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The False Escapism of Soft Girls and Tradwives TIME

Young girl in long white dress floating in bedroom

The era of the “soft girl” is well underway. With 3 billion views on TikTok, the movement caters predominantly to women, specifically Gen-Z women, and the desire to achieve a delicate, care-free, ultra-feminine aesthetic. The lifestyle—while carefully crafted—sells the allure of a life defined by one thing: leisure. For many, the appeal is in admiring the beautiful aesthetics, like glitter and pastel accessories, and make-up tips to get the perfectly blushed “coquette” look. For others, it’s about pursuing an aspirational way of life full of “cozy cardio,” Stanley water bottles, and a general sense of ease. But when taken too far, the ideals of soft girl culture give way to some hard consequences—on women’s mental health and for society.

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The sudden end of the “Girlboss” and the transition into this aesthetic marks an interesting societal trend into rigid definitions of femininity and limiting roles for women. The seemingly harmless elements of soft girl culture blend a little too easily into old-fashioned manifestations of gender. Taken to the extreme, soft girl practices have given way to an increase of stay-at-home girlfriends and traditional wives (or, as coined by the Internet, “tradwives.”) Both concepts are reminiscent of the subservient roles that women have fought so long to break.

On social media, stay-at-home girlfriends and tradwives detail the ways in which they take care of their homes, partners, and families. They portray a life of simplicity, of coziness. None of this is inherently sinister—but there is a clear promotion of ideas around caring for others (which is work) and not working outside the home (while making money from influencing). This performative shift towards dependence, is alarming on many levels. As esteemed trauma specialist Dr. Paul Conti cites, the concept of agency is powerful in building and maintaining resilience and ultimately achieving well-being. And the influencer-backed trend of soft girls and tradwives promotes curated messages around dependency and feminine roles that aren’t exactly rooted in reality.

As a licensed psychologist who works with Gen-Z women, I see the decline in young women’s mental health connected to the very gendered fantasy being sold around a soft girl’s lifestyle—that life should be pretty and easy. The bill of goods endorsed by these ultra-traditional lifestyles and by the influencers of them is that life feels better if we are provided for and we can simply focus on what makes us happy. It seems like an easier pill to swallow than “life is hard” and “let’s practice dealing with it.”

This movement comes at a time when Gen Z women find themselves in a real moment of crisis. According to a December 2023 report by the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit research organization, Gen Z female teens have higher rates of suicide than previous generations, specifically rates have increased to .005% whereas suicide rates for teen girls had remained steadily around .003% for the three generations prior. This generation of women also has an increased risk of disordered eating: a systemic research review found that lifetime eating disorder prevalence increased from 3.5% in the time frame between 2000 and 2006 to 7.8% between 2013 and 2018. What’s more, Gen Z women tend to find themselves having complicated experiences on social media, often sharing that prolonged use of social media can lend itself to negative self-talk and constant comparisons. The mental health trends in this group point to an overall difficulty in tolerating life’s difficult experiences. Having internalized the idea that happiness comes from a life lived “softly” and effortlessly, this regurgitated brand of gender role is all about escapism. Of course, who can blame anyone for wanting a little escapism right now. But many Gen Z’ers are oftentimes struggling to recognize that the ideal is far from the norm—or the truth.

Read More: Self-Love Is Making Us Lonely

Confronting life’s difficulties is not always easy, and it doesn’t always feel worth it. A lack of intensity, in turn, certainly sounds appealing. Women who identify as soft girls are often rejecting a life defined by grinding in a corporate setting. That’s not a bad thing—in theory. In our capitalist society, hustle culture is revered despite its side effects. I frequently see clients suffer when they are over-committed to their work. The recent media and cultural attention on burnout shows us that work-life balance has been out of whack for a long time. The pandemic further highlighted this reality so much so that droves of workers felt no choice but to quiet quit.

But the extreme pendulum swing in the direction of “soft girl” also lands us in troubling waters, and it’s critical to understand what might be happening to draw women back into such traditional roles. In our moment of late-stage capitalism, many people, particularly women, have watched how this system’s principles have failed their elders and are in turn, rejecting it to avoid feelings of instability. For instance, the National Association of Realtors reported that, as of 2023, millennials have a lower homeownership rate than the national average for all age groups. Many of the women who embrace soft girl lifestyles have watched millennial women hustle to the point of negatively, impacting their mental health while still not earning enough to own a home. They may think, “what’s the point?” Culturally, young women are aware that the old ideas of achieving financial stability through hard work are no longer applicable. This is scary to face, and the knowledge that their efforts in the way of career advancement and earning potential may go unrewarded might contribute to women aspiring to seek financial security through other means: namely, by reverting to old-fashioned gender roles that allow them to be cared for instead of hustling.

The tendency to avoid bleak prospects on stability, debt, and in general higher costs of living is not new. The attraction to becoming a “soft girl” or a “stay-at-home girlfriend” mirrors the coping mechanisms that “treat culture”—the practice of getting yourself a little treat to celebrate (or soften) moments—can offer. The mentality here is that if financial security (or, in today’s society, general feelings of physical or emotional security) is off the table, and as a result, making small purchases to boost your mood, even momentarily, is a good investment in mental health. It isn’t bad to spend money on small things in order to feel good. But avoiding financial difficulties can lead to a cycle of dependence and increased debt that does not end well for our mental health. Rather, it increases the instability and idleness.

Read More: Why We’re More Exhausted Than Ever

If we really want to achieve better mental health, the first step is to be able to acknowledge and confront life’s more realistic and melancholy experiences. It is true that whenever we are too invested in our careers, we lose out on so much life. But it would behoove us to consider why the pendulum swings to such absolutes: between the crippling pressure to have it all and the complete avoidance of what makes us human.

Freedom and autonomy are key to a (relatively) stress-free life, but no “cure-all” on TikTok is going to get us there. The reality is that life isn’t effortless and, if we want to feel fulfilled, it can’t be. Learning to tolerate the discomfort is critical. When women opt for less grind or believe commodified soft girl rhetoric, they may be trying to take care of their own needs in the moment. But in going all the way back to more subservient and dependent roles, they may be affecting more than just themselves.

Vanessa Scaringi

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