how aspirational beauty aesthetics cater to the male gaze and minimize women
clean girl, cool girl, vanilla girl, hot girl, that girl...they're not like the other girls, baby.
If you’re scrolling the internet without feeling a modicum of pressure to subscribe to a trendy new beauty and lifestyle aspiration, you might be doing it wrong. I feel like we’re nearing the point where the cool girl monologue from Gone Girl is being taken as an aspirational mantra rather than a scathing rant about existing in a world that’s built with the bricks of male fantasy.
There’s actually a really great Margaret Atwood quote that conveys this more poignantly than the Gone Girl monologue:
”Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it's all a male fantasy: that you're strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren't catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you're unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”
As if we don’t already put ourselves into enough boxes trying to thrive in a society dominated by straight white men, there’s now branded, appearance-based aesthetics to contend with. Everyone has one, or has to have one. Or at least, that’s how it seems. You should have an aesthetic you fit the mold of, and it better be something sexy.
There’s Vanilla Girl. It’s name, at face value, implies that whiteness and blonde-ness are a hallmark ingredient (as of writing this, it’s moodboards go beyond implying it). Glamour ponders it by asking, “So, how is it [Vanilla Girl] different from Clean Girl beauty? The difference is pretty much that it's cozier and a little cutesier, combining the ‘wholesome’ That Girl aesthetic with the flirty-feminine coquette trend.” To elaborate, the ‘wholesome’ That Girl aesthetic is based on ‘becoming that girl’—prettier, skinnier, healthier, better, perfectly organized, energized, stress free, eating the best meals (I’ve discussed this all once before). That Girl is very much not like the other girls. I can see how the That Girl aesthetic may have started out as something harmless, motivating us to get up off our ass and what not, but over time the pressure to keep up with appearances is sure to weigh us down. It seems like a drag.
“…I don’t really feel we can say these aesthetics trends are harmless, or ‘just for fun.’ I actually feel the way they harm is rather alarming, because they always present as something we can aspire to lightheartedly, only to later reveal themselves as something heavier that we could aspire to if we weren’t who we were.”
One of the most contentious, for me, has been an aesthetic called Clean Girl. At first I figured it was based on clean, as in skillfully applied, makeup techniques. From what I’ve gathered, the majority of the participants base the aesthetic on top to bottom physical cleanliness and neatness, something immediately exclusive. Male fantasy is a key ingredient. You need to be hot with minimal makeup, something men put on a tier high above most of the other tiers they’ve made for us. And you need to make it look like you’re not really wearing any makeup—you’re not a girl who needs a lot of makeup to be beautiful, you’re better. You need to appear as though you bathe regularly—looking freshly showered, lotioned, and perfumed is best. Your nails are also supposed to fit a mold of cleanliness—perfectly trimmed cuticles, preferably painted in the perfect nude for your skin tone. Your forehead can’t be too big, or the slicked back bun that’s a hallmark of the aesthetic won’t look right on you. You also shouldn’t have blemishes, because clearer skin is the cleanest looking.
And yet, every day, people hop online to participate in the Clean Girl aesthetic and showcase to watchers how good they are at it. How perfectly they can fit that mold. How they’re thriving as Clean Girl.
Atwood continues, “In many ways, I feed into the toxicity of the patriarchy without my consent—it has warped my perceptions of myself, changed my behavior. While I don’t want to be harassed for how I look, society is telling me that to be beautiful, I need to wear certain clothing, do my makeup and—as always—show that million-dollar smile, honey.”
Aesthetics trend videos are fun to watch. I’ll mindlessly scroll through them, admiring the people participating, thinking ‘that’s a cute idea, I could start doing that.’ I know many people probably feel better about themselves, feel included, by implementing a certain aesthetics trend into their routine. However, I don’t really feel we can say these aesthetics trends are harmless, or ‘just for fun.’ I actually feel the way they harm is rather alarming, because they always present as something we can aspire to lightheartedly, only to later bloom into something heavier that we could aspire to if we weren’t who we were. It feels like, if we’re not careful, we could start to depend on the trend rather than merely participating in it—running the risk of tying bits of our worth to whether or not we can fit the mold of the latest ‘cool’ aesthetic. I feel aesthetics trends require pause that few are giving; we need a moment to consider what we’re actually participating in and pushing out, and how. Are we empowering each other through these trends? Are we motivating each other in ways other than wishing we were someone else? It really just feels like we’re finding new ways to hold power over one another.
And yet, for all the power they wield over so many of us, these aesthetics can’t even function if you can’t keep up with their appearances. If your essence has to have a label, it was never yours. It’s all bullshit. No one is actually leading their lives the way they convey in routine and aesthetic videos—they’re performing the aesthetic because it gets views, and views get brand deals. You gotta do what you gotta do, I guess. But I do think of these aesthetics like an offering envelope we pass around to each other every week, filling it with ideals of the patriarchy and/or male fantasies rebranded as ‘motivating’ and ‘inspiring’ and ‘you’re included’ and ‘for the girls!’
This time, in lieu of a smartly worded closing that ties together everything I’ve said in a neat little paragraph, I instead leave you with one of my favorite quotes that encircles my feelings on how aesthetics trends (and, frankly, many other pressures of being a woman online) risk minimizing those who adopt them. bell hooks says, “If any female feels she need anything beyond herself to legitimate and validate her existence, she is already giving away her power to be self-defining, her agency.”
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Damn girl your article made me tear up. I swear its exhausting trying all these molds. It's sometimes fun but I also know its sometimes sad. Like what about people who want to be a certain mold but can't afford to achieve them because they require xyz. I am a hypocrite because I too have a beauty YouTube channel albeit it's small but I do love the creativity that comes with it like editing and photography. Great article. Sorry if my comment doesn't make sense.