Our New Aesthetic Reality
We're chasing after fleeting aesthetics in the hopes that one day, simply looking the part will be enough.
Cottagecore. Old Money. Tomato Girl. If you are a daughter of the Internet and vaguely into fashion, you have most probably heard or even deigned to use these terms, even if ironically. From any -core aesthetic to the infamous blueberry nails or the Paltrownian quiet luxury, terms like these are being coined on the daily in every fashion and beauty internet community. But what makes all of these terms be — and why are our sartorial choices based on such nebulous concepts?
As members of the online generation, we are perpetually exposed to photographs and videos in which we see people taller than us, prettier than us, better than us. Or so is our perception of the self from digital reality. We then find ourselves chasing after these relatively attainable online ideals; a quest that, however feasible, comes with consequences. Do not get me wrong: beauty standards have always — and will always — exist. But as the Tomato Girl hijacks the Mediterranean Girl and hyper-specifies its core characteristics, one cannot help but wonder about the cultural consequences of hyper-specific aesthetics.
Debates around aesthetic culture are of great importance — insofar as photography is concerned. The Internet is not only filled with images produced by professional content creators but with pictures taken by whoever has access to a smartphone and wifi connection. The democratization of the medium is also what maintains it — since influencer culture and jobs such as content creation have been proven to be very lucrative. This is not necessarily bad thing, though; art curator John Szarkowski, in his book The Photographer’s Eye, expresses the necessity of any photographer or critic to look at pictures — a lot of them, in order to understand them, since “...it is, strangely, easier to forget that photography has also influenced photographers.” The mere act of taking a picture, putting it on the Internet, and getting 1.5 million people to see it is a very revolutionary act on its own — even if it has been bizarrely normalized.
And so one poses the unavoidable question: what moves someone to take a picture? To paraphrase Szarskowski again, this time in the catalog accompanying his 1978 exhibition Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960, there is a fundamental distinction between those who use photography as “a means of self-expression” and those who think of it as a way of exploring and contextualizing the world around them. Influencers and the chronically-online community, obviously, are using both photography and their platform as a means of self-expression. However, in doing so, they are not only expressing themselves at that moment in time but projecting — and thus creating — the person they want to be. They have the kind of control over their image that, say, Hollywood stars in the 1950s lacked; they get to choose the kind of person they want to be. Anyone can be a Classic California Girl, even if they’re located in Toledo, Spain; anyone can be an Italian Summer Girl, even if they’re located in rural Canada. What's more — these dichotomies influence one another, each of them actively choosing to fall into their respective category as a means of identity expression and aesthetic decontextualization. After all, who would reject being a rich girl and leading the Sofia Richie life? Who would not want to be forever-clean, or to live in a cottage outside of the city, never having to worry about work or money?
Step one: look the part. Cultural writer Susan Sontag, in her essay On Photography, states that:
“...the omnipresence of cameras persuasively suggests that time consists of interesting events, events worth photographing. This, in turn, makes it easy to feel that any event, once underway, and whatever its moral character, should be allowed to complete itself—so that something else can be brought into the world, the photograph.”
She goes as far as to say that we can no longer experience life without photography and the compulsion to photograph. We would now be in constant need to “turn experience itself into a way of seeing”, and to equalize participating in events to photographing them. This might act as a tentative explanation as to why online communities work the way they do—coining so many terms to denominate such a wild variety of aesthetics. One might never be able to live in a Mediterranean country — but, during 3 glorious seconds, they can take a picture in which they embody the idealized, ultra-curated version of a Mediterranean girl that we have already seen in pictures of other people. In fact, just as Sontag vaticinates, the photograph might be better than the reality, and you can enjoy the feeling of looking the part in the middle of Nebraska.
It is then easy to understand why, after adopting the Clean Girl aesthetic, one’s life does not suddenly snap into place — a green juice appearing magically in one’s hand and a yoga mat extending itself in your perfectly-tidied bedroom at 6 AM. Or why Quiet Luxury, its younger and lovelier sister, does not include outlandish or colorful outfits. You do not want light blue nails; that is too imprecise, the color name and concept too vague to refer to the exact shade of wild blueberries mixed with the perfect amount of yogurt — and you dream that this choice will allow you to embody the essence of the summer. Life imitates photography, and we chase after these fleeting aesthetics in hopes that one day, merely looking the part will be enough. 🌀
Paula Luengo is a freelance writer and current fashion columnist at Delude Magazine. Her interests draw from music to fashion and media analysis, with special emphasis on all that’s old and battered.