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  • Jess Reed

“How Capitalism Ruined Aesthetics”


I’ve been a teenage girl for five years now, most of which I have been on the popular social media app TikTok. Scrolling through my (formulaic and carefully cultivated) For You Page, I see a girl three years younger than me tucking a Yale sweatshirt into a tennis skirt with the hashtags #darkacademia, #depression, and #shein in the caption and a Mitski song in the background. I scroll. A super-skinny 14-year-old is body checking in the mirror while applying lipstick and insisting that the Lana Del Rey song “Norman fucking Rockwell” is about her and her adult boyfriend (#coquette #nfr #fyp). She defends herself in her comment section by claiming that she’s just like the character Lolita from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel by the same name, but self-aware of her victimhood, and all the more in love with it.


The next three scrolls are advertisements, one for a flowy, “cottagecore” strawberry dress, one for argyle sweaters from Shein, and one for the same red lipstick I just saw that girl apply.

The questions relent. Are you in your Fleabag era? Are you a Lana stan? Are you a coquette, or a cottagecore Sapphic, or a dark academia girlie? Do you listen to Phoebe Bridgers or Taylor Swift or Mitski or Hozier or Fiona Apple? Are you “alt?”


Or: are you a white teenage girl with disposable income? Can we make money off of you, or can we make money off of who you want to become?


And the word for all of this is aesthetics.


“Aesthetic” officially means “regarding beauty,” or “an artistic movement.” There’d be some rightful hesitation over calling the ever-changing microtrends, which are just as quickly monetized by fast fashion companies, “artistic movements.”



This isn’t to say that teenage girls deserve the blame for the existence of capitalism (though the same capitalists who pocket their money would beg to differ). They are easy targets, both disrespected and desired. No wonder aesthetics, sets of directions to attainable, beautiful, and acceptable identities, are loved by them. They’re uniforms. They’re communities. They’re shelters.


The version of misogyny that teenage girls face is a complicated one. Their interests are constantly mocked - think of the backlash to One Direction, Taylor Swift, Starbucks frappuccinos, and the Twilight movies - but they themselves are sexualized as the peak of female beauty. The patriarchy fetishizes children and then scolds them for being childish. Aesthetics provide safety from being ridiculed (at least within the given community) for genuine interests, but still allows them standards of beauty to strive for, since they’ve gotten so accommodated to being valued only for looks. Aesthetics give teen girls proof that there is safety in numbers.


But that’s not to say they’re actually safe.


The “dark academia” aesthetic, which draws inspiration from Dead Poets Society and includes a lot of tweed, is criticized for excluding people of color and non-Eurocentric cultures. Ivy league schools in the 1950s might have been picturesque, but they weren’t exactly known for their diversity.


The “coquette” aesthetic (content warning for the linked TikTok which satirizes anorexia) is more obviously problematic, with participants praising the renowned book Lolita not for its literary depth but for its fashion inspiration. Much of the clothing consists of lacy tops, pink bows, and anything that can be simultaneously sexualized and childlike, all while promoting eating habits (or lack thereof) that can get your weight down to that of a little girl’s.


This isn’t to say that Lolita itself is what led TikTok users down that rabbit hole. Often, the artists of the music, literature, or films that certain aesthetics adopt are trying to convey the opposite message. The song “Strawberry Blond” by Mitski became popular in 2020 as a soundtrack to the cottagecore aesthetic, with (mostly white) creators singing along happily as they show off their fast fashion mushroom clothes. In reality, the song’s lyrics are about the struggle many women of color face in wanting to be accepted by white culture while not erasing their own. This meaning was itself ironically erased by white influencers to promote their idea of beauty.


The list goes on. The Secret History by Donna Tartt is praised in the dark academia world for being moody and mysterious and Gothic; however, the novel satirizes pretentious and elitist academics. The protagonist of the hit show Fleabag by Phoebe-Waller Bridge is not supposed to be a role model, and I really doubt that Taylor Swift or Fiona Apple want their discographies to be nothing more than depression soundtracks.


Instead of consuming this media critically, however, influencers use it to commodify a “vibe,” which fast fashion companies like Shein and Zara capitalize on. TikTok users who fall for these aesthetics may have a genuine love for the fashion, music, or literature, but are unfortunately only used to make money off of, and encouraged to post their own aesthetic TikToks to rope others in as well.


It’s disappointing to see the idea of beauty be commodified in microtrends that disappear in a few months and cover landfills in previously sought after tops and shoes and claw clips. The hope is not for the disappearance of aesthetics, but for the demonetized, democratized, pure enjoyment of them.


That would be beautiful.


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