The Senseless Truth Behind “Stylish” TikTok

Media provided by Brando Babini ’23

Since its inception, TikTok has been a powerful platform for elevating trends. It has been particularly influential in popularizing certain aesthetics to audiences of all ages, races, and parts of the world. While TikTok’s expansive outreach allows creators’ work to be seen by a wide range of people, it also promotes trends and “aesthetics” that lead to poor body image, perpetuate unhealthy behavior, and improperly reinvent aspects of minorities’ cultures. 

Aesthetics are essentially different subcultures in which people share similar tastes in fashion, music, and even literature. They are denoted by different qualities, including color palette and makeup.  One popular aesthetic is the coquette aesthetic, which is characterized by feminine, dainty, and doll-like fashion. The word coquette means “a flirtatious woman,” and the aesthetic seeks to manifest this definition. Videos under the #coquette innocently present dangerous eating habits as part of the aesthetic, offering viewers low-calorie meals and promoting meal replacements. In doing so, they imply that thin figures are an integral part of the aesthetic, along with frilly ruffles and leg warmers. 

This standard is further compounded by the aesthetic’s glorification of cigarette use. In coquette TikToks, girls are often seen with cigarettes hanging out of their hands and mouths, communicating little concern for the health consequences of cigarette use. Cigarettes are not only romanticized but also spotlighted as an effective and healthy way to lose weight. TikTok accounts that describe themselves as coquette depict cigarettes and coffee as meal replacements and appetite suppressants. Due to TikTok’s extensive outreach, these accounts’ promotion of disordered eating has influenced a large audience, including young people, who are significantly more likely to absorb misleading information that they find online. The romanticization of dangerously slim bodies and cigarettes is reminiscent of the 90s heroin chic era when models like Kate Moss were very transparent about their strict diets and the sacrifices of maintaining their “supermodel” bodies. It seems that such detrimental trends tend to come full circle every few decades, further infiltrating the minds and general well-being of young generations. 

Another aesthetic, which centers around presenting as a “clean girl,” is notorious for appropriating the hairstyles and fashion of Latinx and Black women. The clean girl aesthetic manifests in styles such as slicked-back buns, clear and glowy skin, and gold hoops. This aesthetic further emphasizes the culture of exclusivity on TikTok by implying that certain people are clean and everyone else is dirty. A key aspect of the “clean girl look” is clear and glowy skin, which suggests that people with acne are not “clean.” Since acne is very common, especially in teenagers, aesthetics like this create another layer to the existing toxic, exclusionary culture on social media. However, an overlooked but critical problem surrounding the clean girl aesthetic is the fact that many non-Black or Latino creators have been stealing aspects from existing Black and Latino culture and claiming it as their own. “The clean girl” has existed under the radar in these other cultures but has only gained its current popularity and attention once white users latched on to the trend. 

Another trend within the clean girl aesthetic is “sticky bangs,” which is simply the phrase, “laying down edges” renamed. The hairstyle has been commonly used by Black people for decades but was recently attributed to the clean girl aesthetic by creators on TikTok. The non-Black creators on TikTok sporting “sticky bangs” are typically praised for being “clean” and “beautiful.” On the contrary, Black people have been ridiculed and criticized for centuries for “laying down their edges.” Evidently, these trends stem from the appropriation of various cultures stemming from women of color. The aesthetics are not being properly credited, and the origins and history are being disregarded. 

Easily accessible social media apps, such as TikTok, have opened the door to a widespread amount of damaging trends and aesthetics, all perfectly curated to entice the eyes of the uninformed. As trends continue to cycle through the algorithms of such platforms, the consequences of these aesthetics may continue to negatively impact the lives of women of color if it ceases to come to a stop. Trends should not be blindly followed, as in many cases, they are more nuanced than a mere clothing style. That nuance is worth considering before promoting a trend.