Still via TikTok

Girlboss culture isn't dead, it's rebranded as "that girl" now

On the back of the millennial girlboss aesthetic, the “that girl” wellness trend is taking over TikTok.

by Laura Pitcher
21 July 2021, 10:01am

Still via TikTok

“This is your sign to become ‘that girl’,” says a viral TikTok soundtracked to Harry Styles, before proceeding to share aesthetic photos with phrases like “healthy breakfast before yoga”, “face care” and “self love”. As the latest addition to our social media vocabulary, the vague and indescriptive phrase — “that girl” — has become a source of inspiration on TikTok. There are thousands of videos documenting the “that girl” morning routine or “that girl” summer inspiration. With no definition of what exactly “that” means, the videos share a few common themes — waking up extremely early, taking aesthetically pleasing photos, working out, making your bed and eating healthy.

Look a little closer, though, and you’ll see that “that girl” content has a lot in common with that of the very millennial, faux empowerment “girlboss” canon, which places value on productivity alone and calls it feminism. Bizarrely, the “that girl” trend also comes after a recent cultural rebuttal of the girlboss archetype and the memeification of “girlboss, gaslight, gatekeep.” While Gen Z are said to have rejected overworking as a means of aspiration, the focus has instead become an obsession with schedules, with “that girl” dialogue turning us all into our own constant self-improvement projects.

Similar to other fitness videos on social media, being “that girl” means encompassing a life based on mainstream notions of wellness. 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. This, says Carl Cederström, associate professor at Stockholm University and co-author of The Wellness Syndrome, is a key flaw in our current obsession with wellness culture, with the internet turning wellness into an ideology. 

“Our culture of self-help generally has no purpose. You don’t ask yourself why you’re doing each of these things, you just do it,” Carl tells i-D. “You very rarely find a book on why you should lose weight. It’s always how you should lose weight.” This means our approach to health is currently far more aesthetic than science-driven, excluding marginalised people from being conceived as healthy and feeding into fatphobia. Research shows us that true wellness is the opposite, with a 2015 study finding that fat people who feel discriminated against have shorter life expectancies than those who don't.

Carl explains that in the wake of girlboss culture, we’re seeing a marriage of work and wellness, shifting from work ethic to “work out ethic”. This, he says, is part of 24/7 capitalism and has been further fuelled by social isolation during the pandemic (where the first response for many staying home was to create a rigorous schedule and workout routine). “Increasingly, we are taught or socialised into thinking about ourselves as our own corporations,” he says. “The erosion of the line of private and profession is something you see in these trends because it means the work never ends. The work is your life itself.” 

What girlboss culture has previously been critiqued for — sexism, capitalist aspiration and limited empowerment — also stands true for its new-fangled replacement. Young women on TikTok have begun to share videos of themselves struggling to be “that girl” or being “that girl” without the aesthetic. And men on the app are feeding into this new unattainable goal for women by posting seemingly empowering and aspirational messaging from the male gaze. 

“Alpha females don't run in packs. She’s often alone, keeps her circle small, knows her power and works in silence,” says one viral video created by @chrisgqperry1. Soon, women were dueting the video with fitness content, as if isolating yourself from others or not partaking in social activities is a mark of optimum health. Once again, research says otherwise, with a 2017 study showing that rising individualism within society is having negative mental health consequences

Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University, offers many scientifically proven steps for boosting happiness in her popular course, The Science of Well-Being. This includes participating in small acts of kindness and prioritising social connection, both of which centre community wellness. 

“As someone who studies happiness, it's great to see that more people are focusing on wellness and wellbeing. But I think that we want to do that, not in this aspirational way where it's something we have to do, but that it's something that we really are doing for good reasons,” she says. “Whenever I see people engaging in wellness practices without a little bit of self-compassion, I often get worried that the practice of going after being a healthier person is making you more unhealthy — just because of the stress of doing that.” 

Laurie notes that the concerning part of the “that girl” messaging is that the aesthetically-inclined wellness trend tends to not come with a lot of acceptance. “We feel like we have to be ‘that girl’, that we have to be doing something,” she says. The pandemic has caused many people to reconsider their own participation in hustle culture, Laurie explains, but focusing more on our wellbeing should always come with the goal of being patient with ourselves.

This past year may have marked the death of the girlboss as we know it, but the emphasis on productivity and individualism to the point of self-absorption is far from over. Instead of hustling to be CEOs, we’re hustling to be the most optimised version of ourselves under the guise of being “that girl”. But this hasn’t addressed the core issue: the hustle itself. 

As long as we’re constantly striving to achieve unrealistic ideals and treating ourselves as projects, the capitalistic mentality remains and mental health suffers. Instead, research shows we should be caring for ourselves without pressure, and directing our energy into also caring for loved ones and the people around us. Luckily, this approach to wellness doesn’t require you to get up at 5am on a strict schedule and take perfect photos of your breakfast. You can wake up later, leave your bed unmade, enjoy drinks with your friends and still be “that girl” (whatever that even means).

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