By Erin Maxwell || Editor in Chief
You’ve seen her on your explore page. Flashing her perfect stomach to the camera, she twists to the side against a soft white monochromatic background before showing you her morning baked oats. She wakes up earlier than you, runs farther than you, and drinks way more green things. She has an elaborate skincare routine and gets more done in a day than you could in a week. She tells you that she’s happy, sells you a product, and says that you can do it, too.
Being that girl isn’t a lifestyle, it’s an aesthetic. It’s thin Eurocentric bodies, tan skin, workout clothes, and smoothie bowls that cost a student loan payment. It’s a dangerous reinvention of Tumblr-era “thinspiration” intertwined with toxic productivity, mutually reinforcing one another and feeding off the insecurity of the pandemic. That aesthetic comes at a steep cost, with GymShark matching sets, expensive supplements, beautiful apartments, and all the trappings of a well-adjusted and highly privileged young adult. This barrier to entry makes the “lifestyle,” or rather the appearance of the lifestyle, impossible for most — but that doesn’t mean that we don’t try.
When the world shut down, we lost all sense of control. An easy way to regain it was to hyperfixate on self-improvement, rituals, and routines. It wasn’t enough to come out of isolation as the same person you were before; our obsession with the “glow-up” demanded we emerge like a butterfly. As the uncertainty continued, the Chloe Ting era evolved into chronic self-improvement with no particular end in sight. Author Jia Tolentino writes that “the ideal woman, in other words, is always optimizing. She takes advantage of technology, both in the way she broadcasts her image and in the meticulous improvement of that image itself” (FJ, 2021).
The fixation on appearance and the rebranding of diet culture as “wellness” directly correlate with the 24-hour social media cycle, and the emphasis on perfected virtual representations of ourselves. We all know that social media is far from reality, but somehow still can’t resist comparing ourselves to those on our screens. Turner et al. found in 2017 that Instagram use was highly associated with the development of orthorexia, an eating disorder in which the sufferer obsessed over “clean” and healthy eating. Moreover, they found that many of the most popular lifestyle influencers exhibited common symptoms of orthorexia, and vigorously marketed their symptoms to viewers. This year, it was also uncovered that Facebook algorithms were actively promoting pages containing disordered eating to young female teenagers.
The hyperfixation on self-improvement doesn’t stop with appearance, however. The routines and rituals of that girl include lengthy to-do lists, productivity timers, and going the extra mile (or two). If you aren’t working overtime, are you really working? And if you aren’t showing that work to others, did it even happen? Dr. Anika Petrella, a psychologist and research associate at the University College of London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust defined “toxic productivity” as “an unhealthy preoccupation with constant productivity, at the expense of wellbeing,” or the “need to continuously and exponentially maximize productivity” (Vogue UK, 2021). The motivation to do so stems from, again, the need for control and certainty, but also from a postcapitalist desire for employers to push workers past their limit in order to extract as much human capital as possible.
This “hustle culture,” as it is also called, depends on a constant technological connection to tap into the workforce at any point during the day, and to tempt them towards overtime hours at the cost of leisure. Toxic productivity makes us feel like no matter what is ticked off our to-do list, we can never do enough. This feeling has been deftly disseminated to us from the employers who, despite the confrontations of the Great Resignation, seem to constantly push employees past their intrinsic finiteness. As deftly put by Cal Newport, “The true message behind these posts is clear: ignore your growing sense of existential dread, ignore your children, and produce value for our shareholders—or else!” (The New Yorker, 2021).
You probably can’t be that girl, and you definitely don’t want to be. This year, don’t make your resolution “detoxifying” (your liver does that for you), celery juice, or anything to do with waking up any time before you want to. This year, let’s live with our perfectly non-optimized, averagely productive, and maximally normal selves. Don’t be that girl, because it’s really, truly, not all that.
Erin Maxwell is a junior and the Editor-in-Chief of The College Reporter. Her email is email@example.com.