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Editor’s note: This piece discusses disordered eating.

Little is as tightly bound within the womanly experience as suffering. It’s the burden of your mother, your daughter, yourself—a familiarity even closer than the lyrical likeness the word woman has to woe, the dragging out of an open mouth before prematurely snapping shut.

We could be forgiven for learning to love it. For turning torment into playlists and booklists and a certain look in our eyes, a gauntness in our cheeks. Pulling on ‘sad girl’ like a homecoming to a curse, because how could we ever be anything but this? For what is more raucous than a cry? What is more unsettling than the half-moon eyes of a creature that writhes with rage subdued?

But I question, with compassion, through fatigue, what else?

When Fleabag says women are born with pain built-in, does this mean it must be forever lodged somewhere between our sternum and our throat, a knot that never eases? And are we now doubly condemned, in not only experiencing suffering but always performing it? To remain planted within Plath’s bell jar rather than fighting against the ‘bad dream’ outside it?

There is something additionally depressing about the ‘sad girl’ trope, specifically in the way it emerges as a caricature of women’s pain. To be made of this sadness, not only as an emotion but as a persona, turns the human into the manufactured; a calling to women to embrace the wound both as an armour and a sword.

We could be forgiven for learning to love it. For turning torment into playlists and booklists and a certain look in our eyes.

In the online sphere, ‘sad girl’ has a sound, a look, a style. A manner of speaking, a detached gaze, all amalgamating into an aura of almost unreachable, ethereal melancholy. The artificiality of this aesthetic is increasingly unmissable in the context of the specific types of media at whose altar ‘sad girl’ worships. Believing The Virgin Suicides and Girl, Interrupted and Thirteen and Skins to be representative of her, authenticated by her lived experience, ‘sad girl’ misses the possibility of the reverse: that she has carved her image in their likeness.

Images: The Virgin Suicides (1999), Girl, Interrupted (1999) and Skins (2007–2017).

With starvation as the soundtrack, thinness prioritises itself in the ‘sad girl’ music genre. Mitski sings, ‘I tried to eat like your girlfriend, just tea in the night.’ Billie Eilish echoes, ‘I’ll try not to starve myself, just because you’re mad at me.’ Fiona Apple continues, ‘hunger hurts, but starving works’. boygenius proclaims, ‘I wanna be emaciated.’ Lana Del Rey says, ‘I’m a fan of pro-ana nation, I do them drugs to stop the f-food craving.’ Taking their place in Spotify’s ‘sad girl starter pack’ playlist, and in the thousands of other user-made playlists of the same concept, these anthems root the ‘sad girl’ persona in the melodic beauty of bone-deep sorrow in a figure shaved thin.

This fixation on thinness wedges itself in the body, aestheticising not only the experience but also the appearance of women’s suffering. Aided by the cyclical recurrence of ‘heroin chic’, ‘sad girl’ models her skeletal vessel as representative of her pain but also her beauty. On social media, the ‘crying selfie’ remains a trending visual articulation of women’s suffering: through tear-filled eyes, women such as supermodel Bella Hadid share their anguish in a single, wordless look.

With starvation as the soundtrack, thinness prioritises itself in the ‘sad girl’ music genre.

It is no accident that the thinness intersects so thoroughly with whiteness. As Sabrina Strings, author of Fearing the Black Body, tells us, the valorisation of thin bodies stems from a historic misconception that Europeans practise rationality in their eating habits, and beyond: ‘[The colonial politics suggests] if you are a thin person, it’s because you have discipline and self-control. If you are fat, you are out of control.’ To suffer in thinness then gains an element of nobility, symbolic of strength and superiority. The suffering, starving ‘sad girl’ can then present herself as worthy in her endurance, consistently in a state of ‘just cried’ but definitely did not ‘just eat’.

Ironically, while the ‘sad girl’ aesthetic threads itself deeply into the various makings of womanhood, it nonetheless exists in the realm of the infantilised, operating from a position of proximity to girlhood. Childlike is the defenceless, feeble body of the underfed, under-rested and misunderstood; a shaky frame that is supposedly steadfast in its resilience, and yet sapless and brittle. This is only furthered by her emotional state, which, fixated on suffering, feeds only on itself. When Phoebe Bridgers asks, ‘How long will it be cute? All this crying in my room?’, she anticipates a time when she ‘can’t blame it on [her] youth.’ The image of ‘sad girl’ performs this specific type of vulnerability; one that is excused of both reason and responsibility.

What is left for this figure other than a detached contempt, sometimes referred to as love? It is certainly a strange form of love that grips ‘sad girls’ when discussing their crowned literary protagonist: the depressed, thin white woman of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, who seeks to induce a year-long sleep using prescription drugs. Their adoration is peppered with the understanding that before them is an ‘unlikeable’ character, someone purposefully devoid of redeeming qualities, embedded in their hearts nonetheless through her destructive despondency. Her position, however, remains an unenviable one—a version of ‘sad girl’ that is not so desirable as the love story Marianne of Normal People gets to dwell in.

Yet, while consumers of ‘sad girl’ have become indoctrinated into the cult of womanly melancholy, their very icons have already begun the rejection of this categorisation. Moshfegh reiterated the satirical nature of her novel to reverse distorted readings of how to deal with depression (‘my sad girl fans concern me’). Fiona Apple removed her entire discography from TikTok to cease the misinterpretation of her lyrics as fetishising female pain. Bridgers dubbed the label as kitschy enough to appear on a Forever 21 shirt (‘I cringe at it’). Mitski referred to it as ‘reductive and tired ten years ago’. Del Rey, who recently became victim to vitriolic body shaming by her own fanbase, sang a different tune at the 2023 Billboard Awards: ‘Being happy is the ultimate goal.’ As the elected darlings relinquish themselves from their bestowed titles, a question arises: what foundations does the ‘sad girl’ hoist herself on now, in this abandonment by her gods?

What is left for this figure other than a detached contempt, sometimes referred to as love?

In the absence of a restrictive persona, perhaps the ‘girl’ can emerge: powerful and vulnerable and unfathomable…a whole being. The opportunity arises to talk about our wounds without glamourising them, to hold them up to the light while refusing the call to leave the rest of us in its shadow. We can draw on the strength of resistance, rather than endurance, from artists like Lorde, whose kaleidoscopic discography dapples in the lows of ‘I’m a liability’ at one turn and subverts the divinity of sadness with ‘I’m kinda like a prettier Jesus’ at the next. The books that define us can be the ones that embrace all the textures of girlhood, rather than just the grit of assigned sadness; Elif Batuman framing its aches in sardonic playfulness, Bernardine Evaristo converging the lines of isolated suffering, Elena Ferrante centring friendship where romance often is.

We can look to the recent successes of women sharing the multitudes of womanhood and see there is space for it all. For the ecstasy that erupts on Taylor Swift’s Era’s Tour stage (the highest-grossing tour of all time), with crowds resonating with both the joy and the heartbreak. For the loneliness of Barbie’s navigation of the real world (the highest-grossing film of the year), to the inclusive kinship in the ‘Hi Barbie!’ greeting that has been embraced by viewers. For record-breaking cheers and attendance numbers for the Matildas’ goals, celebrating their feats even in their losses. Girls, women, who are in instances pained, lovestruck, downtrodden, yes—and yet, also, a thousand things more.

Images: Lana Del Rey at the Billboard Awards (2023), Barbie (2023) and Sam Kerr at the World Cup semi-finals (2023).

Here, in this multiplicity, ‘sad girl’ can sit alongside the many other parodies of femininity that aim to condense that which was never meant to be: the ‘hot girl’ and the ‘clean girl’ and the ‘vanilla girl’ and the ‘it girl’ and the ‘cool girl’. The confinements of such one-dimensionality can be transformed by embracing womanhood as its truest: everchanging, capable of more than that which can be defined in a singular aesthetic, made of a strength, a beauty, a divinity, that arises simply in our idiosyncratic beings.