Who Is 'That Girl' And Why Am I Obsessed?

By Na’imah Saffiya

March 2022

Thumbnail illustration by Tiffany Zhong

Thumbnail illustration by Tiffany Zhong

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but the world outside has become a very strange place, almost certainly overnight. Or was it over two years? I don’t know, the difference between is something like a sleep – only the kind of sleep that is disjointed and dissatisfying. Every time you get comfortable under the covers, an ugly alarm goes off and you’re late for an event you hadn’t even planned; or you finally dose off only for your bladder to do that whining little dance that shifts you reluctantly out of bed. You stumble to the bathroom mirror and peer between sleep-encrusted eyes, you’re wearing a mask! A mask. The last two years have been nightmarish, with peaks and troughs, the peaks have been so beautiful but never lasted long enough. And if I’ve been acting strangely, well it’s a sign of the times. I even developed a strange new obsession, she lived on YouTube; and her name was That Girl.

During the first three months of lockdown, the days rotated around three activities: studying, walks to the park, and unwinding with some YouTube screen time. Don’t judge me, I couldn’t appreciate the irony at the time. Watching ‘Day in My Life’, ‘Living Alone’ or ‘Stay Home’ videos was my little reward for successfully staying off my phone long enough to complete a sizeable amount of work. Battling anxiety and inevitable burn-out, finding the motivation to study in a world seemingly on fire felt simultaneously meaningless and like the one purpose fulfilling my days. My favourite vloggers however, seemed to be thriving. Each creator with a well-crafted routine, mastered time management and gave meaning to each daily ritual; from making the bed to preparing a nourishing meal. The videos themselves captured the mundane with enticing cinematography, every upload a sartorial experience. How lucky, I would think, to have a home where you feel safe, balanced and in control during a pandemic. Of course, I was being completely obtuse and ungrateful towards my own relative privilege, falling into the trap of social comparison. Alice Capelle put it brilliantly in her analysis video when she proposed the allure of  ‘That Girl’ videos is the satisfaction in watching her master her environment. Finding content in seeing her balance work, socialising and self-care is a projection of the audience’s ideal self. Indeed, I felt both admiration and resentment for That Girl’s talent for control while I dwelled in a sense of loss of control. Lately, it felt like every event was ‘unprecedented’. Subtly, my viewership of That Girl content became soothing, enabling a sense of alignment with routine and a connection to time without actively participating in routine myself. Believing this genre of videos was comforting and motivational I soon realised was a lie I told myself to stay in bed a little longer, feel less shame, less dissonance with the goal-oriented student I had been five months prior.

Long after a revitalising Summer where we enjoyed the outdoors again and reconnected with loved ones while socially distanced, Autumn had returned. Bracing ourselves for another lockdown, this one was about to finish me. I was isolating because I was in contact with an infected person while at work. At this point, I was questioning everything. Why was I considered an essential worker but not being considered for vaccination priority? Dude, I thought, this is one gnarly sacrificethe government aren’t even hiding their desire to keep schools open so that parents may continue to work. And she was in on it too, That Girl, reminding me often that the pandemic was an inadvertent benefit. How she was grateful for the opportunity to ‘slow-down in order to recharge’. Recharging and plumping myself up to be juiced in the Nutribullet of work-life! Offer myself to be blitzed and battered, condensing my productivity into a bright, green pulp. That Girl wasn’t my friend, she was an ally to the machine – disarmingly dressed in ethical cottons and thrifted fleeces! I was beginning to challenge the idea that my self-worth is tied up in my ability to produce – a value I watched diminish the longer I spent indoors, envying That Girl from my phone. These para-social relationships are such a mine-field. What attracts you to these channels is an identification with the story-teller, offering you either an escape or a push. I sought story-telling, romanticised ways in which to deal with grim reality. After all, as a creative, my imagination is my only true source of escape – and I suppose the same is true for That Girl.

Humbly, I take ownership in letting a harmless pastime become a piece of a process, an unconscious process of retreating into myself; acknowledging I know I was not alone. Particularly as someone with a mental health condition, I found that the last two years unearthed in me, feelings of helplessness. I speak to absolutely everyone when I say, none of us should harbour shame in the ways we tried to cope. Implicitly, I sought salvation from many sources. Rather embarrassingly, vicariously living through That Girl content to imagine a way out of the monotonous hole I found myself in was just one of those attempts to navigate the pandemic. I have since found a lot of joy and strength in maintaining my own sense of balance that does not centre routine, time, or ritual. A good day is not measured against the number of tasks I’ve completed; drinking water as soon as I wake up is the only component to my ‘morning routine’. Now I recharge in order to have the energy to witness my thoughts and feelings – I do like to romanticise the mundane though, I think I will be keeping that one!

You can find more of Na’imah’s work here and here.