Girlhood is easy to sell, womanhood is a bitter pill to swallow
I am every hot girl who has walked before me. A conversation with Melissa Eshaghbeigi.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been absolutely inundated with “girl + x” trends. Whether it’s aesthetics, girl math, or even revisiting the Girlboss it seems like the hottest and scariest thing to be on the Internet is a girl. Women are reminiscing on their childhoods, attending concerts in droves and changing economies; at the same time, very tangibly – policy is shifting to harm women and other groups with marginalized identities.
There’s this weird tension between being just a girl and being taken seriously that’s been percolating in my mind for a few months. And so, I invited my friend Melissa Eshaghbeigi to talk all about it with me.
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Melissa is a creative strategist, researcher, speaker, and futures consultant who exclusively thinks and talks about culture and the Internet. She tells stories about what people are consuming, explains why, and shares those insights to inspire new, relevant, and genuine ways for brands to connect with people (friendly reminder that 'consumers' and 'users' are, above all else, people). She is deeply interested in your search history, believes content is capital, and is insatiably curious about our relationship with the world wide web.
I’ve shared our conversation below.
My aversion to the whole girl dinner, girl math, whatever thing has really come from the fact that I think I came of age as a young woman in the Girlboss era, and I always really resented when people would be like, “oh, you're like such a girl boss.”
And this felt like it really diminished me working hard. And it's not that I think femininity is a bad thing at all. That's not my point here.
I think it's something that people sometimes use as a pejorative to diminish. It just sometimes feels very sinister in the way that people approach you with different identity markers.
Some of these trends feel really surface level and they’re being called a reclamation of femininity and womanhood. A couple of things come up for me, questions about how you felt the first time someone called you a woman, because in my experience, a lot of women hate the “maam’ification.” There's this gray area where all of a sudden, certain people are no longer calling you “girl”, but that always seems to happen outside of the context of work.
For a lot of professional women, it's like, at work, you're a girl, but then outside of work, you are a woman. The term is marking a certain evolution of your identity and experience.
I think because I look younger than I am, and I have pretty much looked like this since maybe I was 14 or 15. I have a rounder face. I'm shorter. I think I get a lot of, like, “Oh, you're so cute and little.” And I think that's also why I have this resistance towards self-infantilization, because I am a pretty petite person, and I don't want to be like, “Oh, I'm so small and frail.”
But it sometimes feels like people use it as a thing to diminish me, and oftentimes I'll meet somebody over Zoom or something, and then they meet me in real life, and they're like, “Oh, you're so much smaller than I thought you were. You just have such an intimidating presence, or this or that.” And I'm like, “Okay, interesting.”
What you're sharing reminds me a lot of my criticism of the Barbie movie. Or like, my analysis of the criticism of that movie – that certain groups of people loved it and found it eye-opening and expansive and a story of Feminism 101 that they needed. But then when I talked to any person of color, they were like, a great way to spend $15. Absolutely fun entertainment. That movie didn't change anything for me. That movie wasn't made for me. And so I hear a little bit of that in what you're sharing about your aversion towards these girl trends.
Thinking about whiteness and femininity, it's like, ultimately, at the end of the day, who actually gets to be like, a frail girl that someone's going to take care of? And I don't think that space is there for women of color and especially black women. And I think that's where these trends just don't feel like they fit me.
Again, I haven't seen Barbie yet, and I think a part of it is that discourse. Cultural criticism now has been reduced to: either a cultural object is a paragon of virtue and it’s amazing, or the worst thing you've ever seen. Nothing can just ever be good or a nice way to spend an hour and a half.
There’s a parallel there between what you just said and the desire to have all of these trends combined and understood and dissected.
And I was thinking about the Spice Girls because I was born in 1992, so I grew up heavily with the Spice Girls. I was thinking about the concept of girl power and at the time, it being this anthem of empowerment for my younger self. But after the pandemic, I kind of felt like it was an early battle cry to understand the extra source of energy you need to exist in this body.
There's just something interesting in general going on a bit with womanhood and girlhood online.
And I think in real life, I think you see the violence that's traditionally against women starting to be committed against young girls. And that is so scary. Yesterday I opened the news, and there was that girl who got stabbed by a guy with a machete when she was 15 for rejecting his advances. I feel like when I was a girl, there was this coming of age after 80s corporate feminism, then 90s feminism, there was just this attitude –
"Oh, my God, being a woman is so amazing. You get your own money, you get to buy fabulous clothes”, Sex in the City style.
It’s just so interesting that womanhood can only go two ways. Helplessness or this hyper-independence, take no prisoners way of being. There's just no middle way of being. I think similarly, that this thing is happening for men and disillusioning and disenchanting a lot of young boys.
I look at what a future world could look like if I was to have a daughter. And I'm terrified it's a future I don't want to participate in. And so these girlhood trends are also really interesting to me because it's women that are participating in them, creating a narrative, sharing stories, and broadcasting them. And eventually, they will be, if they aren't already role models to a younger generation. So what healing or clarity or introspection are they gaining from participating in this that can actually have an impact on the next generation?
Nostalgia makes everything look so much better than it is. You look back at being young and frolicking and being in the sunshine and your whole life looked like it was ahead of you. You probably dreamed of being the president or an astronaut.
And yeah, it feels full of possibility, but then you really look one layer closer, at being a brown person in America after 9/11. I don't want to go through 2007-era body shaming, post-9/11 racism, all of these things.
It's just this disenchantment with the kind of feminism we've been sold for so long that is so white and capitalism-focused: that if women just worked and did these things and had all the money, then the rest would be solved.
And now you're seeing all this resentment from men.
Consumerism was the antidote to me being able to self-soothe. And I think I fell into subscribing to a lot of the algorithmic advice I was getting of making your phone background a photo of yourself as a little girl and doing everything for her.
And I'm trying, I love her, I want her to be happy, but she also doesn't understand the circumstances of my adulthood.
She's in me, for sure, but also I'm not fully her anymore. I've evolved. Life experiences happen. And so putting butterfly clips in my hair with my girlfriends and speaking affirmations warms my soul for a little bit.
But it doesn't make me feel good about the fact that I'm witnessing a generation of educated women with financial resources not pursue motherhood because of how they witnessed motherhood for their moms.
That's what I feel is, these girlhood and womanhood trends are finally acknowledging that, honestly, the world is not serving any of us but the answer is always to go shopping.
That's what I feel is, these girlhood and womanhood trends are finally acknowledging that, honestly, the world is not serving any of us but the answer is always to go shopping. – Melissa Eshaghbeigi
The powers that be have done such a good job because we're pointing the fingers at each other. Like, young men are mad at young women. Young women are mad at young men. Younger women are mad at older women. Everyone is mad at gay and trans people. People are fighting between races, orientations, etc – when the whole issue is that there are seemingly few resources left for the rest of us.
So then coming back to girl dinner, the hot girl walks etc.,
Girl trends are everywhere. What the hell is going on? This isn't a preoccupation with aesthetics. Society hates women and women are tired of being hated. They just want to feel good. We're just living in a 2001 Josie and the Pussycats society in which every couple of months, a group of marketers that may or may not look like us decide strawberry nails are in, and they’re going to push it through. And then it becomes the Tomato Girl era. Or like Cottage Core Girl era. And people find the tools to participate in these aesthetics. Right? It's very clear, like, how you can be a Strawberry Girl or Tomato Girl, and then it allows you to find other people that give you a very surface level relationship.
And then the cycle changes.
I think just the whole thing is driven by the Internet and the desire to consume. And also connections have just become so surface. It's based on an aesthetic.
And I feel in the past, it felt like being in a subculture involved more crate digging for records, finding the one person that makes a certain kind of clothing, whatever, and that still exists to some degree. It's there in pockets, maybe not as much. And then the bigger thing is sometimes when I see somebody be like, oh, I'm such Tomato Girl, hot girl walk. I almost imagine the tags beneath a Tumblr post forming above their head.
Search and filter for a very surface-level interaction to have with somebody. And I've had people be like, what kind of girly are you? And I'm like, I don't know. I'm just me.
I don't know. I have nothing to say to that. I go to Pilates, but I'm not like, a That Girl. Clean Girl.
I just feel like people are grasping at straws. Right before we got on this call, I saw these crazy stats around how many people actually have friends, and it was like in a survey of 2000 adults, 12% of Americans report having no friends, up from under 3% in the 1990s. And this data is mirrored in the UK, where the number of young adults who report having one or no close friends jumped from 7% to 20% between 2012 and 2021. These numbers are even worse for men.
It's terrifying, but there's something happening with that. And the way that you were talking about the tags, the Tumblr tags above someone's head, Internet culture has become the mainstream culture, and we have kind of lost our ability to have depth in connection for all these different reasons.
And so participating in whatever the aesthetic du jour is trending allows us to find community and friendship, but it's never really that satiating. I find girl dinner playful because when I first saw it, I was like, I do that all the time. And then I started seeing these responses to it, sharing that when a woman enters a heteronormative relationship, she actually gains, like, 7 hours of domestic labor.
And I hadn't really thought about how much of my identity wasn't tied to cooking a meal every day for someone but myself.
Now that we have these viral Internet moments, we're seeing thoughtful or maybe even overly analytical think pieces. And that is what is compelling for me, is that finally, all these different groups are speaking. I'm going to throw a wrench in things too, but with the kind of loss of religion and the rise of spirituality, I do feel like people are just grasping at straws, trying to make meaning and belonging.
To participate in these girl trends is to feel like you're belonging, but also when you look down deeper, it shows us all of the complexities that exist under them. And the fact that I don't think girls and women are that happy right now.
To participate in these girl trends is to feel like you're belonging, but also when you look down deeper, it shows us all of the complexities that exist under them. And the fact that I don't think girls and women are that happy right now. – Melissa Eshaghbeigi
Yeah, I started a piece a long time ago and maybe I'll finish it.
The piece was about how the Internet is like a new god to us because it's this omnipresent thing and it has these weird lines of morality and has such a dominant shape of how it shapes groups and culture. And I think in some ways the internet is a new religion.
And if you're not, people even just identify with being super online as a positive trait, and it can be a really positive trait when you do what we do for a living. And that's another way of self-organizing.
When you meet someone who isn’t very online it’s like they’ve self-exocommunicated. So I think the Internet has become a little bit of a religion. The Internet has, in its own weird way, become a religion and a force for belonging, and it's just as irrational as any Greek god ever was.
I really hope you have space and time to continue writing that because my first tattoo was a WiFi symbol.
I think the last thing, and I feel like it kind of sums up what we're talking about is like, women are disillusioned.
We were sold a version of womanhood that maybe doesn't exist. And then you become a woman and it's like you're not doing enough at work. You're not doing enough for your boyfriend or your family or your kids or yourself. You're not fit enough. You're not beautiful enough. You need botox. You need this. You have to be this. You have to be that.
Womanhood, once you get to it, sometimes can seem like there's always a problem with you and you're not doing. With all the things happening in policy with Roe v. Wade, just the violence you see out in womanhood doesn't seem that great. It actually seems pretty painful, and I think it's a bitter pill and a big one to swallow.
And so I think girlhood is easy to market and it's easy to sell into little pieces that are fun and sexy and cute and make for a nice Reformation marketing email full of red dresses. And I think it's just easier to sell girlhood because it has potential, whereas womanhood is like, you make the wrong choice of partner and you could actually die.
And so I think girlhood is easy to market and it's easy to sell into little pieces that are fun and sexy and cute and make for a nice Reformation marketing email full of red dresses. And I think it's just easier to sell girlhood because it has potential, whereas womanhood is like, you make the wrong choice of partner and you could actually die. – Nikita Walia
I love that thesis. I think it's so compelling and it points to that we’re glossing over what these people are experiencing. And I'm honestly horrified that we live in a time where people are not choosing the most fundamental element of the human experience, to create life, because they financially cannot afford it. And people are being forced to become parents because reproductive laws are changing. That is a terrifying reality for me.
Did you see that piece or conversation a few weeks ago about how babies are a status symbol now? But that is kind of what it feels like. It feels like plants are the new pets, pets are the new kids and a baby is like having a birkin.
Oh, you can afford that. We're just trying our best to survive the current conditions that have been given to us. And consumerism is one of the easiest ways to do it.
Definitely is. Silly little beverage culture.
Sip your iced matcha right on cue.
This is an excerpt of an hour-long conversation between myself and Melissa that was very wide-ranging, and has been reduced and edited for clarity.
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