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Opinion – social media’s obsession with ‘aesthetic’ needs to stop

While there’s arguably nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from trends as a means of self-exploration, the sheer volume that’s being presented to us by social media on a daily basis is becoming increasingly problematic for both our wellbeing and the planet.

Ever found yourself identity flip-flopping?

Trends, aesthetics, and niche groups are a rite of passage for teenagers discovering themselves and have been for many decades.

Now, thanks to social media, Gen Zers can take inspiration directly from the internet, moulding their personalities almost entirely on others.

In the last few months, for example, TikTok and Instagram have been teeming with content that raves about which new micro label is ‘in.’

From e-girls, clean girls, and soft girls, to cottagecore, dark academia, and coastal grandmother, the number of options is overwhelming.

Not to mention the endless subcategories that fall under these aesthetics, providing further niche specifics to already very particular styles.

All these explorative concepts and looks reinforce the idea that what we consume defines our sense of self.

With increasing focus on the superficial ‘style’ of our outward appearance, are we creating an echo chamber of consumerist identity-seeking that dismisses our individual qualities and wellbeing?

To this end, have we become complacent in allowing algorithms to dictate which ‘group’ we should align with?

Buying fast fashion clothing, make-up, and jewellery for the sake of aesthetic takes a hefty toll on the environment and could leave us less in touch with ourselves than past generations of young people.


The troubling environmental cost of aesthetic culture

Due to the cyclical nature of the internet, almost anything can be considered a ‘new’ aesthetic, reaching people faster than ever before and rapidly changing.

Even if a trend dissolves, it won’t disappear. Instead, it’ll reappear as the same ethos wrapped up in a different package – think the ‘Girl Boss’ to ‘That Girl’ trajectory.

Unfortunately, while there’s arguably nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from the styles, interests, and habits that these recycled versions of previous trends present, it’s never too long before they’re picked up by companies seeking to appeal to an ever-evolving demographic.

As a result, this culture of continually adapting who we are or who we want to be has developed into yet another capitalist bid to have us buy, waste, and repeat, despite tireless warnings that this pattern (which blatantly commodifies authenticity) is completely unsustainable.

‘Each of these different variations of aesthetics push people to improve themselves for their own wellbeing in spite of a society that burns us out,’ writes Christianna Silva for Mashable.

Overconsumption, not overpopulation, is driving the climate crisis | Letters | The Guardian

‘By doing so, they’re actually pushing people to better maintain the capitalist status quo of society. That’s the scam part: the aesthetic trend actually serves the very society that has burned us out.’

Brands encouraging us to spend money on personal reinvention is having a detrimental impact on the environment and is one of the driving forces of overconsumption in 2022.

Every new aesthetic that appears includes a wave of people ready to splurge on corresponding merchandise and accompanying activities which are later tossed aside.

‘As the market’s tides push the next big piece to the top of social media feeds,’ companies simultaneously push accelerated production cycles, generating enormous amounts of waste,’ writes Ashley Lee for the Harvard Crimson.

‘And that increased consumption has come at an unimaginably high environmental cost: excessive water usage, release of microfibers and toxic materials, and landfills stocked to the brim.’

The difficulty of establishing identity within the barriers of an aesthetic

Raising the question of whether or not this has gone too far, I recently stumbled upon a tweet announcing the latest aesthetic, dubbed ‘Warm Girl.’

What surprised me wasn’t the laughable name (although it’s a prime example of how specifications are becoming more particular) but its messaging, a clear attempt to put people into boxes too niche for anyone else to relate to. This is proof of how alienating the relentless influx of trends can be.

Despite the argument that aesthetic trends provides a blueprint for people who might not know where to start, not everyone is invited to partake in each ‘community.’

Usually, content promoting these aesthetics is whitewashed, absent of inclusivity, and assumes viewers come from a position of privilege or wealth, upholding stigmas we’ve fought to reduce since well before social media.

‘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.’

All of these online personas don’t hold much authenticity to the people adopting them. Many are latching onto whatever watered down ‘look’ or ‘vibe’ may have hit their feeds that day, relying on an algorithm to guide their independent choices.

When it’s taken to extremes, people subconsciously mould themselves to their desired ‘characters’ even if it clashes with what they really want. Staying within our comfort zones this way not only hinders progress on a wider scale, but it can dehumanise us too.

How are we supposed to build a genuine identity if we’re conforming to ideals designed for mass appeal on TikTok and Instagram?

‘This algorithm that we’re stuck in is so addictive and so strong it caters to our biases and exposes us to people and things that are either similar to us or that we’re comfortable with,’ says TikTok user, @attemptedsoc.

TikTok's recommendation algorithms make it surprisingly easy to get famous | MIT Technology Review

‘This skewed perception of reality that we’re exposed to radicalises us on the daily and has devastating effects on our self-identity.’

‘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 aesthetics’ expectations, which means you are likely to be constantly ‘doing’ rather than ‘being.’ This isn’t healthy and leads to burnout.’

It’s a valid point. No, we can’t figure ourselves out without trial and error, but chasing aesthetic culture is evidently a losing game.

It casts a large net over how we perceive ourselves and the world, teaching us to indulge in the shallow fulfilment of instant gratification, and one that we would do well to stop buying into for good.

Our wellbeing and the planet depends on it.


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