words Ellie Hansen
The Mirror and the Void – Are you #ThatGirl or drifting on a giant #FloatingRock?
This year, I was both. I graduated from an Ivy League university with my dream job, moved excitedly to a new city, and immediately fell into a crisis. Without the structure of college, I felt directionless, uncertain how to pursue my passions in what felt like an orderless world.
Naturally, I turned to TikTok for help. The #ThatGirl trend immediately caught my eye. To be #ThatGirl is to prioritize personal growth through stringent rituals like exercise, food preparation, and self-care. It’s also social media’s latest version of wellness culture, which Oxford theology scholar Tara Isabella Burton calls a form of quasi-spirituality that provides its practitioners with purpose via self-improvement.
I also encountered the #FloatingRock trend. #FloatingRock videos encourage us to zoom out, literally, forgetting our petty anxieties by remembering that we live on a giant, floating rock. They’re also part of what writer Wendy Syfret promotes as contemporary nihilism, or believing that life is ultimately meaningless, in response to a world obsessed with individual optimization.
We treat these like the two poles of modern life: wellness culture and #ThatGirl or nihilism and the #FloatingRock, either leaning into the system or the void. But after experience with these two philosophies, I realized they’re more similar than they appear. Both nihilism and wellness culture promote individualism as a source of stability in a time of political and social chaos. Instead, I finally found purpose through creativity and building community.
Burton describes wellness culture’s vision of fulfillment as the development of our “true” selves freed from any “toxic” energies, people, or societal rules. While the movement was originally marketed largely toward wealthier, white women, it continues to democratize on social media.
It was on TikTok that I became enchanted with wellness culture and the careful harmony of #ThatGirl. The women in #ThatGirl videos might promote an aspirational day of self-improvement that begins with gratitude journaling, transitions to working out in a carefully slicked-back bun, a purifying “everything” shower, and bedtime by 9:30. Notably, a common feature of #ThatGirl is a lack of perceivable employment, family, or friends.
Inspired by #ThatGirl, I decided my sense of direction would arise from assembling my fledgling adulthood into perfection. I began a strict routine of meal-prepping, working out, early bedtimes, and avoiding anything that seemed messy or overstimulating. Soon, I found myself debating between organic, overpriced berries and regular, overpriced berries, and frantically budgeting five minutes of mindfulness into a nine hour workday.
One Friday night, freshly fed, exercised, showered, and tucked into a rocking chair with a Jane Austen novel at seven thirty pm, I broke down into tears. The pressure of optimizing myself was too much, and offered only more anxiety, not fulfillment, in return. In fact, Burton argues that self-discipline verging on ascetic self-punishment is part of wellness culture’s ethos. Through wellness culture, the best I could do was to reframe this struggle into a moral crusade.
It was that night that I instead found Wendy Syfret’s article on embracing contemporary nihilism in place of self-perfectionism. Syfret uses the example of gazing at a NASA image of billion year old galaxies to demonstrate our insignificance–if nothing in human history matters against this scale, why would you? While frightening, embracing the futility of one’s life, Syfret argues, allows us to find meaning in what actually matters to us, outside societal pressures.
Reading these words, I felt the need to determine my individual worth from my choice in grocery store raspberries and online yoga videos release like a pressure valve. I had the brief, inexplicable urge to pick up a cigarette. I was also instantly reminded of the #FloatingRock trend on TikTok. Rather than obsessing over my perfection and productivity, I felt the universe literally zoom out around me. I remembered that my problems were miniscule compared to cosmic vastness and our inevitable heat death.
Nihilism, then, could be my solution. Rigid discipline was replaced with total freedom: I dropped my intense workout and meal schedule, and tried to feel less anxiety when something didn’t conform perfectly to routine. I focused on enjoying the moment rather than worrying about the future, which, after all, didn’t matter if you remembered the #FloatingRock.
Soon, though, totally devaluing all meaning spiraled into chaos. What could direct me through this newfound void toward what “actually” mattered to me? Syfret writes that Nietzsche’s vision of the “active nihilist” would bravely face existential emptiness, constructing their own meaning. She also suggests that nihilism’s reorienting toward the present moment can help us strengthen our relationships.
But nihilism, intentionally, offers no means to do so. As a young adult in a new city, I already felt detached from any structure or community that gave my life purpose. Rather than refocusing my attention on relationships, nihilism’s insistence on their ultimate irrelevance actually made it harder to develop them.
Further, part of what motivated me was idealistic plans for a career researching mental health, and a vision of a world that could be, if not totally fixed, then at least incrementally changed. If none of these structures could offer something positive, I was freer, sure, but directionless, and even more profoundly alone.
Neither approach was sustainable. One night, I sat with visiting friends on the floor of my apartment engaging in another TikTok favorite: tarot readings. Suddenly, we noticed that we were all asking versions of the same questions: How do we balance seeking financial stability with creative fulfillment? How do we pursue passion without fear? How can we possibly have a positive impact in a world with so many crises?
We spent the rest of the night debating these issues and offering each other advice on our specific interests. We finally realized we were all confronting the same questions of purpose and fulfillment. Rather than turning inward to ruminate on these questions, the solution, of course, was to face them together.
That night ended my debate between wellness culture and nihilism, the mirror and the void. Eventually, I came to realize that far from being opposites, they share many of the same assumptions. Both are individualistic movements that placed responsibility for meaning and purpose entirely on me as an individual–and blamed me if I couldn’t do it alone.
Wellness culture insists that we can find meaning only through ourselves. Burton even notes that wellness culture includes elements of nihilism, because it judges what is good only by whether it is beneficial to you. It then encourages us to self-isolate to become #ThatGirl, ridding any “toxic” friends, obligations, or responsibilities in the name of protecting your peace. When this resulted in anxiety instead of fulfillment, it meant I had failed to be my best self.
Nihilism tells us to look outside ourselves, but redirects us away from outside standards for meaning. While release from others’ expectations can be freeing, this approach deliberately lacks tools to build a meaningful life. It keeps us artificially isolated from one another, much like wellness culture, because it assumes we can only make meaning without other people. Finding this lack of structure chaotic made me a bad nihilist, too weak to face the reality of the void.
I also learned that wellness culture and nihilism are individualistic for a reason. Syfret and Burton talk about our declining belief in previous sources of meaning, like organized religion, philosophy, ethics, literature, and art. Without them, modern life lacks broader senses of community and purpose, in a time simultaneously full of social upheaval. Rather than replacing these institutions, both nihilism and wellness culture seek to provide sources of coherence on an individual level. They weren’t helpful to me because both emerged in a time where we assume that fulfillment can’t come from larger structures, or each other.
With a world full of major problems to be solved, we shouldn’t turn inward to deify ourselves, or consign society to the void. We can instead try to construct meaning, on a personal and larger scale, alongside others to bring new ideas into the world.
Since that night, I’ve instead prioritized time with friends, discussing these issues and exercising our creativity. We call it “parlor time,” where we sit in each person’s (usually very tiny) living room doing tarot, games, crafts, or just talking about our aspirations and fears. This brings far more fulfillment and direction than going it alone ever did.
Copyrighted 2023. All opinions are my own.