how tiktok is changing beauty standards for gen z
The influencer is dead. The E-Girl is ready to ascend in her place.
The influencer’s reign of terror is over. Come out from behind your sofas and stop FaceTuning out your cellulite, because all anyone is telling us recently is that Instagram influencers aren’t actually influencing anyone anymore. Recently, engagement rates have plummeted across the app, with a new study from Facebook showing that they’re at an all time low. And with the news that Instagram is planning to roll out a like ban in a number of countries over the coming weeks, the future isn’t looking good for every photoshopped #goals blogger trying to hawk diet supplements, skinny teas and teeth whitener to everyone they come across.
It seems that we’re all just getting sick of the ultra-curated world of the influencer, finally able to see it for how fake and harmful it can really be (even Instagram itself is admitting that the app’s aspirational facade is bad for its users mental health). The popularity of subreddits like Instagramreality and blogs like Celebface, which point out bad photoshopping on the social networking platform, have skyrocketed in recent months, with the former currently standing at a massive 493,000 members, the latter at 1.1million followers. And more and more of us are getting our style tips, aesthetic inspiration and beauty tutorials from TikTok instead. If Instagram provided an early set of standards for millennials, then TikTok is doing the same for Gen Z, just in a much more supportive and, frankly, more interesting way.
Over on TikTok, fake pancake platters and #sponcon is out, and the E-Girl is in. You’ve probably seen an E-Girl or two already (how could you miss ‘em), but for the uninitiated, the aesthetic is all about a-line tennis skirts, layered T-shirts with long sleeved turtlenecks, pigtails, over the knee socks and some seriously creative makeup. Noses and cheeks are rouged in what is surely an affront to anyone who has ever spent an excess of 12 minutes watching Kardashian-inspired contouring tutorials on YouTube, while liquid eyeliner is used to perfect a razor-sharp cateye, before drawing hearts or stars high up on the cheekbone. This is a new kind of cool girl.
"The TikTok community is super supportive... it’s not like Instagram, where everyone is more singular, kind of just posting pictures and occasionally videos.”
In a BuzzFeed article charting the rise of the beauty moment back in February, Lauren Strapagiel compared it to the rise of scene kids back in the noughties, arguing that it’s emerged directly as a reaction to an overly curated mainstream aesthetic. E-Girl's wouldn't dream of photoshopping their videos, which see them dancing along to moody Spice Girl covers or taking the piss out of the aesthetic by claiming they’re made in an “E-Girl factory”. They would never entertain the notion of producing a deck for their own engagement. “Scene girls and emo girls were a counter to the preppy, Juicy Couture look of the [noughties],” Lauren wrote. “In the same way, E-Girls may be a counter to the polished, Facetuned Instagram influencer.”
The community isn’t didactic though. Nobody is telling E-Girls to dress like an E-Girl, nobody is trying to sell them the aesthetic based on their own personalised, post Love Island discount codes. It’s just kind of addictive. Seventeen-year-old Priscilla [she doesn't want to use her full name] began her TikTok career before TikTok was even a thing -- first posting videos on its predecessor, Musical.y. She now posts slow mo’s, lip-syncing and dance videos, and has 900,000 followers, compared to her 14,000 on Instagram. Just being on TikTok though, she tells me, has influenced her style and beauty aesthetic. “I guess the VSCO girl aesthetic has influenced me especially,” she explains (the VSCO girl being an ironic takedown of super-stylised, curated and photoshopped “basic” social media posting). “My style is just really laid-back. It can be a little bit out there, but mostly it’s just comfy.”
“The TikTok community is super supportive,” Priscilla says. “Everyone creates their own kind of thing and the creators are helping each other grow, making collabs and things like that. It’s not like Instagram, where everyone is more singular, kind of just posting pictures and occasionally videos.”
Fellow creator Maddy says that TikTok has definitely influenced how she dresses and does her makeup. “I always wear clothes that express who I am and how I feel,” she explains, describing her fashion as a mix between a stereotypical E-Girl and a heavy dash of “soft-grunge aesthetic”. “Of course, we all know about the E-Girl style and I’m sure I’m not the only one who absolutely loves it. That totally helped to build the way I dress now.”
“I don’t have just one style,” adds Maddy, who also uses TikTok to post short makeup tutorial videos. “I just wear whatever makes me feel good. And people on TikTok seem to encourage each other a lot in that, and in whatever they do. It’s like a big supportive family. It takes little creatives who are really talented and gives them the recognition they deserve, whether they’re an artist, a makeup artist or just someone who likes making videos on the platform.”
Probably because of the sprawling popularity of TikTok -- since launching in August 2018 the app is now available in 150 countries and 75 languages, with 500 million users -- the app, and the E-Girl aesthetic it’s helped to build, is anything but exclusionary. As Maddy and Priscilla explain, the style is interchangeable and customisable, so it’s not surprising that there are E-Boys too. Mouse Rodriguez first joined TikTok as a joke among friends but soon his videos were topping 10 million views and he had become a self-confessed E-Boy with 155,000 followers. “I am a textbook E-Boy or softboi,” says Mouse, who lives in New York and is a full-time college student. He mostly posts comedy skits on the app, but also has a series of “aesthetic posts” featuring himself and his outfits.
“I found a safe haven of expression on TikTok, like many people, and I was a big copy on the E-Boy trends,” he explains. “I styled myself off what other E-Boys would wear. But now the trend has died down a little bit, I realised I wanted to be the kid everyone wanted to dress like. I don’t really copy styles anymore, I just accentuate my own. I would describe it as being soft and edgy combined. I think essentially that means I dress like a light-coloured clothing 2009 high school emo kid, and I’m completely fine with that.”
The creative safe haven Mouse, Maddy and Priscilla explain is exactly the conditions under which a new style, and with it, a completely new and relaxed beauty doctrine has emerged. TikTok’s community feels like early Tumblr, or -- even earlier -- privatised MySpace and Facebook. It has its own terminology and its own style, but with that comes a set of surprisingly inclusionary values. “We embrace and support all forms of creative self-expression,” a representative from TikTok’s recently opened London HQ tells me. “As long as they’re in line with our policies and community guidelines.” TikTok believes that it's this environment that has allowed the E-Girl to flourish as an internet phenomenon. “It’s a way for girls to share their creativity and unique style inspired by the goth, K-Pop and cosplay movements. Everything shared on TikTok [by these girls] is real and spontaneous and reflects our diverse and inclusive community. These original and irreverent aesthetics can find a home here, they feel confident to express themselves.”
Brand speak? Yes, but a quick look over the hordes of videos sharing E-Girls makeup tutorials, lip-sync skits and dancing challenges and it’s easy to see that it’s also true. Influencers’ engagement rates may be dwindling, but E-Girls are just getting started on their path to world domination. Now, somebody pass me the liquid eyeliner so I can get in on it before Forever 21 starts making slogan E-Girl T-shirts.