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#ThatGirl: is her presence on social media doing more harm than good?

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The inspirational #thatgirl trend on Instagram and TikTok encourages others to live their best lives. But is it doing us more harm than good?

When daily life becomes confined to four walls and a roof, it’s easy to lose yourself in the enticing world of social media to escape the reality of lockdown.

Around the world, more than 3.6 billion people use social media, with most spending an average of 145 minutes on it every day. Filling feeds with everything from global news to beautiful imagery, for some, social media can serve as information, inspiration and motivation.

It’s how #thatgirl came to life.

When you first meet her, it will be because you were looking to escape reality and dive into the filtered aesthetics of Pinterest boards, TikTok videos and Instagram posts; a hybrid of life as you know it and life as you want it. And there will be #thatgirl, waking up before 7am, happy, mindful, fit and ideal.

The combination of wellness, positivity and a perfect aesthetic life can be seductive.

Taking over social media content—from book recommendations to Instagram story suggestions—the #thatgirl hashtag has more than one billion views on TikTok, while Instagram has more than 300,000 posts and counting.

Designed to help people ‘get their shit together’, the #thatgirl trend is wellness wrapped in the aesthetic appeal of social media.

But as COVID-19 continues to disrupt life around the world, the performative pursuit of perfectionism on all platforms may be causing more harm than good.

The performative pursuit of perfectionism

@.becomethat.girl become that girl with me. we start tomorrow. follow to join our journey. #thatgirl #fyp #4u #foryoupage #follow #like #aesthetic #monday ♬ Seaside_demo by SEB – SEB

Often presented as a conventionally pretty young woman living a life filled with green juices, expensive skin care products and on-trend clothing, the documented daily routines of #thatgirl focus only on a singular version of the ideal woman: slim, Caucasian and wealthy.

The highlighted importance of exercise and nutritious meals in the videos are intended as a positive message, however, the social comparison of living a ‘Pinterest-worthy’ lifestyle—influencer body included—can negatively impact viewers on all platforms into feeling the pressure of diet culture.

Recently leaking an internal study by Facebook, The Wall Street Journal reported data from as early as 2019 shows Instagram and “social comparison” in general—“[makes] body image issues worse for 1 in 3 teen girls”.

In the report, The Wall Street Journal revealed data collected from large scale surveys that showed teenage Instagram users specifically noted pressure to conform to social stereotypes, pressure to match the money and body shapes of influencers, and the need for validation, as factors impacting their mental health, along with the “desire to kill themselves”.

In Australia alone, 33 percent of young people aged 15 to 19 have reported serious body issue concerns.

According to the Butterfly Foundation, the national charity for Australians impacted by eating disorders and body image issues, increased exposure to social media is just one factor placing young people at significant risk of body dissatisfaction.

Compared to June 2021, the charity is currently battling a 20 percent increase in demand for services, attributing the surge to the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns, restrictions and the inability to receive face-to-face support.

Clinician and Manager of Butterfly’s National Helpline Joyce Tam says increased isolation, changes to food and exercise routines, and social media are challenging those living with eating disorders and body image concerns.

“They will undoubtedly be influenced by stressful news coverage, weight stigmatising social media messaging such as ‘COVID kilos’, and the pressures of toxic diet culture that limits an individual’s worth to nothing more than their appearance,” she says.

While some social media users connect #thatgirl aspirational content to the days of Tumblr’s damaging ‘thinspiration’ posts, which glorified and promoted disordered eating, the bombardment of #thatgirl messaging continues to grow as influencers perpetuate the trend by showcasing their own privileged lifestyle with an attainable spin.

Self-improvement turns toxic

@virgohabitsnew day, new opportunity. #5amclub #morningroutine #productivity #thatgirl ib:@vanessatiiu♬ y did dis blow up – aotishiko

Ruling and constantly redefining social media trends, influencers are constantly ‘living their best life.’ With an upsurge of content focused on happiness and mental wellbeing, the quiet truth is lost in a void of hashtags: true self-improvement is hard.

The smoke and mirrors of editing a perfect life is something Canberra YouTuber Stephanie Bailey knows all too well.

“You see a [#thatgirl] video like that, someone’s getting up at 5am, they’re making a really amazing breakfast…it’s attainable to you, you could do that too but for some reason you personally can’t bring yourself to do it,” she says.

“It just makes you have that feeling, like ‘I should be that, why am I not that?’ and then you start to feel bad about yourself. And I think it is problematic. It’s really hard, though, because for some people, it’s just their life and they want to share it and I’m totally for people sharing their lives.”

With more than 140,000 subscribers on YouTube, Stephanie’s career began in 2013. Opening up about her history with disordered eating in her new short documentary Dear Social Media: Influencer Culture & The Rise Of Eating Disorders, Stephanie has explored the correlation between the rise of social media, influencer culture and eating disorders.

With 70% of teenage YouTube subscribers reporting they relate to YouTube creators more than traditional celebrities, as more and more creators jump onto the #thatgirl trend, the platform for toxic self-improvement is only growing.

As someone herself who has been impacted by influencer culture as well as a contributor, Stephanie understands how influential and damaging the videos can be.

“’What I eat in a day’, and ‘my morning routine’ videos, they’re attainable. We could do that if we wanted to, but they’re also not very realistic…It can take up to eight hours to film a morning routine,” says Stephanie.

“I think a lot of times people mean well, but it’s not always helpful. I think it’s really important to show the down days as well…I really admire when people are willing to share a whole spectrum of themselves.”

While social media giants such as Facebook downplay their connection to mental health issues in young people, organisations like the Butterfly Foundation believe that it’s important to not put the blame solely on social media but instead systemic and societal change needs to occur offline.

However, Danni Rowlands, National Manager of Prevention Services at the Butterfly Foundation believes that trends like #thatgirl are underpinned by an obsession with self-improvement and self-optimisation.

“This trend capitalises on the ‘pressure to be perfect’ that many women feel and sends a message to females that they need to better themselves by engaging in extreme skincare and exercise routines as well as TikTok-worthy meals in order to be the ‘ideal woman’ represented in these videos,” she says.

“This trend is exclusionary of people that don’t reflect society’s ‘thin ideal’ placed upon women as well as women of different ethnicities. This becomes problematic for people, in particular young people, viewing the trend as they don’t see themselves reflected and may begin to develop negative feelings related to self-worth and their body.”

When #thatgirl becomes your girl

@glowupjenner day 10; being vulnerable. Showing reality #fyp #fy #thatgirl #reality #realistic #noasthetics #asthetic #glowups #habits ♬ original sound – Bertie Newman

While she can have a toxic influence, #thatgirl also plays an important role: she reminds viewers to ‘romanticise their lives’ and do what makes them feel good. For some it might be waking up early, making smoothies and exercising, but the problem remains that she only shows one dimension of self-care.

Dr Sarah Gill, Clinical Psychologist at health and wellness practice Sound CBR says “It’s human nature to compare ourselves to the people around us—including in the media—but if and how this has an impact will be different for each person.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s not worth thinking about the role social media plays in our individual lives—that is, whether spending time on an app or certain accounts is adding or taking away from your wellbeing.”

The suggestion of #thatgirl is that anyone can be her with a grind mindset, plenty of wealth and time—but Danni believes that as many people on social media offer ‘solutions’ or inspiration on what people can do to improve their looks, body and life, social media consumers need to look beyond the curated moments.

“People must understand that this information is coming from an opinion—not an evidence or reputable base—and this can be harmful, particularly if the information relates to eating, nutrition, and exercise,” says Danni.

“It’s important to remember that a health routine that works for one person, may not work for another, and even if we all exercised and ate the exact same thing, we would all look completely different.”

As some social media users push back on #thatgirl by showing the full spectrum of their lives including piles of unwashed laundry, dirty dishes, and trips to pick up McDonalds, conversation around the trend has shown that there is nothing wrong with trying to improve yourself, however, self-acceptance is key to wellness.

For those feeling isolated and negatively influenced by social media during the pandemic, Dr Gill says it’s important to focus on how they feel before and after using social media, including if it helps them feel connected to others.

“If you stay on social media, try holding the messages you see ‘lightly’,” she says.

“Remind yourself that these are curated to look a certain way and are unlikely to present a full picture. Instead, try picking one or two things you can reasonably do each day that help you feel settled, connected, and like yourself.”

Like all trends, #thatgirl isn’t black and white but the ultimate message of social media should be to become your girl, not that girl.

If you or someone you know is suffering with issues relating to this article, please contact the Butterfly Foundation’s website or call 1800 33 4673.

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