"All that the 'that girl' trend did to me is give me an eating disorder and made me hate my life," a young woman named Dahyuni tweeted last month.
Who is ‘that girl’? ‘That girl’ isn’t just healthy, she’s professionally successful and looks her best at every moment. She wakes up every morning at 5.30am so she can seize the day and her nails are always uniform, manicured and eternally chip-free.
Becoming ‘that girl’ videos are all over TikTok and YouTube, blending classic wellness tropes like avocado on toast and early morning yoga with self-optimisation and hustle porn. In these videos, thin, predominantly white women wake up, work out, eat, write their goals for the day and drink an iced coffee, all before 7am. Crucially, they make it look beautiful and serene. Everything – from the depiction of meals to the perfectly laid out workout set – has a minimalist aesthetic, resembling a moving Pinterest board.
This so-called 'perfection' and girlboss-style professional achievement is something we all aspire to on some level, which is why the TikTok and YouTube videos showing these scenes are so appealing. Similar concepts have been seen over the years on Tumblr and Pinterest and endure for the same reason. Who doesn’t fetishise being a glamorous, productive, perfect version of themselves?
Within the trend are some darker elements, however, which are easily overlooked because of how beautiful everything is. Under-eating, toxic productivity and the promotion of one, non-diverse image of health are some of the issues with ‘that girl’.
Despite TikTok’s diversity of creators, nearly all the videos I have seen under the umbrella of this trend are of thin white women. This is unsurprising to a degree – wellness has long faced accusations of whitewashing and a lack of diversity – but TikTok videos are user-generated, suggesting women of colour don’t feel sufficiently aligned to wellness or at least to the ‘that girl’ trend to join in.
This is especially bad considering the roots of ‘that girl’.
"At first I think the intentions of this trend were pure; the term ‘that girl’ was popular among Black women and Black queer folks, and white women have taken it over and they put an aesthetic over it that is not achievable to many," says Jada, 17, from Illinois. Jada also makes the point that the videos pushing the trend generally centre white women, which suggests that whiteness is aspirational.
That’s not the only issue, though. Some of the women in the videos arguably promote under-eating as an ideal, proudly showing that a typical day being ‘that girl’ involves eating the equivalent of an egg white omelette on toast for breakfast, a yoghurt and almonds for lunch and a salad for dinner. Experts say we need a minimum of 1,200 calories daily to stay healthy and it would be surprising if those meals amounted to anything close to that figure.
I flagged five videos to TikTok while working on this article; only one violated the platform’s community guidelines for eating disorders and was taken down.
"Being true to yourself is celebrated and encouraged on TikTok. As a platform, we're focused on safeguarding our community from harmful content and behaviours while supporting an inclusive – and body-positive – environment," a TikTok spokesperson told me.
The ‘that girl’ aesthetic is comparable to the clean eating, wellness gurus of the 2010s – presenting extremely low-calorie, carb-lacking meals as aesthetically beautiful, all the while masking and spreading a fear of ‘unhealthy’ aka enjoyable, joyous food. We have a word for what this sparked in countless viewers: orthorexia, an unhealthy obsession with eating 'pure' food. But back then, many of us had never considered that online trends could destroy our relationship with food under the guise of health.
There’s "a sense of controlling your intake of food through the aesthetic meal," i.e. a meal that is neat and attractive but prioritises nutrition and aesthetic over taste, says Dr Stephanie Baker, a senior lecturer in sociology at City University and an expert in online wellness, having researched the industry for eight years. Many of the meals promoted by wellness influencers – tiny dishes of spiralised courgette, acai bowls, quinoa – are not particularly filling but are made to look beautiful online.
"I think we see a sort of similar thing with Marie Kondo, and that aesthetic tidying up shows the relationship between order and control," she adds.
Marie Kondo is best known for her bestselling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and Netflix show Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, where she showed her six-part rules for cleaning and ordering a home. The end result is always minimal perfection, with clothes rolled and folded in perfectly organised drawers. Not only is it gorgeous to look at but viewers gain a sort of secondhand high from seeing these well-ordered homes.
Kondo’s mantra of throwing away items that don’t "spark joy" became a meme, straddling productivity porn and our love of transformations – in this case, from mess to tidy. There’s a similar high from ‘that girl’ videos, which promote the dizzying idea that we can all achieve perfection (read: control) in every aspect of our lives. At best, you could phrase it as being on your A-game in every way. And is that always a bad thing?
Twenty-two-year-old TikToker Marie Anna has 30k followers. She’s been uploading lifestyle content, including routines, daily vlogs, lifestyle tips, healthy diet and motivational videos for the past few months. Her ‘that girl’ videos don’t promote under-eating, which she doesn’t condone. She tells me that she began making ‘that girl’-style content before it became a trend, after starting 2021 with a new goal to work on herself and document it on TikTok.
"I made the video in hopes of inspiring others to be more productive and start living a healthier lifestyle," she explains. "People often leave comments on my videos telling me how it inspired them to work on themselves, eat healthier and be more productive, which makes me really happy because that is essentially my goal with my TikTok videos."
Marie Anna acknowledges the other side, too, saying she knows that not everyone can or wants to live like she does. "I definitely don’t want anyone to feel pressured by this trend," she added. At the same time, she admitted that she sometimes feels the pressure herself to do her ‘that girl’ routine every day, especially as she now posts the videos on TikTok daily.
The issue is that "these trends blow up so big, they get uncontrolled when it comes to maintaining the messaging behind it," says 21-year-old Zoe Amira from Chicago, who is a ‘that girl’ fan.
She adds: "It’s one thing to see one girl who really takes her time with plating her avocado toast, waking up at 5am and going on a jog in matching Lululemons but when 500 other girls on your For You Page are trying to achieve the exact same thing, it becomes more of an expectation for how you should be living rather than just a particular way of doing things."
Wellness positions itself against other lifestyles in a way which often feels very all-or-nothing as opposed to something someone can dip in and out of alongside appreciating McDonald’s and partying.
In 2016, food writer Ruby Tandoh wrote about the toxic "purity fetish" of the language used by clean eating influencers.
"That sort of language always carries with it a kind of moral assumption about what's better," says Dr Baker, likening it to religious language.
"In the wellness industry, there’s quite a positive spin in terms of living your best life but what you're seeing there is really more about a kind of ideal, and whenever you have that ideal that people are striving towards, that obviously always comes with a dark side of rejection when you don’t meet it."
"The internet has a terrible toxic hustle culture that doesn't actually motivate me to do anything, it just guilts me for what I am not doing," says Jinan, 20, who is based in the US. Jinan wrote a Twitter thread in May detailing why she feels the trend is so toxic. In it, she hits on a crucial point: "Lots of the videos don't actually go into detail about how to be 'that girl' instead they just [show] pictures and clips of themselves working out, studying and being skinny. Maybe if the general trend went into more detail on HOW rather than the look it would be more useful."
"It's a made-up concept yet everyone is aspiring to be a girl that never existed while they could be the girls they are supposed to be – themselves," she tells me.
The interesting thing about ‘that girl’ is that it wraps wellness, hustle culture and self-care into one neat, unrealistic package. Viewers are encouraged to use it as a blueprint for how to have it all, believing that the women in the videos are living their lives to an impeccable standard and offering us insights into how to do the same.
But like self-care, some of the suggestions associated with ‘that girl’ are questionable.
One ‘that girl’ TikTok video shows a girl in the middle of a depressive episode, trapped in her untidy room and unable to leave her messy bed. She decides to pull herself out of it and becomes ‘that girl’ and suddenly everything is great: she looks amazing, face made up, hair bouncy and curled, and her room is tidy again. 'Mental health cured!' is the implicit suggestion.
Some TikTok trends will naturally flatten complex concepts because, in fairness, how do you introduce nuance into a short clip? While it might help temporarily, the notion that cleaning your room, putting on makeup and having a green juice could ever cure depression is simply not helpful for most people. Similarly, just as TikTok compresses self-care into a neat aesthetic, the ‘that girl’ trend risks insinuating that you can hack your way to success and happiness by using a few shortcuts.
But as we all know, you can't. Plus, appearance and reality are not necessarily one and the same. The pursuit of perfection is something I understand but I can’t untangle it from my own experiences of disordered eating and uncontrollable anxiety. Maybe I’m never going to be ‘that girl’ but that’s because she’s become a parody of excellence which is impossible for most of us to attain without burnout.
So, rather than try to be ‘that girl’, I'll strive to be a mentally balanced, healthier version of myself who doesn’t punish herself for sleeping in on Sundays. And in among the chaos of life, sometimes it’s nice to make a green juice and lay out nicely sliced strawberries on my breakfast, knowing that no one else will appreciate it because it’s just for me.