When did it become cool to be a 'sad girl'?

Photo: Getty Images/Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle

A lot of what you see on the internet might be considered the mental equivalent of scarfing down a drive-through cheeseburger: There’s a momentary reward, but soon enough you’re left feeling worse than you did before.

It’s not all that dissimilar to the growing community of users busy tweeting ephemeral thoughts about how their “emo is trapped beneath a layer of anxiety” and other depressing musings that add to their angsty online personas. While the internet can be a useful tool for those seeking help with mental health issues — an increasingly prominent and long overdue discussion entering the American cultural lexicon — it’s also where some project their deepest mental demons into digital voids and echo chambers, with no apparent upside.

Herein lies the internet “sad girl,” also known as “common sad girl,” “Tumblr sad girl,” “Lolita sad girl,” and surely a number of other designators (in Japan, for example, she’s the Kawaii “sick cute” girl). In America, you might spot her wearing a Millennial baseball cap with the phrase “Daddy Issues” stitched along the panel, or a mint green hoodie that reads, “I’m in love with my sadness,” purchased from an internet brand called Anti-Social Social Club. (If you’re curious, you’ll find the most comprehensive guide to the complete wardrobe of a true internet sad girl here.)

But mental health issues have permeated the cultural landscape so deeply that we see depression on more than just a teen’s sleeve. Such expressions have become normalized, from the deepest levels of internet subcultures right into the mainstream. In music, for example, there’s songstress Lana Del Rey, whose breakthrough studio album was titled Born to Die. More recently comes an entire subgenre of hip-hop called emo rap, where young men like Lil Uzi Vert and the 21-year-old Lil Peep, who killed himself in 2017, rap about Xanax and suicide over a jagged beat. Young visual artists like Audrey Wollen (a self-professed “tragic queen”) reframe women’s sadness as political protest via Instagram, while illustrator Polly Nor “is best known for her dark and satirical drawings of women and their demons. … Her Illustrations often tell stories of anxiety, self doubt, and the struggle for self-love.”

Not that popular culture hasn’t had its melancholic icons. A decade ago, there was the pop-punk label Fueled by Ramen, teenage internet pioneers who made misery their business; and while today’s internet sad girls and boys are too young to have grown up with Nirvana and the Smiths, finding those morose heroes (and still pledging loyalty to Morrissey) is as easy as finding and retweeting a pithy Sylvia Plath quote.

The difference between then and now is that social media and smartphones make those references available instantaneously. If someone wants to fully envelop themselves in their sadness — sartorially, visually, audibly — it’s literally at their fingertips and marketed as a lifestyle, says Debra Kissen, clinical director of the Light on Anxiety treatment center in Chicago.

The challenge with social media is the frequency of engaging in the material,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “If you watch a dark movie or listen to a Morrissey song for a couple of minutes versus spending hours online while your parents think you’re doing homework, that’s problematic. Those kids are spending hours rehashing how dark and pointless life is, not challenging their beliefs and not practicing a different perspective.” 

A screenshot of SoSadToday’s Twitter account, which frequently alternates between depressing thoughts and self-deprecating humor. (Photo: Twitter/SoSadToday)

In some ways, social media rewards that kind of brooding. Popular accounts like “SoSadToday” and “IndieWasHere,” with hundreds of thousands of followers, serve as models for how to create the perfect concoction of self-deprecating humor and despair in less than 280 characters. There’s a psychosocial, Pavlovian reward for waxing despondent about your depression and social anxiety.

“When you’re posting upbeat stuff, you’re not going to get 6,000 likes like you get when you’re posting pure darkness,” Kissen says of those Twitter accounts. “It is kind of satisfying to the brain in that moment, the likes.” 

There’s something, too, about pushing back on everyone’s manufactured digital personas, those of perfect outfits and vacations and homes. “People create an image of themselves as happier, more accomplished, more popular, so it’s natural for people to be drawn somewhat to look at sadness, because it’s virtually impossible to feel you compare positively to people’s manufactured images,” says Karen North, communications professor and director of the Digital Social Media program at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School. “It’s this contrast effect — we want to see a little sadness when we go online since we see so much pretend happiness. People know other people aren’t as happy as they appear in the images they see, so it’s like they’re pushing back, what’s called ‘reactance’ in psychology. People get tired of all the happiness and lean into the opposite.”

And some accounts really lean into it. SoSadToday, a Twitter account Melissa Broder created that started to receive attention in 2016, laments to more than 600,000 followers how terrible life can be. All that bemoaning has translated internet success into a book deal. “Tweeting and writing about my depression and anxiety (which are different than sadness, though there is overlap) have allowed me to find meaning in my struggles and feel that I am controlling the narrative. Even if that’s only an illusion, I love the illusion of control,” Broder tells Yahoo Lifestyle, declining to speak any further on the subject.  

Broder does raise a fair point about how social media can be cathartic. Some research even points to the idea that self-defeating humor can be good for psychological well-being. But when something like the SoSadToday Twitter account thrives solely for being a vacuum for misery, stopping short of offering actionable help to its readers, that makes its inherent value debatable.

“If everyone is modeling the same depressive behavior, it just becomes a factory for mirroring depression,” notes Kissen. “If that’s the only thing happening, then it can start enhancing the same negative thinking patterns you’re experiencing.” (Interestingly, and counter to what SoSadToday’s Twitter page looks like, an automated response email from Broder offers resources to those who emailed if they were truly experiencing mental health struggles.)

Another question: Is the angst aesthetic turned lifestyle of the 2010s a true reflection of an uptick in mental illness? Or is the promulgation of it on social media, the “glorification of self-pity,” a reflection of a generation whose relationship to depression is less serious than it is for others? (One can’t help but think of the 22-year-old vlogger Logan Paul who inanely walked his 15 million subscribers through Japan’s Suicide Forest with no apparent regard for the human condition.) 

While anxiety and anxiety-related conditions are on the rise, clinical depression is not (though rates remain steadily high among teens). According to the National Institute of Mental Health, most major depressive episodes in adults occur between ages 18 and 25. Roughly 3 million U.S. adolescents ages 12 to 17, or about 13 percent of kids in that age group, suffered from a depressive episode, and they’re reported at a rate nearly three times more in adolescent girls than boys. Anxiety disorders, meanwhile, are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults 18 and older, or 18.1 percent of that population every year.

It could be that the “social contagion” effect, as North identifies, could be why there’s a seeming increase, at least online, of sad kids. “Ideas go from one person to the next like a virus, but it may not be because people feel similarly but because they learn from each other, learn a way to behave. I always worry that when you promote or glorify things that are harmful to people — sadness, suicide, homicide — those things serve as examples for other people, especially troubled people who cannot distinguish this as an artistic expression or entertainment compared to a suggestion for how to behave in the world.”

To that point, to think that every internet sad girl or boy is clinically depressed or anxious is like suggesting that everyone who posts a photo of their lunch is a chef. “As with feminism, [mental health’s] oversaturation in the media gradually erases any to all nuance, and it becomes another empty trend, designed to shift product or make a reader click on a headline or pay attention. It becomes a brand, almost; a defining characteristic, a genre of its own,” Vice wrote, exploring how everything from parking listicles to music magazine covers co-opted anxiety as evidence of relatability rather than as a serious condition. Notably, white women are allowed to be sensitive sad girls, whereas the trap and trope of the strong black woman endures.

A prime example of the ineptitude that comes when the media tries to capitalize on mental health for its own gain is Vogue‘s latest video franchise, “Sad Hot Girls,” an entirely vapid series of satirical shorts that hollows out what it means to be sad in the first place, because, like, it’s OK, you’re hot. Issa Rae‘s lighthearted take on social anxiety (a notable exception to the largely white sad-girl image) marked the first video in that series and was perhaps the most believable, but those that followed were bad parodies of the first, featuring a bunch of thin white women rolling around a makeshift bedroom in their lingerie. In a sense, they’re glamorous people glamorizing sadness, just because.

Luckily, there are virtual community leaders who broadcast their own mental health struggles in an attempt to help others find peace in their pain. The Sad Girls Club, an Instagram page with 28,000 followers, is an online and reality-based group where women (and notably, women of color) meet up to “create a community within the mental health world & ignite conversations amongst millennials.” Its founder, Elyse Fox, has struck an encouraging, supportive tone on the group’s social media accounts — as opposed to one that promulgates prolonged misery — and recently launched a downloadable, pocket-size handbook as a guide to bettering mental health.

The Sad Girls Guide, on the other hand, which started as a service-oriented blog but has now devolved into an Instagram and accompanying Twitter account, is replete with memes about Donatella Versace’s impending mental breakdown and lots of pink. Colleen Baisa, a 27-year-old based in Los Angeles, joined the blog in 2014 when it published sad-girl-approved playlists and their eponymous “sad girls guides” to complaining effectively about boys, being yourself, losing your job, and lots more.

Baisa says the blog’s founder wasn’t able to maintain it, and the content was archived. (The Sad Girls Guide’s last article was published in July 2016.) As for why she still bothers with the Twitter and Instagram accounts, Baisa says, “My whole MO was trying to find a way to get way back out in the world and rebirth the brand. I think that it’s always a positive thing to have conversations about mental illness, depression, and anxiety in young people.”

“The main goal was to express how, to be a young woman in this day and age, we need to express our feelings more, whether we are sad or mad or angry; we need to let young people know they’re not alone,” Baisa says. 

Baisa’s goals might be admirable. Then again, she’s not selling sadness sweatshirts.

The problem is, when you sell these things, you’re marketing something potentially harmful,” North warns. “You forget there are vulnerable people embracing your message without realizing you’re marketing a product.”

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