Online cults part 2: “That Girl”

Continuing our series to help make church leaders aware of the online cults out there vying for the attention of your members, last week we looked at the manosphere, and today we’ll be looking at an umbrella of trends that suck in female church members like That Girl, Girl Boss, and Trad Wife.

What are the main cult-like trends that are affecting women online?

The most pervasive cult-like trends that impact the women in your church are going to be ones that promote a level of toxic perfection. In this regard, they are a lot like the male trend of hustle culture, and certainly demand the same level of commitment. The general umbrella of trends are as follows:

  • Girl Boss
  • That Girl
  • Trad Wife (yeah, we are going there)

At their core, they mostly advocate for good things: physical fitness, wellness, mental health, and professional (or domestic) excellence. They are all couched into the appearance of empowerment so they especially appeal to people who feel a lack of control. This is likely why they trended all the more during the 2020 pandemic. Unfortunately, like many trends online, they tend to present a level of perfection that is not realistically achievable yet set an expectation for young women to achieve them.

Girl Boss, That Girl, and Trad Wife are really all the same general theme but in various stages of trending. Girl Boss is on its way out as it’s been thoroughly mocked by Gen-Z, That Girl is around but waning, and Trad Wife is on its way up as a counter-cultural pendulum swing. They really only differ in nuance though.

How to identify “That Girl” style content

Content from the That Girl camp tends to share certain features:

  • Robot generated or flat narration, usually of a morning routine
  • Solitary female, usually Caucasian or Asian
  • Pinterest level aesthetics like
    • Immaculate apartments/houses with a stunning view
    • Matching sets of pajamas and workout clothes
    • Health food that looks like it belongs on a magazine cover, particularly acai bowls and smoothies
  • Waking up early
  • Exercise
    • Usually Yoga or Pilates
    • Occasionally running or aerobics
  • Skincare products… lots of skincare products!
  • Journaling
  • Meditation

The song Deja Vu by Olivia Rodrigo seems to accompany a lot of That Girl content… which is ironic given the song is all about how a girl isn’t special because the singer did the same things with her boyfriend before her. So yeah, the song is about not being special and it’s used a lot in videos about young women trying to get their life together to be special… can’t make this stuff up! 🤷

Also, for the life of me I can’t figure out the acai bowl thing that the That Girl content all seems to feature… especially since my dietician sister says the ones we see in the videos covered with picture perfect toppings have as many calories as a Big Mac… but it’s definitely a thing for a That Girl to make them in the morning while wearing their matching workout set.

Anyhow, That Girl content is the appearance of having a good life, and yet, it’s incredibly damaging.

The dangers of the That Girl trends

First things first, That Girl content has been a concern for mental health professionals for some time. Just like the fashion industry has lead to many women having unrealistic beauty standards and body dysmorphia caused or exacerbated by what they see, the That Girl trends also set up unattainable standards and beg for comparison. There has been no shortage of eating disorders, anxiety, burn out, depression, obsessions, and loneliness that young women have faced after being influenced by That Girl content.

Second, it’s inherently lonely because it’s based in an individualistic Western mindset. Having spent nearly half my life doing ministry in Asia, I’ve come to appreciate the culture and worldviews through which Christians around the world view faith and scripture. Worldview really applies to how we perceive everything and, in a sense, it colors or skews how we think. In the West, we think far too individualistically. We see it in cringe phrases like “have you asked Jesus to become YOUR PERSONAL savior?” A well-meaning evangelistic phrase at the time, but nonetheless theologically questionable. That Girl suffers the same issue, it tries to address entirely in isolation what God meant for us to have community to help resolve.

Third, it encourages women to be something they aren’t instead of accepting who God made them to be. I’ve encountered my fair share of Christian women over the years and the most interesting ones to be around just wouldn’t fit into a That Girl morning routine video. They aren’t cavalier with their health, they accomplish a lot, but they aren’t pursuing an aesthetically perfect existence nor following all the That Girl cliches. It’s okay to wake up at 7:00, have a breakfast burrito, have a productive time at work, get off work, paddle with a dragon boat team, and be covered in sweat and seawater at the end.

Finally, it doesn’t rely on the Holy Spirit for transformation. I have this issue with a lot “empowerment” type of stuff. You see, scripture teaches us that when we place our allegiance in God, he gives us his very spirit to help us transform. That Girl content says you become the better version of yourself by doing That Girl stuff, but scripture teaches us that we become the best version of ourselves by asking and allowing God’s spirit to transform us!

What do you have against Trad Wives?

I don’t have anything against Trad Wives per se. My wife certainly isn’t one (in fact, my mother-in-law warned me quite bluntly that my wife is a “modern woman” with “no domestic skills” back when we discussed our desire to get married 🤣), that being said, I know many that would fall into the category and good on them… you do you! The problem with Trad Wife content on social media is that it’s essentially as if we took Joan Cleaver and used her for a That Girl aesthetic and routine. Just like with the other That Girl content, the Trad Wife content can set up unreasonable expectations that are not realistically attainable. Given Christians will often lift up anything that looks remotely conservative, we need to be really careful not to let Trad Wife content try to Stepford Wife your congregation.

Now, there is some overlap between Trad Wife movements and white nationalism. While it wouldn’t probably be accurate to say that being a Trad Wife leads to white nationalism… that would be crazy… it is true that white nationalism is quietly big within the Trad Wife trend. Researchers suspect this is due to misogyny within the alt-right section of manosphere and a belief that white, heterosexual, men should always be at the top of power dynamics. I wouldn’t get myself into a panic at this point as we have no idea just how widespread that actually is, but it’s something to be mindful and aware of.

Personally, I’m also always a little bit cautious that emerging trends have sexual undertones or are some type of paraphilia/fetish. The clothing types I’ve seen in Trad Wife content so far have 50’s inspiration, but are also often very sexually suggestive. I tend to be looser on the concept of modesty than most pastors because I would argue that modesty is highly contextual, but man, some of those outfits strike me as more of a sexualized fantasy caricature of a homemaker. Likewise, Trad Wife is a fetish pornography category. 😳 Again, it’s not something I would generalize, but it is not at all uncommon today for fetishes to masquerade online as lifestyles, so use discernment.

The intersection with multi-level marketing (MLM)

So, as if there wasn’t enough to be concerned about with the That Girl content, multi-level marketing (MLM) schemes tap heavily into a That GIrl, particularly Girl Boss, vibe. The pitch is an aesthetically perfect life in which you are a “mompreneur” and “business owner.” It pushes heavily the That Girl aesthetic and the message is empowerment just like all the other That Girl content. In reality, women end up trapped at the bottom of a pyramid scheme with a whole lot of products that nobody actually wants so they need to go out and likewise pretend to be living this unattainable aesthetically perfect existence.

MLMs and pyramid schemes utilizing That Girl type of messaging are absolutely devastating inside churches. They will often crop up inside of small groups or women’s ministries where a member of the MLM tries to build a “down-line” of other congregants. I would highly recommend a “no MLM marketing” policy/rule in your groups. I know of small groups that together lost hundreds of thousands to MLMs and Ponzi schemes that used That Girl and Girl Boss style content.

Countering That Girl messaging

First, make sure that in your church it’s “okay not to be okay.” We need to fight against the isolation brought about by unattainable expectations. Similarly, this gives opportunity for community to encourage each other and validate attainable fitness and life goals.

Second, invite mental health professionals to talk candidly about the stress that comparing oneself to social media induces, and invite doctors, dieticians, and fitness professionals to give advice on attainable healthy habits. Help your congregation to become healthy without a weird obsession on having a “Pinterest perfect” life.

Third, emphasize that God makes unique people with unique interests, unique bodies, unique style, and unique quirks. Doing yoga in a matching exercise set is not inherently better than going rollerblading with your kids in your old Led Zeppelin T-shirt! Similarly, it’s okay if God is calling you to be an entrepreneur, a housewife, or another spot in the workplace… and it doesn’t have to look picture perfect in the process. Don’t let what you see online dictate what God can do with your life or how he can do it!

Finally, reiterate to your congregation that habits are good, but that transformation comes through submission to God and the work of his Holy Spirit within us. So much of the danger of these online cults and cult-like communities comes from believing we have to make ourselves perfect; however, the message of scripture is that God condescends so that he can lead us through a process of sanctification! That’s more powerful that all the perfectly curated acai bowls combined! 😎

Closing thoughts

The That Girl content may not be as overtly wild as the manosphere we looked at last week, it’s more subtle, particularly Trad Wife content, and that’s where the danger lies. The activities themselves may not present themselves the same as an incel ranting about how “all women are like that” as they proceed to spout misogyny, but That Girl content can and does suck people into depression, eating disorders, anxiety, loneliness, and other serious states of mental health that they struggle to escape from. For this reason, take the initiative with your congregation and help them pursue healthy lifestyle choices without them becoming an obsession or a hindrance to pursuing God.

Isaac Johnson

Isaac has been in professional ministry since 2002, holds an M.Div. from Moody, and his goal is to equip churches to reach digital natives.

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