The problem with TikTok's 'clean girl' aesthetic
A trend that's had beauty influencers in a chokehold was interrupted by a viral tweet calling it classist, racist, texturist and fatphobic.
"You know those girls that always look clean? Their skin is always glossed, and they never look like they're wearing too much makeup? You may not be them, but here's how to get their look."
This is a trending sound that you’ve probably found courtesy of the TikTok FYP (thank you algorithm). While TikTok has introduced us to many micro-trends and aesthetics that leave us spiraling one month, then forgetting them the next — the "clean girl” aesthetic has pierced itself skin-deep into the subconscious of chronically online users everywhere.
While the idea of the clean girl has been around for decades, it has usually appeared on Black and Brown women — a heritage of slicked-back buns, gold hoops, and buttery skin have now been co-opted and reduced to a mere trend, now represented by white women. Through its TikTok virality, images of how to behave, look and even eat like a clean girl have revealed society's innate ability to reinforce exclusionary Euro-centric beauty standards. These ideals have been long-standing barometers of class perception, making “capital beauty” the fighting force-feeding deceptions of desirability that can only be purchased. These standards seemingly uphold hierarchal beauty norms that are often unattainable, expensive, racist, texturist, or fatphobic.
For years, influencers have been regurgitating different forms of inaccessible capital beauty in the structure of aesthetic videos, trendy mood boards, and unrelatable lifestyle posts. In creating exclusionary lifestyle bonds with their audience for engagement, influencers subscribe to the clean girl aesthetic because it amplifies existing privileges like being skinny, having clear skin, and straight hair. The aesthetic feels reminiscent of recycled trends like "a day in my life" or "morning routine" videos due to its format showcasing seemingly perfect house decor, expensive beauty products, and an "I woke up like this" mentality. This facade of effortless lifestyles, ultimately unraveling as an appearance influencers have spent hours curating, is being flushed out to grand audiences.
In an attempt to poorly diversify this aesthetic, one creator posted “Clean Girl aesthetic but make it Black," a thread featuring skinny Black women with straight hair in soft-glowy makeup and neutral-toned clothing. The popular thread that garnered over 92k likes is sparking dialogue amongst mostly Black women. One tweet reads: "The issue with the ‘clean girl’ aesthetic is that it only represents skinny, thin, loose curl textured desirable Black women with no blemishes on their face, implying that anyone outside of that aesthetic is dirty. You can just call it minimalist makeup."
The original thread sparked controversy, revealing the existing mold Black women were squeezing into, not only as a way to assimilate but also to avoid stereotypes. The debate on the clean girl aesthetic forced creators to turn inward and question how internalized perceptions of Black women was fueling their own misogynoir. Similar trends like "Black girl luxury" and "slow-living" perpetuate a movement that uplifts rich skinny women with acne-free faces and excludes others, subconsciously aligning with euro-beauty standards.
Rian Phin, social commentator, author, and video producer based in New York, says today's toxic obsession with effortless beauty practices is that, regardless of how trends shift, they invariably exist to ostracize poor people and those who lack proximity to hegemonic standards of desirability. "The ‘clean girl’ aesthetic says to me that we're still looking for ways as a society to reinforce hierarchies and create forms of exclusion in the beauty space,” Rian says. “Where once, the beauty sphere was about inaccessible beauty product hoarding and spending hours learning makeup techniques, now it's about spending the same money and time on skincare, facial treatments, lash extensions, etc."
As Western minimalist and elitist propaganda send signals of calling no-makeup makeup looks clean, it carries the connotation that grandiose measures of beauty, experimental glam, and cultural signifiers are dirty. It's no coincidence that the aesthetic framed by White women that include notions of cleanliness and minimalism panders to obscure forms of femininity and purity culture.
"The clean girl aesthetic is so exclusive but so derivative,” Rian continues. “It's inherently exclusive but exists as an amalgamation of uptown white girl culture and Black and Latin 90s aesthetics.”
"Clean girl reminds me of the 2017 nameplate and white Air Forces trend for people who would've never been caught dead in it before, but for beauty. The slicked-back buns and small gold hoops, paired with matching $100 a piece workout outfits. They seem so simple and attainable, but that's what makes them so exclusive. People who want to participate aren't perceived equally. It's disturbing how it isn't clean girl if you have no makeup, or even a no makeup look, if you have severe cystic acne."
The concealment of labor and exertion eternalizes that the no-makeup makeup looks we've been doing is a method to disguise looks of stress related to poverty, illness, or the failure to suppress the body's natural secretion. In Aesthetic Labour: Rethinking Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism by Ana Sofia Elias, the author discusses how global capitalism “gathers the world into one, the making of a body takes on a form that flattens differences (although not entirely), and the making of femininity is marked by a concealment of the work of body making.” The author continues by saying: “This work is so integrated into the take up of femininity that we may be ignorant of the processes we engage in. In so far as we are aware of them, we are encouraged to translate the work of doing so into the categories of ‘fun’, of being ‘healthy’ and of ‘looking after ourselves’."
Particularly in lockdown, many people were trying to outwardly perform an effortlessly perfect lifestyle, but some of the harsh realities — like the mask-induced ‘mascne’ and the stress pimples that lockdown cultivated — revealed how much work was being put into appearing effortless. Life hit, and the only people who were living leisurely were the uber-wealthy.
In a chapter titled "Mapping Gross Bodies: The Regulatory Politics of Disgust" from Aesthetic Labour, writer Breanne Fahs explains that women "described feeling burdened with the task of managing unruly bodies, maintaining ‘appropriate’ standards of cleanliness, hairlessness, and thinness, and hoping that they would not offend or otherwise step outside of the boundaries of appropriate bodies." It suggests that anything falling outside the bounds of ‘cleanliness’ will be regarded not only as out-of-trend, but offensive.
“The language of ‘gross bodies’ thus permeates women’s understanding of their own and others’ bodies,” she adds. “The need to discipline their own, always-failing, always-in-need-of-maintenance, always-problematic bodies appeared both in overt and subtextual ways throughout women’s narratives about their bodies. Being ‘too much’ represented a consistent fear in women’s descriptions of fatness, body hair, and menstrual sex.”
In recent advancements towards embracing actual no-makeup skin and the reality of beauty, there have been several campaigns left unedited in pursuit of “getting real” about what skin actually looks like. As the culture shifts from centering wellness culture, healthy living, and minimalism through the lens of whiteness, thinness, and perfectly textured skin, the future of beauty primed to rise in its place will hopefully leave the clean girl aesthetic behind.