In my teens, I was a Horse Girl. Later, a devout Emo Kid as thick black liner raccooned my eyes and My Chemical Romance dominated my iTunes playlists. Now, even as I write this, I’m staring across the room at six tote bags that hang by the door, fresh off the exit from my Sally Rooney Girl era.
Identity flip-flopping is a rite of passage, something we’re all guilty of doing in our teens as we try to get a grip on who we think we are. But with the ubiquitous presence of social media, it’s hard to ignore the overload of choice on our timelines – and it's not just about finding kinship or community in our hobbies and the music we love. Nowadays, aesthetics – a preset style that embodies what you wear but can also cover lifestyle choices, from how you enjoy your coffee down to what time you wake up in the morning – populate an ever larger number of hashtags on TikTok.
babe wake up new weird micro label for people to describe themselves as pic.twitter.com/NV5IWiNvMc— joanie (@pbjcowgirl) October 11, 2022
There's E-Girl, Clean Girl, Cottagecore, Dark Academia, Normcore, Coastal Grandmother and Soft Girl, not to mention the endless subcategories that fall under these aesthetics, like Light Academia (Dark Academia’s more optimistic cousin). It's a bottomless rabbit hole that can become more than a little overwhelming. The number of options is almost biblical. Has it gone too far? Is anyone else tired?
"This isn’t even satire," another user said, posting a screenshot of a TikTok video entitled "messy but clean girl aesthetic", a genuinely laughable name whose adjectives practically cancel each other out.
Constant sets of rules to fit into can be exhausting, let alone if the rules change as often as new aesthetics pop up. You are not allowing yourself to be you, and you are putting pressure on yourself to deliver and hit an aesthetic's expectations.
As time goes on, the specifications become more and more particular – an endless sea of aesthetics that are surely too niche for anyone to relate to.
"To put it into perspective, it’s what VSCO Girl and Alt Girl were three/four years ago in 2019 to 2020, but now there are subgroups of that and it’s so hyper-specified that it applies to no one," said TikTok user @attemptedsoc in a video that currently has 1.1 million views.
Soon after the controversial Warm Girl tweet was posted, the original poster revealed its inception was meant to mock the relentless churn of aesthetics that dominate our TLs on any given day. "To all the people mad about this: I’m making fun of it because it makes people try way too hard to fit into a specific box to try and fit in, which almost always leads to over consumerism," they added. "And then the trend dies around 2 months later and they have to start again."
It's a valid point. Aesthetics aren’t always about who we currently are but rather who we want to be. Every new one that appears induces a wave of people ready to splurge on the corresponding merchandise and accompanying activities. If they then choose to move on to the next aesthetic, the trinkets of their previously adopted personality are tossed aside, keeping the cycle of consumption-to-waste forever turning. It's exhausting.
"I think a lot of people can end up feeling burned out," says life coach Monika Kozlowska. "Constant sets of rules to fit into can be exhausting, let alone if the rules change as often as new aesthetics pop up. You are not allowing yourself to be you, and you are putting pressure on yourself to deliver and hit an aesthetic’s expectations, which means you are likely to be constantly 'doing' rather than 'being'. This isn’t healthy and more often than not leads to burnout."
In the same video, @attemptedsoc added: "I’ve noticed that people take it to such a drastic extent that it’s as if they almost fetishise themselves as this character, to the point where they start subconsciously moulding themselves as this persona, even if it clashes with what they really want."
It raises questions of individuality and self-development. After all, if you spend your life stuck within the rigid barriers of an aesthetic, is it possible you’ll never learn who you really are?
"When developing your own character and personality from a young age we are learning what we like, what we don’t like and so on," says neurolinguistic coach Rebecca Lockwood. "This is so vast and yet if we perceive ourselves to have to stick to a certain set of rules then this can be detrimental to someone's growth and development. It is important not to set standards that we may feel stuck to but to allow ourselves to be fluid in our approach to life and the things we enjoy."
We are 100% fully enveloped in chronic mental fatigue ... It makes sense why we would turn to a blueprint that has already set the stage for us.
Dr Daryl Appleton
It’s not hard to guess why aesthetics might appeal to some. It provides a blueprint for people who might otherwise not know where to start to experiment with different fashions and lifestyles. Also, it gives its adopters a sense of control and a template of 'being' in these increasingly tumultuous times. In a world where everything is currently so terrifying and uncertain, it’s nice to have a fixed reference point. Something that makes the act of choosing a lot simpler.
"We are 100% fully enveloped in chronic mental fatigue," says psychotherapist Dr Daryl Appleton. "It’s why that question, 'What’s for dinner?' can be such a vexing one. With so many competing demands and the pressure to 'have it all figured out', it makes sense why we would turn to a blueprint that has already set the stage for us."
Adopters of an aesthetic might also feel a sense of belonging or community. Humans are social creatures who find comfort and safety in packs – surely digital aesthetic culture is simply the newest version of this?
Then again, if it's about community, is everyone actually invited to partake? The stock images that generally accompany these aesthetics usually feature white, slim women (both Clean Girl and Coastal Grandmother have been criticised for their lack of inclusivity). Technically, anyone can align themselves with any aesthetic but if all we see of a particular group is the same kind of woman, it might not seem that inviting for everyone (an exception to this rule is the Art Hoe aesthetic, originally an art movement innovated by and for POC artists, although a quick Pinterest search suggests that this aesthetic, too, has been dramatically whitewashed).
So is it time to try and ditch aesthetics altogether? Kozlowska believes it doesn't have to be that black and white.
"I agree that having pre-set aesthetics can be helpful as sometimes we can feel overwhelmed with the amount of choice out there and having someone else giving us a list of ‘dos and don’ts’ can simply eliminate the overwhelm," she says. "However, if you don’t go into it giving yourself permission to honestly admit how it is making you feel, that’s when the risk starts in my opinion. Trying a trend takes courage. But nothing says courage more than finding the strength to step away from it if it isn’t serving us."