The #SoftLife isn’t as easy as it looks online
What does it mean when Black women celebrate a life of leisure?
“I don’t know who needs to hear this but that whole strong Black woman narrative, it doesn’t apply to me. I live a soft life. I am a dainty princess. I will fall out at the drop of a minor inconvenience.”
– @look_its_britt, on TikTok.
Click on any of the several thousand videos under the “soft life” hashtag on TikTok and you’ll see Black women panning their cameras to show vacations in tropical locales, fine dining at upscale establishments, and expensive clothing in expansive closets. There are well-manicured hands on the steering wheel of a Mercedes-Benz and clinking champagne flutes on boats with girlfriends. According to the hashtag, this is the good life.
For instance, @ayoolahchan’s video shows the creator doing her skin care routine in front of the mirror, watering her plants, stirring marshmallows into a hot beverage, and drizzling honey on her granola and fruit breakfast. It has more than 600,000 likes, almost 3,000 comments and was bookmarked more than 40,000 times.
The term “soft life” originated in the Nigerian influencer community as slang for living a life of comfort and low stress. That is part of what makes soft life content so inspiring: the chance to imagine what life can feel like apart from the realities of Black women’s labor.
For lifestyle influencer and storyteller Tenicka Boyd, the messaging behind soft life content represents self-agency. “For many Black women it is a challenge to move past always being the responsible one, always sacrificing their enjoyment, always putting others over ourselves,” she said. “The soft life is quite literally a rejection of the hard life. Life of struggle and sacrifice.”
In April 2020, Boyd started creating fashion content under the moniker TenickaB on TikTok. “We’ve seen the rise in public racism, a clear economic downturn, the ongoing threat of COVID-19, as well as the abysmal deterioration of Black maternal health, domestic violence and threats to reproductive rights, and the consistent rise of Eurocentric beauty standards — that all affect Black women’s physical, mental, and financial health. In spite of those things, Black women are choosing to live full lives, embracing our own beauty, giving ourselves grace, dropping more balls and feeling less guilt about it.”
Boyd grew up in the Midwest with working-class parents who stressed college as the way to a better life. While she was in school, she became active in politics.
“I spent 15 years working in social justice and domestic policy, working for President Obama and on the leadership team of organizations like American Civil Liberties Union and Color of Change,” Boyd said. “I was leading a team to support the local efforts to reform policing in Minneapolis after George Floyd’s death and I was just exhausted. I’d seen my fair share of policy losses and I was looking for an outlet.”
Boyd champions women’s rest but is transparent about the price — both personally and professionally — that allowed her to live a softer life. This kind of financial security was extremely rare for Black women until recently and it’s still harder for Black women to achieve it than women in other demographic groups.
“I think it is important for Black women, particularly young Black women, to begin to think of a future for themselves that is positive, that is one filled with perhaps less friction and difficulties as their mother’s and their grandmother’s experience,” said Michelle Holder, an associate professor of economics at City University of New York.
“But as an economist, I definitely know what the salary earning potential realities are for Black women, what the income outlooks and trajectories are for Black women, so I look at it from two lenses,” Holder said. “One, is as a Black woman of a certain generation who… I don’t think would’ve ever really come up or embraced this thinking and movement because we were so caught up at that time in terms of racism and sexism and all this stuff. Not to say that those things don’t still exist. They clearly do.”
When she thinks of living a soft life, her mind goes to people who have either inherited money or who have worked extremely hard to earn enough money to take a step back and still thrive.
“When I think about individuals like that, it’s very easy for them to live a soft life. But for Black women, we face several hurdles,” Holder said. “There’s still an educational attainment gap at the level of college completion. There is still what I call the double gap in earnings, which is that Black women earn the least. If we compare Black men, Black women, white men, white women, Black women earn the least.
“My concern is how achievable is the soft life. On the one hand, I don’t want to pooh-pooh it. I don’t want to say, ‘Oh, that’s just a complete fantasy life,’ because I think, at the heart of it, it’s really about Black women seeing a different path for themselves. That is a good thing.”
One of the major criticisms of the soft live movement is its reliance on consumerism to demonstrate participation in the trend. There is a heavy emphasis on stuff: the bags, the cars, the Pilates classes, the vacations. And all of that costs a lot of money.
Some soft life content also seems to be rebranding the lives of stay-at-home wives (minus the children), and sidestepping the need for a partner to foot the bill leaves out the transactional exchanges needed to secure that bag.
“Nothing is apolitical when it comes to Black women,” said Boyd. “So it isn’t a surprise that the criticism online is that Black women who are proclaiming a soft life are promoting consumerism, or debt, or an unrealistic quality of life specifically for younger women who have yet to reach their peak earning potential.”
“I get it because so much of the imagery is material things,” she said. “But the soft life is a state. A feeling. The soft life for some will be aspirational but I think it’s best to remember that there are ways that Black women across socioeconomic status can access the idea of ‘laying one’s burden down.’ ”
“I’m an auntie,” said fashion influencer Tashira Halyard of Politics and Fashion, who encourages readers to live a life dedicated to pleasure through a movement similar to soft life, dubbed White Toenail Season.
“I think that it is a reminder and a moniker, especially for Black women who Zora Neale Hurston, as you know, called them mules of the world,” Halyard said. “For people who have been historically disenfranchised, marginalized, and oppressed, we have to have these kinds of banners — White Toenail Season, Soft Life, Rich Auntie — to have these monikers to remind us: Sis, you ain’t doing nothing wrong. You’re living your life full of abundance and abundance includes being soft, finding those things that represent self-care.”
After being diagnosed with cancer and getting a hysterectomy in her early 30s, Halyard chose to emphasize the soft and pretty in her own life.
“I didn’t have a choice. I had to sit my ass down. I went through about 2½, three years of very, very intense medical challenges,” she said.
“I know in a real way what it means to have to center joy,” Halyard continued. “So I left my career in public policy, and before I did the brand full of time, I worked in luxury retail because it was fun, because it was fun because I didn’t have to take work home for the first time in my adult professional career, because I got to go to work and laugh and meet new people and play in clothes.”
To be able to live a soft life presumes a certain level of financial security. It’s an amount of financial security that was and and still is extremely rare for Black women to achieve compared to other demographic groups.
When Boyd was in her 20s, she wasn’t as well-resourced and for her, the soft life simply meant access to a quality therapist or learning to manage her money.
“A soft life for me was learning — via YouTube University — how to wash my own hair, how to do at-home facials, and how to create calmness in small spaces,” Boyd said. “It was about … learning to survive without taking on a life of stress.”
“We’re taught that if you just buy this thing, if you just wear these clothes, if you just drive this car, if you just live in this apartment, then you can check off all the boxes,” Halyard said. “But that’s not true. For me, the soft life should connote a journey towards self-actualization.”
We don’t know what went on behind that photo hashtagged “soft life.” Did the person make a commitment to themselves? To take a vacation? Use their paid time off? There are a ton of different reasons that could have led up to this gorgeous photo being posted.
“Maybe you got that purse because it was your birthday and your mom just died,” Halyard said, “and you were like, ‘You know what? I’m going to treat myself because my mom always loved this brand.’ ”
Last summer, fashion influencer Whitney Woods joined Tiktok as Fashionably Jetlagged. After she graduated from Spelman, she worked in politics in Washington, as an executive assistant and in communications.
After she got engaged, she decided to travel for a year as what she describes as a “pause,” before starting her next venture. She joined the app looking to build community with people who had the same love of fashion and luxury.
“I just wanted to just be able to nerd out with people and talk about the latest items or see how they’re styling things and just get different people’s opinions on it,” she said.
A lot of the pushback over Black women spending money on designer items is that it won’t negate your experience as a Black woman in this country.
“It is interesting when people do have that discussion of like, ‘Oh, what is this bag really going to do for you?’ [Or when people ask] why are we still spending money on bags and not, like, real estate,” Woods said. “I was just looking for people that really love fashion like I do. And we can just talk about fashion. We get past the cost of the item or whatever.
“I am aware of the value of having property and things like that that actually matter in life, these things are just material items,” Woods said. “But I think that it’s great that Black women especially can have a space to discuss these materials or little things that bring them joy, too. It doesn’t always have to be so serious.”
Woods has been married for four years and has a 3-year-old son. For her the soft life is about being more intentional with her time and romanticizing the small things. She has hired help around the house and with her son, which allows her to focus on her online business.
“The hours are actually longer than me working on the Hill, but I don’t feel that way because I can just tailor them around my day, taking care of my son or if I need to go out,” Woods said. “Also just doing something that brings me joy.”
Influencers often rely on brand deals or affiliate links to make money. Woods said she rarely sells specific products to her audience because she remembers watching YouTubers when she was younger and feeling sad that she didn’t have the things they were sharing.
“I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to realize things that I want just versus things that I need, because sometimes when I was younger, I actually bought into this whole idea and would purchase some of these things and I’d get it in the mail. And I would just have no emotional feelings towards the item.”
Influencer led-consumerism became popular on YouTube with “haul” videos and content creators detailing their purchases. “Even in videos of people organizing a refrigerator,” Woods recounted. “You have to buy those little organizers and that can make you feel like, ugh, I won’t have an organized refrigerator, unless I buy that.
“That can be a little bit disheartening,” said Woods. “I honestly don’t know how to not have people feel that way. I think there definitely should be a discussion about it. But I think personally, it’s just a discipline that you have or going into watching these videos, knowing that everyone is actually working, too. It’s a job for a lot of people and that’s how they make money. But you don’t have to buy it. You can still watch the video and still support that way with your view. And then just leave it there.”
One of the fascinating aspects of the soft life discussion is that this archetype of the woman of leisure had been previously reserved in America for white women.
Before the Industrial Revolution, only royals and aristocracy were able to participate in such conspicuous consumption. But during the Gilded Age in the latter part of the 19th Century, nobodies were transformed into nouveau riche somebodies, creating a new social phenomenon. These vast disparities of wealth were notably chronicled by novelist Edith Wharton in The Age of Innocence.
“A skilled workman could make about $3.50 a day, and then Mrs. Vanderbilt could throw a party in 1883 that cost $250,000 for one party,” said Donna Campbell, an English professor at Washington State University. “She threw a party for her dogs that cost $50,000 in 1883. And the dogs wore diamond collars and they had all their little doggy friends and things like that.”
To Campbell, this parallels present-day society’s relationship to celebrities. “The wealthy were celebrities just as they are now,” Campbell said. “They read through newspapers, like Town Topics, instead of Instagram but it’s the same thing. It’s like, ‘Oh, what’s this wealthy person doing, maybe I can be like this wealthy person by imitating some of the things that they did.’
“There was so much conspicuous consumption, a lot of showing that you can buy things that are expensive as a way of increasing your status. So back then it might have been a yacht, today it would maybe still be a yacht or a private plane. Maybe then it was a dress from [upscale Parisian department stores like] House of Worth. Today, it’s a $300,000 Birkin bag.”
“It’s that same kind of status symbol,” Campbell continued. “Thorstein Veblen, in Theory of the Leisure Class, this was [published in] 1899, he talks about this. He says, ‘It’s not just how much wealth you have, but how much wealth you can waste.’ ”
In other words, Campbell says, the idea that you can light a cigar with a thousand-dollar bill, or put gold on your steak shows that you don’t care about that money. “That’s where leisure becomes precious,” she said. “Then we can show that we can waste some of that too. We can waste work time because we deserve it.”
Like any social construct, it’s all about the performance.
During the Gilded Age, ladies living a hardcore soft life had to be seen during a specific time in their carriages. They changed clothing four times a day. “And it wasn’t just like throwing on a sweater,” said Campbell. “It was those elaborate floofy dresses but the important thing was you were seen that way. You had to be seen that way.”
Like today, the performance only works if you are seen buying and wearing the right things in the right places.
“Is it the Vanity Fair after-party now, or The Met gala or is it the horse show back in Wharton’s day or the opera,” Campbell asked. She recalled a scene at the opera in the first chapter of Age of Innocence. “They’re all looking at each other through their opera glasses. That’s the performance. Nobody cares what’s happening on stage. They get up and leave halfway through. The performance is really in the audience.”
The same can be said of social media today.
The irony of promoting the soft life for an online audience is that it is actually a lot of work.
“Really, the only reason you should be coming at soft life creators is to criticize them for not telling you how hard it is to even create soft life content,” Boyd said in a recent TikTok video.
Halyard has a series on her YouTube channel detailing her journey with “solopreneurship.” Though being her own boss has been the path to freedom in many ways, it wasn’t without hardship that her audience wouldn’t otherwise know.
“A lot of that series talks about the difficulty, talks about ‘I’m giving you these tips, tools, tricks because of the myriad of mistakes that I have made and the ones that I continue to make,’ ” said Halyard. “But I’m not going on TikTok and showing you the five overdraft fees and screenshotting them that I had this month because my invoices didn’t hit on time, which was a period that I was definitely in when I started working for myself full time, just trying to figure out how am I going to pay bills when everybody’s paying me at different times in an unpredictable way.”
Halyard also points out that entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone. But a lot of people have come to glamorize working for yourself because the pandemic changed our relationship to work.
“For Black women especially, we work so hard, we give so much, and we’re oftentimes downplayed within organizations,” Halyard said. “Within organizational culture, there are white dominant norms that uplift privilege and supremacy of white hegemony. Right?”
“We, as a society, have such a fascination with wealth and it has been romanticized as liberatory,” Boyd said. “It’s almost never seen through the eyes of working women but it’s often portrayed as a fairy-tale business idea blowing up. It’s always positioned as ‘betting on oneself’ and leaving behind the toxicity of corporate America.”
“While so many aspects of entrepreneurship are liberating, many small businesses are teams of one or two,” Boyd continued. “It’s usually more work than people have ever done in their lives. People face net losses and spend a lot of time chasing checks. But if you take the idea of it being a ‘get rich quick’ scheme, it can be personally gratifying to put your heart into something you are passionate about and make a living doing that work.”