What TikTok's viral 'That Girl' trend isn't showing you – and why that matters

When Rachel Braun graduated from college last year, virtually and in the midst of a global pandemic, she felt lost. 

The self-improvement side of TikTok introduced her to the idea of documenting her daily walks. And in the process she quickly got sucked into videos showcasing "That Girl." 

TikTok's “That Girl” trend is a series mini daily vlogs that show women in their 20s and 30s waking up as early as 5 a.m., doing yoga or attending a spin class, journaling, drinking lemon water, and eating blog-worthy healthy meals from a spotless kitchen. 

"When I saw all those videos on ‘That Girl,’ they’re absolutely beautiful and they’re normally made by women who are younger and around my demographic who have their life together, but they don’t explain how they got there,” Braun, 23, tells USA TODAY. “I don’t really see any actionable or tangible steps.” 

These videos toe the line between inspirational and aspirational. They’re fun to watch and rooted in ideas that are generally good for your well-being, but some are so expertly edited they give the impression that these lifestyle choices are a cinch to emulate, which can have a negative impact on viewers. 

“I most definitely believe social media exacerbated the pressure to be perfect,” says Menije Boduryan-Turner, a California-based licensed psychologist with a doctorate in clinical psychology. “All of these filters and all of these edits make everything so packaged and clean and so organized so there’s no room for anything imperfect. … It’s like you run this marathon and you never reach the finish line.” 

One video, which has been viewed more than 4 million times, features images of a woman eating fruit, drinking water, exercising and flaunting a flat stomach, urging others to join the "That Girl journey." 

"Orrrr just become the best version of yourself that you can be without having to live up to society's beauty standards," TikTok user @pengoart argued in the comments section. While some online enjoy the external motivation, critics of the trend worry it can promote toxic productivity, unhealthy comparisons and disordered eating.

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Braun has stepped into creating her own self-improvement TikToks, though hers are rooted in starting conversations about actionable steps to bettering oneself. Topics like getting your own insurance plan for the first time, or practicing gratitude over her morning cup of coffee aren’t “sexy,” Braun notes, but they were important parts of her stepping into her confidence and feeling like her life is in order.

"My life isn't really pretty or aesthetic, and for a while that used to really bug me," she said in a recent TikTok video. "I tried so hard to look like I had my life together that I put way more effort into the outside view than what it was actually comprised of. Since I've started to focus on actually fixing the foundation of my life, I've started to feel a ton better. … It's totally OK if (life) looks messy, because progress and growth does not have an aesthetic."

That isn’t to say the "That Girl" trend is all bad — the themes of exercise, eating well and having a solid morning routine are important for maintaining mental health. But they can induce an “all-or-nothing mindset,” Boduryan-Turner says, and make viewers believe their routines have to be perfect to be worth doing at all.

“Start somewhere,” she recommends. You don't have to suddenly start waking up hours before the sun, but set your alarm for 7:15 tomorrow morning instead of 7:30. You can go for a walk instead of attending a workout class, listen to an audio book on gratitude instead of journaling – find what works for you. 

“You’re doing your best, and you can do better tomorrow,” Bodyuryan-Turner says. “It’s really important for people to start integrating parts of themselves instead of thinking there’s a good side and a bad side to them.” 

The internet loves an aesthetic, but having one isn't a prerequisite for living your best life. Braun is excited to be exploring her identity as a young adult, but she wants to take care in developing her own sense of self, centering herself and making small but steady improvements.

“When those 'That Girl' videos show up on your page, that’s something to aspire to,” she says. “But how do you actionably get your life together? … My life right now is working for me for the most part and just because it doesn’t have glasses of water filled with a bunch of beautiful fruit or SoulCycle classes, doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it.” 

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