Personal Essay: TikTok’s “That Girl”: Perfectionism or Toxic Productivity?

 



[Image Description: The white plate is held over a bush. On the plate are two pieces of avocado toast and some parsley. Photo is taken at the golden hour.]

Photo and essay by Catherine Rose

We’ve all seen her, we all know her, and we all want to be her: That Girl. The girl who uses Notion to minutely plan every iota of her day. The girl who wakes up at ungodly hours of the morning to do Pilates before snapping shots of her VSCO-filtered matcha latte. The girl who journals in illegibly beautiful loopy writing and exclusively eats acai smoothie bowls. 

Essentially a more evolved and productive version of Hot Girl Summer, That Girl’s time to shine is in the early months of the year, when we’re making resolutions and holding ourselves accountable for, y’know, normal human behaviours such as eating and sleeping in. She originally spawned in mid-2021 in the niche corners of TikTok, the app we all lie to ourselves about not being addicted to, and now she’s made her way over to the mainstream as a viral phenomenon. “That Girl Morning Routine” and “That Girl Beauty Hacks” are just some of the titles of the never-ending bombardment of her presence across YouTube wellness spaces. And now that the New Year is upon us, That Girl, like a werewolf under a full moon, is at her most powerful. Try as you might, you can’t escape her. You can refresh your Tik Tok FYP as much as you like, but That Girl? She’s like a roach or a clingy ex- she keeps coming back. 

She’s flawless. She’s enigmatic. She’s cool. You? You’re messy and dishevelled. You’re sloppy and lazy and always late. If you tried to make a mango-banana-avocado-strawberry protein smoothie, it would suck. You should watch all those YouTube videos and try and be more like her, you lazy little gremlin.

But here’s the truth about That Girl

She’s a lie. 

You know that feeling when you take an aesthetically pleasing photo of your bedroom, but the photo only looks good because, like a deranged squirrel, you’ve buried all of your overflowing clothes under your bed? Yeah…that feeling- a weird blend of pride and duplicity. Sure, your perfectly curated picture looks nice on the surface, but if you were to turn 180 degrees and snap another photo, you’d be exposing yourself as a fraudulent collector of crap. 

This, I feel, is a pretty decent metaphor for TikTok’s That Girl. She curates herself to perfection. She polishes her personality. She sells an unrealistic lifestyle to you. And then she posts all her productivity online for your gullible and lazy self to lust over- no offence- we’re in the same boat here, you and I. 

See, it’s so easy to get swept under her spell. Society demands perfection and productivity from its young people, and the That Girl trend is just another way of guilt-tripping us to reach for a higher standard. Now, to some degree, this doesn’t sound all that bad. Making a journal to track your schedule? Sounds reasonable. Eating copious amounts of fruit and veg? Ehh… why not, in moderation? But see, that’s exactly the problem. That Girl does nothing in moderation. She wakes up at five AM on. The. Dot. Everything is cold and calculated; there is no room for failure here.

Reminiscent of toxic weight-loss culture trends, That Girl is a cult of productivity, exclusivity and extremism. You’re either drinking exactly three litres of water every day for the rest of your life, or you’re just not doing it right. It’s an all-or-nothing mindset that’s inescapable once you subscribe to her religion of perfection. Missteps don’t exist in the world of That Girl. This is why, when we inevitably slip up- forget to add kale to our shopping list, for example- we feel deeply, deeply ashamed. We beat ourselves up. We could never be herWho did we think we were fooling? Now we can see through our own façade, we don’t like ourselves anymore. We become angry. Frustrated. Why can’t we just try a little harder, focus more, chip away at a little bit more of ourselves to mould us into the perfectly productive marble statue society craves?

So, what do we do? Fuelled by envy and despair, we turn to the internet to sniff out all the latest products that we need in order to meet these ludicrously high standards. Bath bombs, scented candles, yoga mats, face masks- anything and everything that we blindly believe will make us better at being a successful girl-boss. Besides from her blatant capitalism pandering, That Girl is also problematic for a whole host of other reasons. Is her gruelling workout routine accessible for disabled folks? Would a person with ADHD or depression be able to keep up with her rigorous schedule? Reminiscent of Molly Mae’s recent reassurance that “we all have the same 24 hours in a day”, That Girl alienates the marginalised and disadvantaged. Another disturbing factor in this viral wellness trend is that That Girl is almost always exclusively white, skinny and loaded with cash- just a simple scroll through TikTok’s #ThatGirl tag reveals an endless array of Eurocentric features and luxury items that only a disposable income can buy. Her USP is her exclusivity, and it’s damaging for the rest of us.

It’s not the fault of these girls as individuals- young women place so much pressure on themselves to be perfect, and That Girl is just another tragic reach to please the capitalistic society we inhabit. But the trend itself has gone too far. It’s got us reaching for unsustainable levels of perfection and excluding others in the process. Nobody is perfect 24/7. Yes, that includes those annoying people you went to school with who constantly humblebrag on LinkedIn. We’re humans. We’re flawed and we’re messy, and we forget our keys and accidentally drop dishes and buy self-help books only for them to sit stale on our bedside tables for years. And that’s okay. Why? Because we can’t do everything all at once. We can’t be the gold standard girl that capitalism has conditioned us to crave. If we could, we wouldn’t be human. Actually, we would be insufferable. 

Still want your 2022 glow-up? Fine, go ahead and start setting your alarm a little earlier if you like. But make sure that you’re doing it for you, not her. Listen to what your body tells you, act intuitively, prioritise your mental wellbeing over toxic productivity, and don’t be fooled by those impossible standards. At the end of the day, I bet That Girl also has a collection of dirty underwear piling up on her floor, too.


Catherine Rose (she/her) is 23, from the UK, and a recent English Literature and Creative Writing graduate. She loves writing about LGBT culture, feminism, queer relationships, mental health, and anything else that excites her heart and inspires her to tell a story. You can find her on Instagram @catherinierose and read more of her writing at https://fluoxequeen.wordpress.com.