Sad girls have been around since it was possible to be a girl and to be sad. For most of history, being a sad girl meant that something was wrong with you: you were being punished for some sin against God, you had hysteria and must be locked in an asylum, you weren’t having enough children or devoting yourself fully to housework. In the past few decades, however, the sad girls have risen. They’ve reclaimed their own sadness and painted it pink.
Sylvia Plath is the archetype of the modern sad girl, a fashionable but tortured young woman who captured her suicidal depression in beautiful poetry. In some ways, her depression was worsened by the stifling expectations for women of her time. Plath wanted a career and a family, unusual aspirations for the 1960s. While she accomplished both, insecurities plagued her writing profession, and her family life was disrupted by a domineering and unfaithful husband. She committed suicide at thirty, after publishing many poems and one novel that described her mental illness and internal struggle in a remarkably honest way. Plath’s legacy is the generations of girls who want it all, and who express their feelings through writing, artwork, and style.
Browse through Tumblr or Instagram, and you’ll notice a strain of posts with similar themes. Teardrops, ironically self-deprecating pins, light pink frowny faces, antisocialism. Sad-girlhood has become a trend, as evidenced by the multiple online stores that sell pessimistic clothing and accessories: Stay Home Club, Me & You, Anti Social Social Club. These products, such as a patch that reads “I’m a wreck” or a “crying in bed” enamel pin, serve to both establish a grimy-pink, messily girly style and to unashamedly portray depressive emotions. There’s certainly an element of feminism to most of these brands, too. I may cry as a hobby, says the imaginary poster-girl for sad girl clothing, but that doesn’t mean I can’t kick the patriarchy in the ass. Don’t touch me unless I tell you to.
The sad girl movement is so uniform in appearance and so commercial that it’s easy to dismiss it as wholly superficial. Can emotions become so commodified that they lose all meaning – aesthetic as anesthetic? The clothing styles and recurring symbols (rotting flowers, nail-painted middle fingers) seem to glamorize and romanticize mental illness. Also, the trend is heavily represented by upper-middle-class white girls. In fact, one of the inspirations for the sad girl lifestyle was a Latina woman in the 1994 movie Mi Vida Loca. The character, who is literally named “Sad Girl,” wears three teardrop tattoos on her cheek and suffers through mistreatment and heartbreak. Like so many other style movements, the sad girl revolution adopts and whitewashes trends from other cultures. But don’t discount the sad girls as merely a gaggle of white teenagers with daddy’s credit card and a depression fetish. Many young women are using the trend as a springboard for diving into deeper, larger issues and opening the door for people of color.
Inspired by the massive prevalence of the sad girl aesthetic and her own habit of documenting her depression on Tumblr, Elyse Fox, a young black filmmaker, decided to open a conversation about what was really behind the pink and melancholy. In February 2017, she started Sad Girls Club, an organization meant to “remove the stigma that surrounds mental health conversations” and “provide mental health services to girls who don’t have access,” according to the club’s website. These sad girls don’t just wear their teardrops on their vintage denim jackets, they talk about the reasons why they cry.
Centuries of being called “the weaker sex” and treated for hysteria have left women with little room to acknowledge and deal with mental illness. Today’s sad girls have created a space for themselves to be okay with depression and anxiety, to speak up about difficult emotions, to join forces instead of undermining each other. These young women are curating their own aesthetic and proudly wearing their hearts on their sleeves. They light candles for their patron saint Sylvia Plath, draw loving sketches of hairy, stretch-marked legs, and tell each other that being female and being sad does not mean that they are weak.