Column: When the consumer goes commercial, ‘that girl’ becomes toxic


Karissa Korman

Identity-building becomes less an exploration of individuality and more a measure of one’s socioeconomic status as self-expression begins to focus solely on the means of material possession.

Julianne Panaro, news correspondent

At a time when social isolation runs rampant, there is a certain comfort in thinking that you can buy your way into a sense of belonging for the low, low price of a $599 Dyson Airwrap or a $119 button down from Djerf Avenue.

TikTok trends such as the “that girl” aesthetic — comprised of slicked-back hair, a strict gym routine and neutral, spotless kitchens — or the autumnal rise in “dark academia” mood boards with vintage Oxfords and Anthropologie scented candles offer a niche label for any style imaginable. As people online flock to these seemingly unique monikers as a way to distinguish themselves from the crowd, the search for an identity becomes less an exploration of individuality and more a measure of one’s socioeconomic status, as self-expression begins to focus solely on the means of material expression and abandons the notion of the inner self entirely.

Fast fashion enables the rapid development of these various styles. The minute the “hot girl” loses her allure, she has already been replaced by a multitude of new, freshly curated identities, each sparkling with the promise of a cemented place in the world and tailing a list of must-buy items to fit that niche.

However, these titles are, by nature, meant to be fleeting.

Capitalism benefits from this commercialization of the self, as it enables mass production — both of purchasable goods and of transferable identities. In order for corporations to continue profiting upon the insecurities of — usually — teenage girls and young women online, and thus maintain a constant stream of easily influenced consumers, those consumers must not have a chance to figure out who they truly are.

While social media trends have certainly influenced this unification between the person and the product, this is by no means a new phenomenon. The theory of conspicuous consumption, wherein consumers purchase extravagant goods in order to display an image of wealth or project a desired sense of self, was coined back in 1899 by American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his book, “The Theory of the Leisure Class.” Since then, conspicuous consumption has been a prominent motif in art and media — a clear example can be found in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” a novel that stresses the futility in attempting to utilize purchases as a replacement for, or a means to, genuine human connection. 

For those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, the negative effects of conspicuous consumption are exacerbated. The desire to compete in consumerism does not dissipate, even when someone lacks the means to do so. After all, wanting to fit in is a basic human desire.

In their study “Borrowing to Keep Up (with the Joneses): Inequality, Debt, and Conspicuous Consumption,” Sheheryar Banuri and Ha Nguyen report that conspicuous consumption increases the frequency of borrowing money, as impoverished individuals take out loans in order to consume competitively with those with greater purchasing power. 

At first glance, the thought of buying your way into your best, shiniest self may appear a desirable alternative to the grueling task of internal work, discomfort and extended time that character growth takes. However, this kind of shortcut produces similarly shallow outcomes. Heavy materialism has been linked to increased depression and poor mental health. Results from a 2013 experimental study revealed that highly materialistic U.S. adolescents who received an intervention to decrease materialism experienced increases in self-esteem over the next several months, relative to a control group.

And while it may seem that these niche character groups provide an opportunity to bring human beings closer together through the foundation of a common identity, social psychologist Tim Kasser from Knox College disagrees. 

Rather, he argues that financial desires and a sense of community are intrinsically oppositional, as monetary desires tap into humanity’s need for extrinsic rewards and praise, whereas community works as an intrinsic motivator. Thus, these two motivational systems battle each other, preventing materialistic goods from ever operating as a healthy form of connection between individuals. Instead, consumers are left feeling empty and alone, and they continue to turn to consumption again to fill the void it created.

Nevertheless, labels are not inherently toxic to the formation of a lasting, nonmaterial sense of self. Certain labels, such as those associated with one’s sexuality, race or gender, can assist people in finding a community with a common background, leading to a greater understanding of their own identity. However, these types of identifiers are accessible to those of all social standings and are not defined by purchasing power or economic flexibility. These kinds of labels or identity groups function more as a means of understanding who people are than describing what they have, successfully placing the person before their possessions.