Cool Girl Recovery

by Sadie McGuire

art by Sarah Thibault
Google “cool girl” and, apart from Amy Dunne’s monologue from Gone Girl, you’ll find an exhausting list of women’s health articles warning us that being her leads to toxic relationships and general dissatisfaction in life. She is an overdone archetype that women use as a way to appear aloof that is disingenuous with their actual thoughts and feelings.

I have the media literary and meta-cognition to understand this now, thanks to the Internet and therapy, after subsisting for years on a diet of fictional, aspirationally chill women, who were all written by men. But still, I’ve found the Cool Girl mentality is easier to analyze than it is to drop entirely. I find myself now in what I call “Cool Girl Recovery.”

My personal Cool Girl journey started early. As a child of two black sheep parents, who came together to create more black sheep children, I learned to define myself not by what I am, but instead by what I am not. When I begged my mom to buy me the same expensive Abercrombie shirts that every other girl at school was wearing, I was met with the response: “Why do you want to look like everyone else?” It’s a well meaning question to ask a child in the midst of forming their identity, but I took it literally: the way to be worthy in my parents eyes, in anyone’s eyes, was if I were different. In my opposition, I would find value. 

At school, when I asked kids who listened to Britney and Justin if they’d heard of the Beatles or the Beach Boys - two of my parents' favorites, who made “real music” - I was met with blank stares. I took these blank stares not to mean that I had said something wrong, but instead as affirmation that I had done something right. I was doing it, I was being different.

What started with small tastes and preferences in childhood morphed into a character. Around late high school and early college came my first calcification of  “Traditional Cool Girl”: leather jacket, cigarettes, beers with the boys, and a love for esoteric memes and fart jokes. Not only could I hang with the guys, but I could have sex with them too. I was unafraid of my sexuality - or so I claimed. While other girls were saving their first times for their boyfriends, I would be different. I would put sex first, love be damned. Even if I could only have it blackout drunk; physical satisfaction omitted from the equation – at least it gave me stories to tell at parties.

Predictably, the act started to grow old, and so in my twenties I moved onto a new identity: “Career Cool Girl.” While the rest of my friends and acquaintances were still binge drinking, I would was at a cool distance, devoting myself entirely to my career. In my devotion, I would find the true marrow of life. A cosmetic brand had a slogan around this time: “for cool girls with not a lot of time.” I made this a de facto motto for myself. I was always available to set a call, schedule a meeting or respond to an email. Work came first, friends came second, and dating came dead last - a hierarchy that obeyed the dominant pussy hat feminism of the time. 

After a few years in, I started to feel an itch. I looked around at my fellow career devotees and saw nothing but  ten-hour-days at the office, nights alone in front of the TV, pushed-off vacations, and lost time. 

Then, the pandemic. While those around me panicked,, I saw the lack of structure as an opportunity to distance myself yet again and morph into a new iteration: “Hobbies Cool Girl.” I had gotten it wrong before - a job was never the coolest part about someone, instead it was what you did outside of it. So I would try to do all of it: reading, hiking, yoga, tennis, ceramics, watercolors. This is how I would find fulfillment. I would be a well rounded person - and pity those who foolishly prided themselves on career dedication like I once had. 

Somewhere between Career Cool Girl and Hobbies Cool Girl, I was dumped from a situationship by a guy who offered the condolence: “I’m sure you’ll find someone, you’re so cool and stylish.” Instead of feeling like a crowning achievement - it felt more like a wakeup call. Is that all I am? These prized descriptors suddenly felt as empty as they actually were. And if I really was both of those things - why was it leading me to an ending instead of a beginning? 

This was an inciting incident that led to my current path of “Cool Girl Recovery” – a nonlinear route if there ever was one, as I’ve been Tetris-ing my life under the guise of “balance” for some time..  If TS Eliot measured his life in coffee spoons, I’d measured mine in Google calendar invites. Hour-long blocks of time  divided up into 30 minute sections, devoted to “task forces,” “syncs'' and “huddles” (Career Cool Girl) – preceded by blocks for “studio time” or “tennis lesson” (Hobbies Cool Gir) – and then weekends blocked off with “sample sale” or “DIY show” (Traditional Cool Girl). 

I am all for boundaries, but the rigidity has been getting me nowhere, as I’ve been subconsciously forcing myself into a new archetype: “Have It All Cool Girl”. Which, just like the traditional version, is a fantasy. -Having it all is just plain impossible. And though focusing on finding who I am instead of trying to create it is the goal – it’s easier said than done.

In an attempt to constantly play it cool, my basic emotional necessities – love, attention, validation, connection, community – the reasons I strived to be  different in the first place – aren’t actually met. I collect signifiers of these intangibles to show off as status symbols,  but am never satiated; never present, holding them in my hands. They constantly slip from my grip as I turn my head to focus on the next thing I need to gain to be the newest, most updated form of “cool.” I can’t sit on the beach of life and do nothing - I’m too focused on becoming the type of person someone would want to sit on the beach with. As it turns out, all these basic emotional necessities aren’t so basic at all,  they’re elusive. And if I don’t drop the desperation to be cool, I risk losing them completely. 

Recovery wise, my knee jerk reaction is still to hate something that is universally loved. Even while I write this essay, I think “What’s the coolest take on being a Cool Girl?” I don’t think it’s a takedown - we have enough of those. And in taking down the Cool Girl, one could argue it’s a perpetuation of the myth: “It’s cool to not be a Cool Girl.” So instead of the cool take,  I’ll advocate for the healthy one: compassion. For myself, for others life me on the journey. There is no guidebook for now to untangle from ingrained behaviors. It doesn’t happen overnight, but is, I think, a slow chipping away. For every time I let myself do nothing on a Saturday night, I overschedule myself with Cool Girl things the next day. But it does nothing to scold myself. Instead, I’m trying on patience and understanding. 

When I re-read this essay in five years, I wonder: will I be doing it againStaring down from my ivory tower, rolling my eyes and thinking “How embarrassing” to try so hard not to be cool? I hope not. I hope I can look back at this time of healing and reckoning with warmth rather than malice. 

Even if that’s uncool.