Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, you’ll have noticed “girl” trends weaving their whimsical way into every corner of contemporary culture. From “girl dinner” and “girl math,” to the inescapable success of Olivia Rodridgo’s GUTS and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, it’s clear that the stars have aligned for us twenty-somethings to relive our glory days. But scratch beneath the surface of Sandy Liang’s nostalgia-inspired school girl skirts and candy-colored bows and there’s a lot more to unpack. Being a teenager was hardly smooth sailing the first time around. Is it really wise to resort back to the days of impulse hair dyeing and “deep” thinking?
Not to be confused with “womanhood,” “girlhood” is the beaten-up ballet flats and pleated mini skirt to your mom’s mid-height mules and sensible knee-length silhouettes. It’s sticking grainy Sofia Coppola stills to your bedroom walls and screaming Maisie Peters lyrics on your walk home. Though the overarching vibe is unavoidably white, it is also rereading the ’00s viral teen classic Keisha The Sket in your 30s or contemplating getting the same braids you had as a 10-year-old. It’s messy and unrestrained, the hazy no man’s land of teenagerdom where responsibilities lurk but don’t linger. And yet, it’s more than these moments — it’s an aesthetic and a statement. As Claire Marie Healy, author of Look Again: Girlhood, puts it, “girlhood is less a prescribed period of time and more suggestive of a way of seeing.”
In contrast to the “inspirational” media messaging of the 2010s — who run the world? girls! — today’s girl-coded cultural landscape seems disinterested in telling us to step up and smash the glass ceiling. Instead we’re stepping back to a simpler, happier time of collecting Sonny Angels and watching Sylvanian Family TikToks. The Barbie movie, with its perfect plastic sets and hyper-pop soundtrack, raked in $1.34 billion and encouraged us to wear head-to-toe pink. Elsewhere, many of us are cranking up the tunes and seeking solace in Taylor Swift, before watching yet another episode of Amazon’s The Summer I Turned Pretty. In the world of fashion, girlhood is everywhere — from the full-skirts and frothy hems at SHUSHU/TONG and LoveShackFancy to Uniqlo’s femcel-fave Sofia Coppola T-shirts and ASICS’s Cecile Bahnsen collaboration.
As Rukiat Ashawe at The Digital Fairy says to Refinery29, “femininity and girliness are synonymous with our oppression. A part of our emancipation has been to reject them.” By reclaiming something that was once tainted, girlhood represents a new, alternative way to navigate the world. It’s a simple celebration of being a girl for the sake of being a girl, while removing men’s stake in the equation. In this light, embracing girliness becomes more than an aesthetic choice; it evolves into a daily act of protest against the status quo.
Continuing in this line of thinking, Rukiat attributes the popularity of the girlhood trend as, in part, “a reaction against hustle and grind culture.” The long-preached gospel of “having it all” seems to be dying a death, and this girlhood school of thought is steering this particular strain of contemporary feminism into more relaxed, carefree terrain. While the girlboss ideology encouraged women to emulate the traditional male path to success and prove themselves equal through status and power, girlhood rejects this narrative outright, removing men from the equation entirely.
And in the present climate, is it any wonder? The roles of wife, homemaker, and mother, once considered essential, are now abstract and irrelevant to many — birth rates are down, the number of marriages taking place by the age of 32 has dropped from 47% to 29% since 1980; and the housing market’s freefall is leading to many millennials and Gen Z giving up on owning property entirely. With every silly little girl dinner or convoluted round of girl math, the TikTok girlies are laughing at carefully curated minimalist mood board accounts, we’re rejecting being “trad-wives” and “marriage material” and admitting that it’s much more fun to not worry about being sexy and to not take things so seriously, sometimes.
As with many phenomena in our turbulent times, girlhood is rooted in nostalgia — the magical magnet that draws us into cozy and familiar ideas of the past. With the weight of 21st century life pressing down on disillusioned 20-somethings, who can blame the girlies for trying to revisit something familiar and fun, with Sandy Liang telling The New York Times “I’m obsessed over something I can never actually return to,” and Claire Marie Healy noting that “girlhood is an act of cherishing: holding close, and safekeeping, past versions of ourselves.” This backwards tumble into our youth makes sense, especially as it allows us to play with a carefully curated aesthetic that you might not have been able to pull off the first time round. There’s an added complexity too with the question of whether or not it’s a girlhood you were actually allowed to have, especially if you navigated adultification, a problem particularly faced by Black girls. Revisiting a real or fantasy version of your youth as an adult allows you to repaint the experience and spin it, with the addition of money and control, into something much more magical. And while being an adult definitely has its perks — you’re free to make your own mistakes, stay up all night, text the wrong person — let’s be real. We’re all craving guidance and the girlhood trend seems to whisper, It’s alright!: nobody knows what’s going on, we’re all tying ribbons in our hair en route to our office jobs and winging it.
That said, it’s impossible to unpick girlhood from the patriarchy entirely and unwise to ignore the unintentional consequence of potentially infantilizing behaviors. Whether we want it to or not, a celebration of girlhood unwittingly puts women in an eternal state of innocence. And as anyone who was chronically online during the 2014 Tumblr renaissance will know, once the question of innocent allure is raised, coquette culture is never far away. As cultural commentator Mina Le’s explores in her video essay “why is everyone dressing like a little girl?,” the “coquette” look calls back to Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita where the middle-aged protaganist kidnaps and sexually abuses a 12-year-old girl who he calls Lolita or “nymphet.” The aesthetic is now being reclaimed by girls who are less focused on sexualizing themselves and solely interested in the ultra-feminine aesthetic. As Mina’s essay touches on, there’s nothing wrong with blasting some Lana Del Rey and donning a Mary Jane but it gets more complicated the further you lean into the coquette narrative and inadvertently trade agency for allure. See brands like Selkie, who came under fire for dressing women like oversized dolls.
It’s also essential to note that the idea of girlhood isn’t immune to the clutches of consumerism. Part of the appeal of the rose-tinted return to our past is that it can be improved through our own increased spending power. While we’re “just girls,” we’re able to do it differently this time round. We have salaries to spend on the must-have memorabilia we couldn’t have the first time round and actually buy the solutions to the something wrong with ourselves that products tell us we have. Just look at “hot girl walks” — a perfectly innocuous concept that TikTok has turned into a performative action that requires all the right accessories. A walk could do wonders for your mental health, but when we’re repeatedly told by an army of #gifted instagram influencers that it’d look way better accompanied by the $500 Airpod Maxes linked on their TikTok shop, it loses its authentic edge and reveals itself as another ploy to sell you something. The same can be said for “tomato girls” and “cherry girls” — cute trends that often come with equally cute marketing campaigns from affiliated brand partners.
The girlhood phenomenon isn’t merely a preoccupation with aesthetics — it’s a reflection of the complexities of modern feminism and consumerism. By examining its allure while simultaneously unpacking the tangled questions of authenticity and autonomy, we continue to gain insight into all that comes hand in hand with growing up in an unpredictable age. As with the millennial phenomenon of “adulting,” the “ teenage girl in your 20s” narrative gives us a way of looking at the trials and tribulations of grown-up life without taking it all so seriously. Like being a teenager, life is both frustrating and fun and girlhood is the cultural equivalent of slapping a slightly bedraggled pink bow on our uncertainties and succumbing to the chaos.
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