Online Fashion and Lifestyle Aesthetics: Expressive Fun or Inherently Problematic?
This article was written by The Zillennial Zine’s summer editorial intern PJ Cunningham. Find him on Instagram at @peachycunningham. If you would like to share an article with The Zillennial, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chances are you’ve seen content containing the word ‘aesthetic’ somewhere online. Whether in online shopping or visual, artistic-style media posts, aesthetics are increasingly prevalent all over the internet.
There is incredible diversity inside the world of aesthetics, with variations as wide as humanly imaginable. There is even a functioning and ever-growing wiki page dedicated to providing factoids and explanations behind many different aesthetic concepts. Some example aesthetics I myself am familiar with include the dreamcore aesthetic or dark academia aesthetics, which are based upon visuals and provide settings that bring about certain feelings or ideas.
An example of the dreamcore aesthetic is below:
However, despite the rising popularity of aesthetic trends, particularly those surrounding lifestyle and fashion looks, there is still little in the way of greater societal commentary surrounding the potential ethics and messaging underlying these digital phenomena.
Though they are still primarily digital trends, aesthetics are not only influencing modern expression, but also a reflection of the hearts and minds of young people around the world. Therefore, it is imperative that we examine lifestyle and fashion ‘core’ trends together and dig deeply into the question ‘in what cases are aesthetics bad?’
In both fashion and lifestyle aesthetics, certain looks, feels and styling choices are paramount to creating, maintaining and fitting into certain aesthetics. For example, the ‘old money’ aesthetic aims to exemplify styles and looks of those with generational wealth. In order to do this, however, it often requires the purchase of certain products, such as clothing, jewelry or even furniture. Occasionally, as seen in the TikTok below, there are also informal ‘rules’ on what should and should not be considered in-line with the aesthetic.
Now, you may be thinking, this all sounds like it could be a bit superficial and complicated, but it appears largely harmless and fun. While that is certainly true to an extent, as most aesthetics are either very niche or loose enough to not become product placement with extra steps, it is not always this cut and dry.
As with the old money example, lifestyle and fashion aesthetics require spending to do ‘properly,’ which can lead to some complex ethical places rather quickly. As seen in the old money aesthetic TikTok above, sometimes those promoting and posting about their favorite aesthetics strike a keenly exclusionary tone. Though there is nothing wrong with expressing one’s fashion opinions, particularly when said choices are meant to provide a certain vibe or image, this way of thinking and more importantly, this way of posting, can rapidly lead us into the realm of classism.
Classism, as defined by Dictionary.com, is a biased or discriminatory attitude based on distinctions made between social or economic classes. Now, while videos like the example TikTok might not seem classist at face value, many of the products or choices they promote would push even the most thrifty of consumers in a potentially expensive area. This, although likely unintentional, can push fans of the aesthetic who cannot afford its pieces away, or perhaps make them feel as though they are illegitimate enjoyers of the aesthetic. Furthermore, inherent exclusionism beyond just class divisions can be present in aesthetic trends too.
For example, trends such as the old money aesthetic often feature pictures, many of which highlight white folks rather than a diverse array of models and exemplifiers. Don’t just take my word for it however, but those of BIPOC creators across social media who feel left out from trends. While aesthetics such as the ‘clean girl aesthetic’ focus on minimalist fashion and prioritize expensive but subtle jewelry, multiple non-white creators state that they feel that trending lifestyle and fashion looks like these either do not or cannot accommodate non-Eurocentric beauty standards.
In a world where diversity should be celebrated and intersectional equality is still a struggle, online spaces should be places that maximize inclusivity, rather than reinforce pre-existing divisions.
Again, I want to reiterate that I am in no way saying that those who enjoy these aesthetics are inherently classist, racist, or problematic, but rather, I aim to illuminate complexities on an issue I believe has slipped through the cracks a bit when it comes to social media trend coverage. While I found numerous pieces of commentary on the potentially problematic nature of some trending online aesthetics, they were all from small, boutique and specialized publications like this one, or even just blogs and TikTok posts.
While it may not be a direct policy issue, it is nonetheless critical that racism, classism and other potentially problematic areas of fashion and lifestyle trends such as aesthetic posts are uncovered and analyzed, for one simple reason; fashion and image, whether we like it or not directly affect how we perceive others and ourselves. In light of this, it is important to ensure that we work to make fashion and lifestyle choices, as well as the media that surrounds them, both inclusive and accessible.
Now, this may not sound like an easy task, as combating elitism and prejudice never is, but there are some small ways to start. For example, as the Zillennial Zine’s own Jenna Wirtz published an article providing tips on how to shop and live the old money aesthetic on a budget, while publications across the internet publish thrifting guides just like this.
When it comes to issues in representation, the first and perhaps most important step is simply listening and amplifying creators of color and other members of the online aesthetic community who may feel excluded or marginalized.
While it is not an easy fix, small, achievable solutions to complex problems like these can make sure that we never have to ask ‘are aesthetics bad?’ again and instead get to enjoy these exciting trends in self-expression more wholly.
So, are aesthetics bad? What do you think? Let us know in the comments below!