The Messy Chic Era: Why Are Celebrities Aestheticising Imperfection?

In the recent past, Instagram users had grown so accustomed to the hyper-stylised blueprint of the A-list celebrity’s profile that homogeneous glamour shots felt seared into our blue-light fatigued eyelids. 
Then came the rallying calls to make the apps casual again. From the rise of meta selfies to shit-posting on finstas, there has been a noticeable shift away from the overly curated online self — and it's a trend that seems to be showing no signs of slowing down. Now, we're starting to see perplexingly messy images infiltrating the feeds of even the most aspirational celebrities. 
The image of mega-star supermodel Bella Hadid that occupies the wider cultural consciousness might lead one to expect her current Instagram profile to feature a barrage of snatched cheekbones, slick ponytails and red-carpet couture. 
However, Bella is one of a growing number of Hollywood celebs opting to post their lives through an intentionally imperfect lens. 
Rather than beauty shots from the makeup artist's chair, lips exactingly outlined, pupils illuminated by a ring light, or photos pulled only from high-end editorials, think low-quality, digicam photography with a blinding flash and pixelated grain. Photo dumps of model off-duty looks that are decidedly weird and y2k inspired, shot in grungy locations, evoke ‘ketamine chic’ London teens.
Hadid was once the touchstone for models posed seductively in fine-dining establishments, a perfectly twirled forkful of pasta dangling from their lipsticked mouths. But cut to a recent carousel, and you'll see her slumped on a couch sans makeup, in a cluttered living room with friends, eating seafood boil from paper plates strewn across a coffee table.
But Hadid isn’t the only A-lister adopting these imperfect aesthetics that hearken back to the carefree ghosts of internet past. 
Tiktok superstar-turned-pop idol Addison Rae has done away with the American Eagle jeans and beauty pageant grin. Instead, she's pictured kneeling on a dirty curb in tattered leg warmers and huge sunglasses reminiscent of the Olsen twins; her mouth brazenly agape in a meta selfie-esque photo of a cheap digital camera screen. 
Even Kim Kardashian recently posted a blown-out, overexposed shoot in a bare, echoey gym, replete with a veil of digital noise. 
In the blink of an eye, these stars have gone from making regular folk feel self-conscious about the sub-par camera quality of their out-of-date iPhones, to posting images that seem plucked from an unhinged pre-teen’s flip phone in the early aughts. 
After speaking to two experts on contemporary online culture — Coco Mocoe, a media professional and trend forecaster with almost 900k Tiktok followers, and Biz Sherbert, Culture Editor at marketing agency The Digital Fairy — one thing seems abundantly clear. While these aesthetics mark a refreshing break from the inaccessible perfection of 2010s insta-glam, they also posit a new model of aspiration to the online masses.
Biz tells Refinery29 Australia how “messy-posting implies the poster doesn’t feel restricted by the urge to use social media as a highlight reel, which makes this persona even more aspirational, as many of us still post with a certain level of scrutiny and self-consciousness.”
Similarly, Mocoe speaks to the social prestige that comes with these photos. "These celebrities want to convey this feeling of ‘I don’t even care that it’s not a perfect image, I took this messy photo when I was clearly with friends having fun’, as opposed to ‘I’m in my driveway, and my assistant took this and it’s flawless!’”
While both Mocoe and Biz acknowledge that the adoption of this trend could be a smart move encouraged by Hollywood PR teams (and what Mocoe dubs “anti-branding”), they also stress that the age of the celebrity in question pertains to whether they embrace it.
“A lot of the figures leaning into this look are Gen Z or young millennials... so it seems likely that they’re also witnessing this aesthetic on social media themselves and bringing it in as an influence,” says Biz.
Mocoe also points to the closure of professional studios, as well as the rise of impromptu live broadcasts on apps like Twitch and Tiktok spiking during the pandemic, as other reasons that we’re seeing this new kind of celebrity — one that’s grown accustomed to addressing their audience with a less obviously crafted persona.
Could this new era of 'messy' posting be the antidote to the feelings-of-inadequacy-inducing profiles that dominated the previous decade? Is the pursuit of a perfectly captured life more liberating if the capturing feels haphazard? 
Arguably, seeing high-profile stars embrace this carefree visual ethos is refreshing ― it speaks to the cultural democratisation that has occurred because of apps like Tiktok, which elevates figures who captivate the masses not despite, but because of their messiness.

These celebrities want to convey this feeling of 'I don’t even care that it’s not a perfect image, I took this messy photo when I was clearly with friends having fun'

coco mocoe
The recent cringe-fuelled backlash to Kylie Jenner’s closet tours might suggest that young people are beginning to reject the dystopian high-end materialism espoused by capital ‘I’ influencers they once drooled over. 
But messy chic still relies on the crafting of a curated online self; the shackles of beauty standards have merely morphed from luxe glamour into projected punk-rock scrappiness.
As Mocoe suggests, “Anyone who’s actually posted a photo dump, like myself, knows that it’s kind of hard to get photos throughout the day, rather than just taking one and making sure that it’s perfect.”
Messy posting isn’t just about proving that you look cool in one painstakingly stylised image, it’s about proving that you are cool; a coolness predicated on fast-and-loose party girl spontaneity, echoed by pic after pic.
These grungy carousels posted by multi-millionaires from their Calabasas mansions mark a strange new layer in the Russian doll of online performativity ― the modern it-girl who taps into the invigorating candour of counter-cultural edge, deflecting her one per-center luxury through compressed, low-fi imagery. 
Instagram has always been anything but casual. The pendulum swing of online social posturing is tenuous at either end of the spectrum, from the stylised to the shit-post. Fantasies of a bygone era when we posted without a care in the world have only resulted in the performativity taking on a new, albeit messier, shape. 
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