Here’s The Big Problem With TikTok’s ‘Vanilla Girl’ Beauty Trend

Photo by Pexels.
TikTok is something of an incubator for beauty trends. In the past month alone, we've spotted the ghoul girl (brooding yet provocative, with a penchant for bleached brows) and 'crying makeup' (wearing lashings of pink eyeshadow and smudged liner to create what has been referred to as a 'post-sob glow'). One common, underlying theme always seems to be the lack of diversity in skin tone (where are all the women of colour?) or texture (you'd be hard pressed to find a single blemish). Barely a month into 2023, another questionable beauty trend is on our radar.
Enter: the 'vanilla girl'.
On TikTok, the hashtag #vanillagirl has amassed an enormous 547.1 million views and counting, while #vanillagirlaesthetic isn't far behind at 141.2 million. Much like the trends that have preceded it, a quick scroll proves that the look itself is supposedly effortless. It consists of just a dab of concealer, blush-flushed cheeks, fluffed-up brows, a slick of mascara and (almost always) straight, blonde hair. The look earned its name thanks to its simplicity, as well as the preppy, neutral knits that traditionally accompany it. Yet for all the clicks it's gaining, the vanilla girl beauty trend doesn't sit right with me.

Is the vanilla girl beauty trend inclusive?

Vanilla girl beauty seems to be exclusively for white women. As a beauty content creator with a deeper complexion, I've found that when you look up most beauty trends on TikTok, countless white faces are shown first. With the vanilla girl in particular, diversity is seriously lacking. I'm not the only one with these thoughts. The comments underneath various vanilla girl beauty tutorials, which enlist baby pink blush and barely there bronzer, suggest that the aesthetic is exclusionary as it only ever seems to gain clicks when posted by white influencers. "When you search online you never find any guides for any of these aesthetic styles if you aren't white," observed one TikToker. "They're all for white girls."
The key difference between the vanilla girl beauty trend and others (such as 'cold girl' makeup, for example) is that the word 'vanilla' is linked to a specific colour scheme and therefore a certain skin tone. 'Vanilla' has long been used colloquially as a metaphor to describe whiteness, for instance. Using foundation shades as an example, deeper skin tones are often referred to as 'chocolate', 'caramel', 'toffee' or 'cinnamon'. To suggest that the vanilla girl beauty trend is inclusive would be untrue. I would argue that the word 'vanilla' closes the door on anyone who has a darker complexion.

Is the vanilla girl the new 'clean girl'?

Like a phoenix rising from the flames, the vanilla girl echoes a dubious beauty movement that we very recently put to bed for its lack of diversity and its ostracism: the 'clean girl'. Much like the vanilla girl, clean girl beauty served up white women rocking minimal, dewy makeup. You don't need me to tell you that there is no such thing as 'perfect' skin but the clean girl also maintained an unrealistic beauty standard, as most women featured in the various tutorials boasted clear, poreless faces. "Step one: look perfect with perfect skin and features," wrote one TikToker underneath this viral clean girl video. Countless commenters followed suit, sharing concerns about their skin and how they don't measure up.
It's no wonder that those with skin conditions like acne (or things like hyperpigmentation and scarring, which acne often causes) felt shut out by the clean girl trend. I can't help but look at the word 'clean' more closely, too. It suggests that anything that doesn't fit the flawless aesthetic is dirty. Acne is often blamed on being 'unclean' and this simply isn't true. The NHS reports that around 95% of people aged 11 to 30 are affected by acne to some extent, and there are so many things that can cause the skin condition, such as hormones. To me, an aesthetician in my early 20s (who has experienced acne), the word 'clean' is offensive.
Despite all the backlash the clean girl amassed, the vanilla girl stepped into her shoes pretty smoothly. When beauty influencer Alice x T came across the vanilla girl, she made the connection instantly. "It's just another version but with even less women of colour," she told me. Excluding women of colour from beauty trends is not new. In fact, it remains a key part of many successful TikTok beauty movements. It's disappointing but certainly not surprising. As soon as I spotted the word 'vanilla', I knew that this trend wouldn't be one that I could get on board with.
The vanilla girl beauty trend popularises white standards of beauty, such as blonde hair and light skin. This catapults a specific type of person to viral status and leaves women of colour in the shade. A handful of clients have booked into my London skin studio and expressed a desire to look like women they see on TikTok — even to lighten their complexion. No amount of beauty school training can prepare you to have this conversation with someone, or to try and encourage them to love their ethnic features.
Being a woman of colour online is difficult. "I struggle to keep up with the amount of trends on TikTok," agreed one of my beauty content creator friends, "but the main thing I keep seeing is the lack of diversity in the beauty space." Linasha, a blogger for dark skin representation in beauty, finds that TikTok trends have a very fast turnover and even from the start, women of colour are simply unable to participate in them. I believe this leads to further erasure in the beauty industry. It's unfortunate but to spot a person of colour among aesthetic videos like those promoting the vanilla girl, you have to type in the phrase followed by 'WOC' in the search bar.

Is the vanilla girl trend really attainable?

You could argue that there are plenty of trends geared towards deeper complexions. Take the brown lip liner and clear gloss combo. But what we've seen is the eventual hijacking of these trends. Who can forget the 'brownie glazed lips' furore, where white influencers were convinced they had started a new trend?
We often forget that the beauty trends we consume on a daily basis via social media can positively or negatively affect our self-perception. While the likes of skin positivity, for instance, can be a force for good, others (especially those not accepting of all skin colours, whether implicitly or explicitly) can lead to a lack of confidence. Personally, I have experienced a lot of anxiety in relation to my image. I'm a woman with tattoos, afro hair and a deeper complexion; beauty trends like the vanilla girl bring back negative memories.
I remember getting rid of my colourful hair, my braids and my bold nails in the hope that looking like a 'palatable' Black woman would make life easier. I struggle to imagine the pressure of growing up in an environment where the vanilla girl aesthetic is the one to aspire to, especially as the trend was not created by people who look like me. Nor does it make much of an attempt to be inclusive. It seems TikTokers agree. "We typically can't wear the messy bun and effortlessly homely look and still be taken seriously by society," wrote one TikToker underneath a video on the trend. "We have to dress intentionally." Another said: "Did they rename the 'clean girl' aesthetic to make it less inclusive? I'm tired."
On the other hand, one positive is that unlike many other beauty movements gaining traction on social media (like hair oiling, recently referred to as 'hair slugging', which caused widespread offence in the Asian community where it is a cultural practice), the vanilla girl beauty trend doesn't seem to co-opt images or practices of Black or brown people. Makeup artist and beauty advocate May/Tahmina told me that it's actually nice to see a trend that doesn't "require excessive tanning or cultural appropriation", though she says it didn't really need a title.
The vanilla girl is supposedly effortless. Her skin is blemish-free and her makeup is blended seamlessly. But it's important to remember that most of the images and videos we see are filtered in some way, through clever lighting, distance or even retouching. Perhaps the vanilla girl doesn't even look like her true self. Dr Ana, cosmetic doctor and skincare expert, recently told R29 that it's helpful to look at images and videos with a critical eye, "mainly to protect your mental health," she stressed, but also to prop up healthy beauty standards.
Sure, beauty trends like the vanilla girl are fleeting. But though they may go viral for the briefest of moments, it's difficult not to internalise the negative impact of feeling like you can't partake, or that you have to fit the mould.

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