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by Asia Ewart

Asia Ewart explores the dark side to the 'That Girl' phenomenon with creator Eli Rallo and social media psychology teacher Varnica Arora.

Beep, beep, beep!

Her eyes jolt open as the alarm rings at 6 a.m. on the dot. She throws her comforter over her body, revealing Gymshark’s newest fitness set, and jumps into the starting position of her sun salutation. Sufficiently zen, she hops into a morning shower, fresh eucalyptus hanging neatly from the showerhead. She hydrates profusely as she sets her intentions for the day. Her homemade acai bowl turned out so Insta-worthy, it deserves its own Highlight. She stops in front of the mirror for a quick fit check before heading out the door (pop that foot into frame, bestie!) and flips her thick, blonde hair over her shoulder while grinning at her reflection.

This is what it means to have your life together, you think matter-of-factly as you like this girl’s video. One “like” becomes two, two become five, and five means you might as well follow her on TikTok, Instagram and Twitter. How else will you know what foods to eat, where to shop, what skincare regimen to follow, how to pose, how to style your hair, what phone to upgrade to, where to brunch and where to turn up on Saturday night? How else can you stop being you and become her?

“When you think about ‘That Girl,’ you’re thinking of a thin white woman,” content creator Eli Rallo explains, “She is who society’s idea of what beautiful is, someone who upholds the male gaze, who has shrunk herself to be minimalist and quiet and sweet and small. We don’t need thin white women telling other people to just love themselves.”

A new spin on cultural trends that have existed for centuries, “That Girl” has taken on many forms in society. She isn’t a person so much as she is an idea, and like ideas that have come and gone, she’s fading into obscurity. Albeit slowly. If you don’t know That Girl personally, she’s surely appeared on your Instagram feed, on your TikTok For You page, and in random internet ads: That Girl wakes up between 5 and 7 a.m., she never misses a Peleton session, she’s hydrated at all times and she maintains a diet she rarely, if ever, falters from. Negativity? That Girl doesn’t know her, and in TG’s presence, you won’t know negativity ever. She has a skincare routine that she dutifully follows and there isn’t an ottoman out of place in her immaculate apartment. According to the internet, she’s who women specifically should aim to be in life.

But for as long as she’s existed, how does That Girl still have such a towering presence in 2022? The slow, but steady shift away from airbrushed Instagram perfection has been in the works since at least 2018; four years later, it’s more relatable to channel girl-next-door Emma Chamberlin or just go full goblin mode on social media.

Rallo, who hosts the podcast Miss Congeniality with Eli Rallo, has rallied against the concept of That Girl on numerous occasions to her almost 521,500 combined social media followers. Her podcast episode “Elevate THIS GIRL instead of becoming THAT GIRL” breaks down the trend’s true intention of external validation if something like a morning routine, a fitness routine, or regularly journaling didn’t come naturally to That Girl hopefuls.

“If I was 16 and I was watching [That Girl videos], my brain would be saying, if I want the guy in math class to like me, I have to be her,” Rallo says. “I got a breast reduction because I had a larger chest; I still have a larger chest, I have hips, I have an ass, I have legs. I put on a matching set [once] and I poked myself! I don’t look like those girls. And I also don’t have to because I meet my own standard of beauty.”

“I tried to love myself like five days out of seven, but it’s actually realistic and better and healthier for me to not love myself all seven because that’s a fucking lie.”

So, despite that, how does the criteria of a certain capital W woman remain at the top of Instagram and TikTok’s collective mind?

“These standards of the ideal women are there because they serve a purpose,” The Graduate Center, City University of New York graduate instructor and Ph.D. student Varnica Arora explains; Arora teaches the psychology course ‘Psychology of Social Media’ at City College of New York in Manhattan. “The standards of That Girl, they reinforce a very typical image […] which is very cis[gender], het[eronormative], white, individualistic notions of what it means to live a good life.”

With the internet containing as many realities as it does, it’s admittedly difficult to imagine an ideal anything existing in 2022. But many white influencers are continuously reaping the benefits of platforms that regularly appropriate cultural trends from creatives of colour: it’s clear that the message promoted by social media is “look like THIS and you too can live a good life.”

“She is who society’s idea of what beautiful is, someone who upholds the male gaze, who has shrunk herself to be minimalist and quiet and sweet and small."

That’s where the comparison comes in, according to Arora. Dubbed “social comparison,” she explains that that is one of the big conversations being had around youth and Instagram right now in the psychology sphere.

“Upward [social] comparison is when you’re comparing yourself to someone who’s ‘better’ than you,” she says. “And that can go two ways: it could motivate you to be better. The opposite is downward social comparison, where you’re comparing yourself to someone who’s worse off than you so that you can feel better about yourself. It’s a way to enhance your self-esteem.”

“Whether it comes to body image…to comparing lifestyles…[or] to psychological well-being, I think this is the fundamental psychological process at the core of it,” she says.

Social comparison has been such a large issue on social media since the 2010s that it was the topic of interest in not one, but two internal reports at Meta, Facebook’s parent company, in 2019. “Teen Mental Health Deep Dive,” and “Hard Life Moments: Mental Health Deep Dive,” published respectively in October and November 2019 and made public in 2021, explored Instagram’s effect on the mental health of teenage girls. While both reports concluded that the app did in fact contribute to body image issues and negative feelings of self-worth in teenage girls, Meta downplayed the findings prior to a congressional hearing centred on their role in children’s mental health.

Social media’s steady shift towards authenticity reinforces the musings of public figures like Rallo and academics like Arora: in That Girl’s world, only women who are thin, straight and white get to be beautiful, successful and recipients of — surprise — the spoils of a patriarchal society. Rallo agrees, explaining that despite the internet’s growing preference for people who are more “real,” That Girl persists because of the male gaze. “The norm is straightness, it’s heterosexuality. It’s that women should be straight and catering toward the ideals of straight men. But I think we’re getting away from that,” she says.

You don’t have to look far into the crevices of the internet to see that the faux-perfect charade is over. Influencers as recently as February were “panic dissolving” their face and lip fillers because the era of the “Instagram face” is done. When Reese Witherspoon tried to “encourage” the internet to “improve their everyday life” by dissuading people from late-night TV binges, reading for up to an hour a day and getting 8 hours of sleep, Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten earned unanimous praise for her sassy response: “That sounds great but I’m probably not doing any of those things! LOL!! My formula is easier to follow: 1. Drink more large cosmos 2. Stay up late watching addictive streaming series, 3. Stay in bed in the morning playing Sudoku instead of reading a good book. 4. Spend more time (safely) with people you love.”

Emma Chamberlain, arguably the poster woman for being her authentic self on social media, told tmrw during her November 2021 cover story that “If you watch the wrong things on the Internet, it’s bad for your brain. I don’t want to be on that side of the Internet. I want to be on the side of the Internet that’s for comfort and for learning and just being able to connect with something.”

“I’ve decided I don’t really care about what’s going to get the most views and what is going to perform the best in an algorithm,” Emma continued, “I just want to do what I want to do, I want to make videos for me.”

So, with social media users of all ages in agreement that, one, the hyper-perfect dream woman does more harm than good, and two, she’s slowly (but surely) falling out of vogue, does That Girl have a place in our future? Unfortunate spoiler alert: she does. The male gaze and the social comparison are a longstanding part of society that can’t just be erased in the blink of an eye. But, as we work toward a better digital tomorrow, we can seek out creators with positive intentions in the meantime. The ones celebrating body positivity, Arora suggests, and creators of colour and different socioeconomic backgrounds. The ones who aim to include, not exclude.

“In the 1970s, women were just granted the ability to have a credit card and sign a lease by themselves,” Rallo explains. “When we think about all of these historical things that are the cause of That Girl, you realize it’s going to take a long time for us to completely collapse [this] heteronormative, male gaze-y, patriarchal society.”

“There are so many ways that we can like collapse gender barriers, but I think until we do it that, the ‘That Girl’ mentality is always gonna exist.”

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