The Perpetual Chase After Aesthetics
It seems like every time I come across a TikTok video of someone simply existing, upon opening the comments, I would find hundreds of people asking “what’s the name of this aesthetic?” It often leaves me wondering why everything has to latch on to a hyper-specific aesthetic and can’t be enjoyed solely for itself. In other words, why can’t people on the internet enjoy certain niches without identifying with hyper-compartmentalized internet personas?
The word “aesthetic” has become increasingly popular during the past decade and its usage has experienced a shift in valence. A Greek philosopher by the name of Alexander Baumgarten coined the term “aesthetics” in the 18th century as a philosophical field on how humans experience and imagine beauty. However, in recent years the word has often been associated with a very niche and specific beauty that can be compared to the millennial term, “instagrammable.” I can distinctly remember the rise of this word in my younger years. It seemed as if all youth had a collective revelation of what was considered “aesthetic” and just ran with it.
These niche online personas flourished during the 2010s, especially among Tumblr and VSCO users. One example is the growth of the coquette aesthetic — not by the “coquette” name, but essentially the same idea — where people embrace hyper-femininity, softness, and everything pink. This is an aesthetic that was widely popular during the height of Tumblr, impacting thousands of young people and their body image.
“I was super impressionable and I was consuming all of this media that was very Coquette/Lolita, maybe not by those names, but basically skinny white girls smoking cigarettes and being self-destructive,” said Ava Emilione, a 21-year-old NYU student who grew up during the Tumblr era. “I listened to Lana Del Rey and Marina and the Diamonds. That niche of pop culture was something I was very well versed in as a young person and I found it to be very detrimental to my mental health in my developmental years.”
With the growth of TikTok, numerous subcategories of what was once thought of as “aesthetic” in the 2010s continue to emerge with rapid trend cycles. The coquette trend — as it has been coined by TikTok users — has especially been resurfacing with updated hyper-specific features.
Similar to the hyper-feminine online persona that experienced its height during the early 2010s Tumblr, the current manifestation of it on TikTok is not merely about fashion, but the body wearing it. Growing up, many people accumulated a sense of internalized misogyny that usually manifested in an aversion to femininity. The coquette aesthetic is meant to stand as a force against such societal ideals that have harmed women for years. This trend, however, bases its entire image on thin white women, with a concerning lack of diversity. The force is essentially built upon the same pillars that are perpetually reinforcing misogynistic and fatphobic values in our society, using the most wide-reaching platform in the world, thus making it all the more harmful than its Tumblr predecessor.
“I think that the appeal of the Lolita/Coquette — young women who are beautiful, have these emotional complexities and trauma — is that it’s the one corner of the internet that provides a nuanced perspective of the internal femme experience,” said Ava. “I think it taps into the desires of young impressionable people on the internet; the desire to be desirable, to be free, to fully explore your emotions and not feel confined. There are certainly many healthier ways to do so, but I think as a collective it feels more comfortable to retreat to those tropes.”
The retreat to these old tropes we’re experiencing today was to be expected. The attempted deconstruction of harmful online trends created the body positivity and inclusivity movements, both of which were surface-level online personas themselves. Once Tumblr personalities became widespread and socially influential, anything deviating from that became the niche. As a society, we didn’t deconstruct the forces driving these harmful trends that emerged on Tumblr. We instead created a trend of body positivity and hoped it would live long enough to bring an end to all others.
Victoria’s Secret is an archetypal model of the performative body inclusivity that is fueled by the need to harness profitability from diversity. After Ed Razek — the former chief marketing officer for L brands (parent company of Victoria’s Secret) and founder of the Victoria’s Secret Angels — received backlash for transphobic and fatphobic remarks, the company was getting pressure from all angles to rebrand their image. In an ad that came out this last summer, the brand claimed that they’ve “changed,” and hope to become the world’s leading advocates for women. Victoria’s Secret…as the world’s leading advocate for women.
According to analysts, the brand’s sales dropped to $5.4 billion in 2020 — two years after Ed Razek’s comments — from $7.7 billion in 2015. The brand scrambled to shift its marketing scheme from thin white blonde bombshells to a much more inclusive sexy. However, Victoria’s Secret rebrand, which is entirely based on capital, is emblematic of the superficial body-positive movement that lacks any kind of radical deconstruction of harmful beauty standards.
That’s not to say the body positivity movement was always superficial. I believe that its early years had promising potential. Advocates knew social media to be the most effective way to reach people, especially young and impressionable people. However, using social media as a platform was the beginning of the end for the movement. The body positivity movement was quickly reduced to a trend, whether we realized it or not.
According to a research statistic, only 45% of people believe the fashion industry is truly inclusive. That is to say, despite the efforts of brands to market themselves as inclusive, the majority of people remain feeling under-represented. The study also shows that most people preferred that brands offer more size-inclusive clothing before all else, including putting effort into social media to be inclusive, meaning that the social media-based movement is placing most of its emphasis in the wrong places.
The movement was also criticized by many people for mainly celebrating people with medium-sized bodies. In an interview with USA Today, American pop star Lizzo said that the movement has devolved into a trend, "celebrating medium and small girls and people who occasionally get rolls." That’s not to say those bodies don’t deserve celebration and representation, however, the original goal of normalizing all bodies is still being missed.
In another interview with Vogue, the pop star also said, “Now, you look at the hashtag ‘body positive,’ and you see smaller-framed girls, curvier girls. Lotta white girls. And I feel no ways about that, because inclusivity is what my message is always about. I’m glad that this conversation is being included in the mainstream narrative,” says Lizzo. “What I don’t like is how the people that this term was created for are not benefiting from it. Girls with back fat, girls with bellies that hang, girls with thighs that aren’t separated, that overlap. Girls with stretch marks. You know, girls who are in the 18-plus club.”
The movement devolved into a trend offering glory to a specific type of plus-sized bodies, contradicting the principles of the original radical movement that attempted to redirect society from focusing on or empowering only certain types of bodies.
Every trend, however, has short-lived glory on the internet, and I believe we were too blinded by glory to realize how surface-level it was. The movement’s association with influencers and the forces of capitalism hoping to push the inclusivity narrative to profit off of the moment made it nothing short of a trend. Building the bulk of the movement on capitalistic intentions overpowered all true and radical attempts to tackle harmful forces that result in these Tumblr viewpoints resurfacing every new moon as repackaged trends. The appeal was never truly defeated, we just diverted from it for a period.
The body positivity trend, as much as the coquette or fleabag trend, is a reflection of the sense of hyper-individualism cultivated by social media, especially TikTok. In the past few years, the growth of TikTok has made “aesthetics” a lot more complicated. With an interface that has mastered feeding people their own desires, the app has provided a platform that would essentially birth endless hyper-specific identities that seem to be getting more specialized and exclusive.
Throughout history, fashion has often been a means of conformity and fitting in with societal norms. For a large part of our social history, only the wealthy were able to express themselves through fashion and even they were limited to the social and political landscape of their time. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that people started using social media as a means of displaying their sense of individuality using sites like MySpace and Facebook. The phenomenon of hyper-individualism, however, seems to be ever-growing with apps like TikTok.
“Tumblr was very widespread, but it didn't have the interface that sucked you in, after ten minutes it’s very easy to hop off. You can be on Tiktok for three hours and not even realize, they’ve really mastered how to manipulate people’s attention. If you ask ten people what side of TikTok they’re on, you’ll get ten different answers. Everyone is in their own sphere of their desires. For all those reasons, TikTok is a new frontier of hyper-individuality," said Ava.
We still hold some of the same values of expression through fashion, including advertising your class status with your clothes. We have not transcended the allure of exclusivity as a society; it has only taken on different characteristics. Exclusivity no longer functions solely on wealth. Instead, there are many factors playing into it including the growing sense of hyper-individualism found especially within Western society. Normalcy and liking generally popular things are looked down upon: people want to stand out by having a niched-down aesthetic that only a small and specific group of people can resonate with. However, in seeking to distinguish themselves for digital validation, people are actually conforming to the social landscape that holds contempt for normalcy and their sense of individuality is rather an illusion.
Trying to fit into a hyper-specific internet personality rather hinders self-exploration and expression. These identities are also shallow, in that they’re only set in place by social media rather than real-life experiences.
“I think it’s super harmful for the generation consuming TikTok.” Said Sky Stubbs, a 22-year-old junior copywriter. “For a lot of people, it’s their news source, they wake up and check TikTok and in between meals they check TikTok, it’s almost like an escapism. It’s really hard to create a different personality, and it’ll probably catch up to them later in life.”
It’s especially alarming for the younger generations that spend most of their time on social media. A sense of self is often cultivated through lived and meaningful experiences, hence why people in older generations didn’t cling on to different “aesthetics” but rather different lifestyles that reflected onto their sense of fashion. Social media then takes that sense of fashion and turns it into something soulless: trends with no values and short life sentences. This cycle of trends expands people’s sense of hyper-individuality, isolating them from people while also hindering their ability to interact with culture and find passion in things. This can make everything seem meaningless and easily tossed aside, essentially ruining young people’s relationships with culture and its purpose.
All this considered, it’s not harmful to be inspired by trends on TikTok. Whether we like it or not, it is a part of life. However, allowing these trends to define who you are as a person is harmful.
“Any expression of identity is cool, but a lot of these marketable expressions of self can reduce who we are as people. It’s very important to be able to stand in your power and own your sense of individuality," said Subiya Mboya, a 22-year-old playwright and editor. “I feel like community is where we can thrive in finding our sense of self. If you enrich yourself in your community, you’ll often find your sense of self can blossom," said Subiya.
It’s important to give meaning to the niche things you like, it’s your passion for them that gives them life, not the ten minutes of fame on TikTok. Forcing yourself to follow trends, as you probably have already noticed, is unfulfilling and dull. Fueling your curiosity in life allows you to experience a meaningful journey of self-discovery. The course of exploring your sense of self is not linear, it’s amorphous. It requires the conscious effort of truly being alive, of immersing yourself in community and culture rather than engulfing yourself within the walls of an internet personality.
Edited by: Defne Egbo