When TikTokker Emily Mariko cuts up all of her vegetables at the start of each week—carefully rinsing, slicing, and storing them in gleaming glass-bottomed tupperware—the affair is completely hypnotic, an experience that for some reason feels desirable to inhabit. The click of each rubberized lid, the soft clip of a just-cut bunch of spring onions, the scratchy racket of the salad spinner? It’s music, or even arguably ASMR. Mariko, a 29-year-old established lifestyle YouTuber, has in recent weeks been hailed as the “opposite of Schadenfreude” by The Cut. In the title of one of Kate Lindsay and Nick Catucci’s Embedded newsletters, she is implicitly referred to as Jesus Christ. Her brand of hyperorganized cooking, cleaning, and grocery shopping has taken off stratospherically in the past month—with no signs of stopping.
“I think the most basic element is that her content is satisfying,” Bon Appetit’s Bettina Makalintal wrote in an email to Bitch. “There’s a ‘things organized neatly’ appeal to seeing her set up her home for the week or clean her kitchen or go through her fridge. It’s content that has a clear ‘before’ and ‘after’, so it feels validating to watch and it also pulls you in easily because you want to see how it ends.”
Mariko’s TikTok commenters are often in awe of her organizational skills, lamenting the depression, ADHD, or general lethargy that is seemingly preventing them from realizing these “kitchen goals.” “I wish I had my life together like this,” writes one under a produce-prep video Mariko posted earlier this month. “People have said it before and I’ll say it again,” another reads, “How I’d live if I wasn’t mentally ill.” That line received an online approval rating to the tune of 124.2K likes. Though TikTok user @creedthots.gov goes for a slightly different tack—writing, “I bet your fridge don’t even smell like fridge”—the incredulity is apparent all the same.
For Makalintal, Mariko offers a taste of success: “We see these parts of her routine that seem very streamlined and tidy, and the end result is a sense of self-satisfaction: like you could do that yourself, even if you’re not actually going to.”
Mariko owes much of her newfound pervasiveness, as well as a good portion of her 4.6 million–strong follower count, to a September TikTok featuring a simple food hack that involves smashing together leftover salmon and rice and re-steaming it the microwave with an ice cube. Now Mariko fans are not only clearing supermarket shelves of dried seaweed and warring over bottles of kewpie mayo; they’re making dedicated trips to farmer’s markets (where Mariko purchases fresh produce on a weekly basis), requesting to see her daily cleaning schedule on her Substack, and getting emotionally invested in her recent wedding engagement. In a social-media era that continually champions authenticity, Mariko’s ambient, underproduced content fits in with a larger wave of “relatable” posts and videos produced by professional influencers. And though it’s undeniable that Mariko has risen above the TikTok chaff to become a bona fide internet celebrity, it’s not always clear what sets her apart from the rest.
Numerous TikTok users, including Buzzfeed’s Stephanie McNeal, have noted with surprise that Mariko uses “real” mayonnaise and white rice—a cardinal sin for many wellness gurus, who often live by the punishing dictates of clean eating. “Mariko is all about feeding your body whole foods that satisfy you and enjoying treats in moderation,” writes McNeal, who observes that Mariko’s refreshingly indifferent consumption of pastries, butter, full-fat cream cheese, and more is in direct conflict with diet culture. “In her videos, there’s no calorie counting, no forbidden ingredients, or guilt-inducing rules governing what she decides to eat. There’s no cauliflower or low-fat swaps. She may be an aspirational lifestyle influencer, but as far as I can tell, the lifestyle she is preaching is a much less harmful one than previous iterations.” These “previous iterations”—influencers touting their personal weight-loss secrets on a YouTube thumbnail or shilling Flat Tummy Tea on Instagram—have seen a reckoning in recent years, via both communal “cancellation” and what I-D has called “a natural rebellion against the hyper-curated style that’s gone before.”
There is a palpable excitement in praise like McNeal’s, a sense that Mariko represents a new frontier of attainable food-and-fashion influencing—that, indeed, she could be a trustworthy guide through the ultimately harrowing arena of sustaining and inhabiting one’s mortal flesh. And on a platform with such a worrying penchant for pro-eating disorder content, it is encouraging to see even the most minor signs of protest against decidedly “healthy” food choices. But given that Mariko’s diet is also her full-time career, what’s projected as an accessible way to have a nourishing and organized life is still the product of an inordinate amount of time and focus.
This is the fundamental contradiction in nearly all working influencers’ lifestyle content: that everything presented as part of an attainable aesthetic is labor twice over. We might all have time to make a rotating menu of dessert-inspired overnight oats each week if prep time counted as billable hours and contributed to the fortification of a successful online brand. Most often, lifestyle content is foundationally predicated on a strain of “health”-motivated fatphobia—that what you eat and how you exercise can always be better optimized for weight loss—but I find it increasingly married to productivity culture, an imperative that exists despite the fact, as Gawker writer James Greig put it, “few of us work jobs so meaningful that our failure to do them constitutes a moral crime.” To state the obvious,lifestyle influencing is such a lucrative enterprise because it taps into a universal insecurity: that your life is a flawed project, and each choice you make risks being uninformed and potentially harmful.
It’s why so many people are struggling with “that girl,” a mutant TikTok ideal formed of 2017-era girlboss ideology and 2020’s main-character syndrome. That Girl’s aspirations center self-discipline in the form of early mornings, chilled liters of water, stringent workout routines, speed-typed emails, freshly blended green juices, and bowls of chopped fruit. While none of the above is especially pernicious as an individual venture, the overall aesthetic is undeniably redolent of thinspiration. “The pursuit of perfection is something I understand but I can’t untangle it from my own experiences of disordered eating and uncontrollable anxiety,” Ruchira Sharma wrote of the trend in a July 2021 piece for Refinery29.
Would Mariko’s refreshingly “realistic” diet be nearly as popular a prospect if she didn’t look exactly like every other wellness proponent?
In many ways, Mariko—wealthy, slender, clear-skinned, and dressed in athleisure—is the living embodiment of “that girl”, and really no different to what has come before at all. Reportedly an Ivy League-educated Facebook alum, Mariko’s privilege is an increasingly contentious topic of discussion as her popularity grows on TikTok, but you don’t need to look further than her impeccable double-door fridge to understand that her meticulous lifestyle is the result of a uniquely lucky combination of factors. And these days, an influencer’s path from adoration to milkshake duck is so well-worn that it may undercut the core premise of “influence” to begin with—or at least affix an expiration date to it.
Alicia Kennedy, a food and drink writer who publishes a weekly essay series on Substack, unpacks what some have called Mariko’s “intoxicatingly milquetoast vibe.” “I’ve seen some discourse about how she is very thin and very blank. And so people are able to kind of project onto her whatever meaning they would like,” Kennedy tells Bitch over Zoom. “I do find that that is what is popular, especially in a TikTok or Reels type of world, which has been troubling. There’s been so much conversation—and, I thought, progress made—in terms of body positivity and body diversity, and people [wanting] to see different types of people. But when you look at what’s successful on these platforms, it tends to be the same people we were already being fed by mainstream culture.”
It is this inconvenient reality that has me questioning the value in the niche of “genuine” content. Would Mariko’s refreshingly “realistic” diet be nearly as popular a prospect if she didn’t look exactly like every other thin wellness proponent? Moreover, does this “realistic” diet have to rely so heavily on so much forethought, so many fresh vegetables, and such a large amount of fridge space? From what we know of the often discriminatory TikTok algorithm, that final factor may be a finer sticking point. The Mariko moment seems to suggest a large appetite for authenticity in presenting the ways in which we live our lives, but social media is, by design, a place where true authenticity is almost impossible. But if you happen to have an expensive bit of Omega-3-rich fish languishing in the refrigerator, Mariko—and those who will surely follow her—can at least offer delicious ideas for leftovers.