Open TikTok, Pinterest or Instagram and you’re bound to see numerous posts espousing the various things a girl can be. She can be a cool girl, a granola girl, a bimbo, a material girl, a clean girl, etc. She can listen to Cocteau Twins and read “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” or she can put her hair in a slicked-back bun and drink green smoothies.
Social media pressures women to fit into a neat category, oftentimes compressing an entire personality into a quick label. There is so much pressure on people, and women in particular, to be something easily categorizable, something easy to take in. It’s intensely capitalistic, one could argue, that the internet reduces us until we are no longer anything more than the media and the products that we consume.
Why must people become characters? We are so much more complex than that.
It is in this atmosphere of reduction that the sad girl comes in. On TikTok, she may be described as a “Virgin Suicides”/“BoJack Horseman”/Lana Del Rey/“Gone Girl”/Mitski fan. She is ruminative and sad, while enjoying ruminative and sad media.
I don’t think that the problem is in the media itself. Most of the aforementioned titles are things that I personally love. However, I think that there is an issue when female sadness becomes an aesthetic. It is the commodification of female pain in a way that is made manageable for an external audience. It contributes to the false idea that, to be suffering, one must act a certain way.
A little while back, I found myself falling into this trap myself. I was going through a period of loneliness and melancholy, something my TikTok for you page somehow picked up on, and I found myself inundated with bedside-table tours and book stacks showing me what it meant to be sad. While these videos initially gave me something to identify with, I eventually started to feel a pressure to conform myself to these sets of items and novels. I felt that if I made myself into a “sad girl,” then maybe others would be able to recognize my suffering.
But pain, and specifically mental illness, cannot be reduced to a set of movies or TV shows. You can still be depressed while watching “Friends,” and you can be a generally happy person while wearing dark eyeliner and smoking Marlboro Reds. There is no one look for sadness.
I don’t think any community founded on the romanticization of sadness can be healthy. It reminds me of early Tumblr, in a way, where often self-diagnosed mental illnesses were put on display in users’ bios. This is not to say that anyone should hide their mental illnesses or struggles, but oftentimes the representation on social media is limited to the parts that people are okay with glorifying. There aren’t posts of messy rooms, unwashed hair and yellowing teeth. What is shown is typically more delicate than that. Also, the aesthetic is overwhelmingly dominated by people who are white and attractive, which can make girls who don’t fit that category feel even more alienated, or like they can’t be sad in the “good” way.
The modern dilution of people to stereotypes limits creativity. Community is great, but media does not always need to be consumed in sets. It’s okay to not fit a certain aesthetic, in fact, I’d argue that it’s better. A diversity of opinions and stories makes a more well-rounded person. Explore, take risks and know that appearance does not always mirror what’s really inside.