their best selves, they could just as likely be parodies of lifestyle influencers and productivity creators. If we look back on the VSCO Girl, we can see how young women are perfectly capable of making fun of themselves and their aspirations, while also pursuing their goals earnestly.
YouTube influencer Emma Chamberlain, who has never been one to take herself — or the trends she pursues — seriously. In recent videos, she’s taken a stab at some That Girl activities like running a marathon with no training and waking up at 5am. At first, waking up early seemed to her a small, low-investment habit that promised a big return. Her goal for the video was to see “see if it makes me feel more productive.” As she drew up a list of pros and cons, she decided that waking up early motivated her to try new things, which in turn made her feel better about herself. She also said it made her feel better than everyone else, pausing then to consider: “That might actually be a con.”
Ideals are vexing — on the one hand, just having, let alone achieving them can make you feel powerful and in control, which can help keep your head above water during, for example, a pandemic. On the other hand, they often embody society's sickest obsessions — thinness, whiteness, ability, wealth. This makes ideals a silly thing to pursue during a pandemic. But the absurdity of ideals is what makes them such a human thing. In Trick Mirror, Tolentino wrote that the complicated thing about an ideal womanhood is that “the ideal woman always believes she came up with herself on her own.” But the concept of originality is also an ideal, nobody is an isolated creation. We are porous beings, enmeshed in a network of our own kind, — dreaming, imagining, aspiring. That Girl is a reminder that so much of building ourselves starts with seeing and mimicking others. Being alive is about looking around and choosing to mimic the best of what we see. Ideally, we’ll always stop and think about what it really means to be our “best” selves. For some people, at least right now, That Girl is also The Best.