Feral girl summer is coming

The clean girl era is over, it’s time to be your most toxic self.

by Roisin Lanigan
15 April 2022, 7:00am

The past two years (and counting) have been defined by the concept of self-improvement. Intermittent periods of locking ourselves away have led us to believe that when we eventually stage our Regency-era return to society, we will do so as better people. We will have read more books; become thinner; be more beautiful, serene, and focused on self-care. Perhaps that’s the byproduct of sheer amount time spent on the social media platforms we’ve become obsessed with during that same period. On TikTok, the aspirational ‘clean girl’ aesthetic — the hashtag for which has 91.6 million views cumulatively, coming in behind the equally aspirational ‘that girl’ hashtag, with 3.6 billion — has inspired ‘day in the life videos’. In them, claw-clip wearing, Gua sha using women rise at 4am for pilates and green juice before returning to bed at 9pm, journaling all that they’re grateful for. 

But just as the clean girl aesthetic has risen in popularity, bolstered by similar belief systems (the omnipresent spectre of ‘self-care’ is just an extension of the toxic girlboss mentality from the late 2010s), so too shall it fall. “Being ‘that girl’ means encompassing a life based on mainstream notions of wellness,” Laura Pitcher wrote for i-D earlier this year. “However, there’s bizarrely no end goal. No marathon you train up to. No reason to wake up at 5 a.m. other than that it seems more efficient.” 

The pressure to reach perfection for no other reason than to say you’ve done so has become so oppressive, so boring, that pushback is inevitable. Look to the resurgence in the indie sleaze aesthetic (or its even-more-Online counterpart “going goblincore”) that peaked at the beginning of this year for instance, or the social media rumblings of women unapologetically entering their “villain era” (also known as their “Fleabag era”, inspired by Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s unapologetically terrible, priest-fucking, fourth-wall breaking character). Disregarding the pressure to be nice, clean and productive, we’re entering a new era: Feral Girl Summer. 

In hashtags alone, it’s gaining on the girlbosses: ‘#feral’ on TikTok currently has 303.6 million hashtagged videos (though many, admittedly, are about rescuing stray cats). A wave of videos on the platform have embraced the ‘feral’ mentality of celebrating our most base level, supposedly toxic selves. “Normalize being fucking weird,” one advises. “And annoying. Nothing wrong with it. Fuck being chill I’m done hiding. I love running around clubs and festivals like a feral rodent. Be free.” If you like one video that advocates surrendering to the worst in ourselves (as I have done), the algorithm will reward you with endless odes to a summer embodied by characters like Broad City’s Ilana, any of the horrible characters on HBO’s Girls or Lana Del Rey’s 10 minute long, melodramatic monologue from “Ride”.

But it’s not just the FYP where feral girl summer is gaining momentum. A quick look at Spotify (my Spotify at least) reveals endless, uber-specific playlists created by women looking ahead to an unhinged season: “For feral, unhinged women”, reads one, filled with bangers from Marina, Lana Del Rey, Mitski, Sleater-Kinney and Phoebe Bridgers. Others bear display pics of feral girl icons: Gemma Collins; Lucille Bluth; Francisco Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son” (but with a Capri Sun instead of the aforementioned son). 

This embrace of feral toxicity, of a female villain era, feels long overdue. Yes, the pandemic advanced the tyranny of deliberately too-small athleisure, Dyson Airwraps, the possibility of infertility through Olaplex, and the requirement of always being morally correct on the internet, but the temptation to reject the expectations of continuous personal growth has been rumbling since way before then. 

“The ideal woman has always been conceptually overworked, an inorganic thing engineered to look natural”, Jia Tolentino wrote in 2019, examining the scam of feminine self-improvement in the essay “Always Be Optimizing” from her book Trick Mirror. “Figuring out how to ‘get better’ at being a woman is a ridiculous and often amoral project,” she adds. It’s one that’s increasingly a trap, escalating in public-facing perpetuity. 

As goblin mode, indie sleaze and villain eras enter our cultural lexicon, the expectation to always be optimising, hustling and girlbossing has been dying in tandem, an overdue death. The hustle culture associated with 75 hard workout plans, rising before the sun while following a 10-step skincare regimen is unappealing, especially to younger generations who see the scam of working themselves to burnout under the artifice of self care and ambition. 

Statistics now regularly show that debt has put Gen Z and young millennials off going to college, and made us more likely to embrace a decidedly anti-work ethos that would see us walk out of a job we hate than stay and ‘hustle’ at it. Just like our perception of ‘self-care’ , the way we perceive ambition has fundamentally changed. It’s unsurprising, then, that we’re suddenly less interested in hiding our base selves in pursuit of an ideal of wellness and goodness and success that’s always out of reach. Being good (both morally and at things) is unappealing when you can be feral instead.

On a more literal level, the feral girl shift in mentality is coming at the perfect time too. After what feels like an endless grey cold winter, the evenings are becoming lighter. Festivals and vacations are back on the horizon, along with bottomless brunches and pub gardens and the insatiable urge to say cigarettes are back on the menu after a single White Claw. Feral girl summer also feels like an antidote to the anticlimax that was summer 2021. After a year of restrictions you could barely breathe for predictions that ‘hot girl summer’ was coming. But instead the weather didn’t deliver, and an expectation to be hot marred what could instead have been three months of being feral (read: ugly but fun).

Feral girl summer doesn’t require hours in the gym, or Shein hauls that will make you feel personally responsible for the climate catastrophe. There is no generic aesthetic, or list of self-help books, or obscene wake-up time, or punishing, ass-centric workout routine, or green smoothie recipe that will herald in feral girl summer. It’s a state of mind, a state of being. It’s already in us all, just waiting to be unleashed. Enjoy it now; worry about picking up the pieces come September.

Follow i-D on Instagram and TikTok for more on going feral.