#ThatGirl is taking over TikTok, but what's behind the viral trend and why is it potentially doing more harm than good?

A deep-dive into the new social media phenomenon 
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Carol Yepes

Since the advent of social media, aspirational content has taken on a whole new meaning. First, there was Victoria’s Secret angels documenting their workout routines, then couples in seemingly perfect relationships who quit their jobs to travel the world and finally, YouTubers sharing what they eat in a day (every day).

As TikTok continues to grow, becoming the most downloaded app in the world in 2020, it seemed like it might have avoided this kind of content. The app is known for its catchy dances, comedic sketches and a somewhat democratised algorithm in which views are more important than likes. But a new trend has emerged on TikTok that is not dissimilar to the viral posts of social media’s past. In fact, it’s name perfectly encapsulates the essence of online aspiration, as it’s all about becoming #ThatGirl.

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‘That Girl’ wakes up between five and six am, working out, drinking her morning smoothie and journaling and/or meditating before the rest of the world has had a cup of coffee. She wears perfectly clean and ironed loungewear and makes breakfasts that are as visually appealing as they are nutritionally rich.

The trend sees women creating videos documenting their daily routines, on their quest to become ‘That Girl’. The #ThatGirl hashtag on TikTok has over 1.3 billion views and this kind of content has perhaps peaked with the rise of Emily Mariko, a creator who shares the process of her making healthy recipes, as well as organisational and lifestyle content.

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“I discovered the ‘That Girl’ trend when I was pulling myself from rock bottom,” says Sara Elly, a 19-year old content creator living in Albuquerque, USA, whose video about the TED Talks you should watch to help you become ‘That Girl’ went viral.

"What appealed to me most is the active support system made up of a community of people that wanted to do better,” she says.

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So, what does it mean to become #ThatGirl on TikTok? The ‘That Girl’ trend is all about self-improvement, focussing mainly on productivity and mental health. The TikToks promoting the trend are often heavily aesthetics-based, with clean, pastel desk setups and Instagram-worthy breakfasts.

“When I first began to see that my TikTok algorithm had transitioned into wellness and health content, I began to feel less guilty about mindlessly scrolling,” says Olivia Eve Shabo, 21, from New Jersey, who also started creating ‘That Girl’ content, alongside her self-growth podcast. “I was fascinated by how much a short clip could motivate me to get up and move my body, wake up early or get work done.”

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For creators like Sara and Olivia, the ‘That Girl’ lifestyle helps them to balance productivity and self-care. And although the trend encourages discipline it certainly doesn’t advocate an ‘all work no play’ approach to life - ‘That Girl’ meditates and journals as much as she spends time working.

30-year-old Aimee from Swansea discovered the ‘That Girl’ trend earlier this year and has what she describes as a love/hate relationship with it. “When I first found the ‘That Girl’ trend, I felt like my life was in tatters,” she says. “When I saw these women who seemed to have it all figured out and who made life look so glamorous and so easy, I wanted that for myself. I wanted to be ‘That Girl’ too.”

Aimee explains that she found the content motivating and she became interested in personal development as a result of watching it. “It was also hugely frustrating. I realised very early on that I was never going to be ‘That Girl’’ because, in real life, she doesn’t exist,” she adds.

The main issue with the ‘That Girl’ trends is that it sets unattainable standards - not just beauty standards but a lifestyle standard that is almost impossible to keep up with in the long term. 

“Often people turn to content like this online when they’re going through a difficult time and are seeking a solution or an answer,” says Michelle Scott, a psychotherapist and eating disorder specialist at TRC Group. “This can be healthy - like when we listen to music to find connection - but it becomes negative when we feel like we’re missing something from our own lives.”

Scott points out that many of the activities the ‘That Girl’ trend encourages can be helpful tools for people struggling with their mental health, such as journaling and meditation. “They’re not bad principles. It’s the prescriptiveness with which they’re delivered that is the problem,” she says, explaining that the messaging of many of the That Girl Videos is too one size fits all.

“The clean and crisp aesthetic makes my own life seem messy and chaotic in comparison,” says Lindy, 24, from Gloucestershire, explaining that watching ‘That Girl’ videos has damaged her own self-worth. Despite this, she explains that she finds the content “addictive” and the TikTok algorithm means it keeps being shown to her.

“When we are in a place of emotional distress, our brain is looking for answers, even if those answers are unhealthy,” says Scott. “But if those answers don’t really work for us, it can prevent us from really processing trauma.”

Scott adds that becoming ‘That Girl’ means conforming to a rigid aesthetic, one that totally lacks diversity. “It’s very whitewashed, almost as though ‘That Girl’ only looks one way,” says Lola, 28, from London, who was quickly turned off from the trend as it “painted an unrealistic portrayal of personal growth.”

“You need to ask yourself when consuming content like this, are you looking at an aesthetic or a broader sense of values?” Scott says, adding that you should also consider whether you’re looking to the trend for external validation.

Alex, 20, from Manchester, found the ‘That Girl’ trend immediately triggering, having previously struggled with an eating disorder.  “These videos are very often associated with weight loss and villainize laziness and I don’t think they encourage a healthy relationship with eating,” Alex says.

Scott has worked with many women dealing with eating disorders and she says content like the ‘That Girl’ videos can be potentially harmful. “Social media doesn’t create eating disorders but it gives us the means to look at something we might want to be if we don’t feel good about ourselves,” she says.

If the ‘That Girl’ trend has proven anything, it’s that everyone has a unique experience of social media and the trends that come from it. While some have found the ‘That Girl’ trend to be a way to discover community and self-worth, others have had the total opposite experience.

Fortunately, there really is something on TikTok for everyone, with a whole host of diverse women creating content that sees them accept themselves for who they are, whether they’re ‘That Girl’ or not.