Our Curated Social Media Presence
Dark Academia, Cottagecore, Fairy Grunge and Clean Girl: a mere fraction of the popular aesthetics circulating social media platforms. After all, can you even go on the internet without hearing or seeing some iteration of the word ‘aesthetic’?
But does our fascination with aesthetics lead to a harmful, over-curation of our social media presence and, by proxy, self-perception, or does its healthy dose of escapism foster communities? Generally, the public is split. Some associate the phenomenon with surface-level mimicry of legitimate subcultures; as one Tumblr user suggests, aesthetics are an “obsession [with] looking like you are a type of person who does something without actually doing anything”. Others defend its simple value in bringing joy to people online, exclaiming, ‘just let people live!’
So, what are aesthetics anyway? The idea itself originated in 18th-century philosophy as a ploy to appreciate and emphasise beautiful things. While this may seem far from our contemporary definition of ‘aesthetic’, the core principle remains: through subscribing to a certain aesthetic, we admire and seek to recreate what we deem beautiful.
The aesthetic phenomenon is now more prominent than ever, having circulated websites like Pinterest, Tumblr, and Instagram for many years. For example, any Tumblr user will be no stranger to the 2014 zeitgeist that was ‘Soft Grunge’ consisting of (but not limited to): Dr Martens, Effy Stonem quotes, and a general sense of melancholy. However, the key components to the perfect disaster that is the current popularity of aesthetics occurred in the year 2020: the Coronavirus pandemic heightened our reliance on social media-based entertainment and consequently the rise of TikTok where the #aesthetic currently garners 167.8 billion views.
Upon researching modern aesthetics, I stumbled upon a website resembling the modern Great Library of Alexandria for aesthetics. This website compiled an alphabetic list of popular and niche aesthetics. The letter ‘A’ alone contained forty known aesthetics. Each of these aesthetics comprises a subculture; its iconic music, literature, films, and style. For instance, Cottagecore romanticises simple living and harmony with nature, leaning toward the soft acoustics of Bon Iver, the nature-focused poetry of R.W. Emerson and the visual charm of Moonrise Kingdom, all complimented by flowy dresses and skirts.
However, an aesthetic lifestyle does not come without its drawbacks. The ‘Dark Academia’ aesthetic—while identifiable by its love of poetry, the gothic and idealisation of academia, has faced many controversies since its inception. Many point out the problematic idealisation of the Eurocentric and idolatry of elites being at the core of this aesthetic. This is confirmed by Donna Tart’s ironic novel The Secret History being an unironic cult classic within the community. A similar case can be made for Old Money aesthetics, which glorify unhealthy behaviours and value exclusivity.
In essence, hyper fixation with aestheticism and image-curation (whether on social media or in real life) ultimately commodifies us. In the age of social media, our existence becomes increasingly filtered, conforming to the cookie-cutter aesthetics that we’ve chosen. The aesthetic romanticisation of our lives places an uncomfortable value on appearances. To paraphrase the Tumblr quote: we strive to look like we fit in to the aesthetic without actually doing anything. By fixating on the way we present ourselves and are in turn perceived, we naturally reduce ourselves to a visual for others to hopefully approve and appreciate. As more and more niche aesthetics appear, you can't help but wonder whether we can ever be satisfied by a curated aesthetic life?
Yet the rise in the popularity of aesthetics didn't occur without reason. Some positives have come out of it; at the end of the day, the most fundamental human desire is to belong, and The constant emergence of new aesthetic niches points to the fact that people have been able to find relief in the communities that these form. The Kidcore aesthetic is largely nostalgia-based, allowing people to comfortably express their longing for a time simpler than the present. During the period of lockdown, forming these communities became an essential and consoling part of our social survival.
In a time of vast political unrest and uncertainty about the future of this generation, the value of escapism cannot be understated. The Cottagecore aesthetic can be a haven for people to dream of self-sufficiency and connecting with nature. Dark Academia places value on education and the pursuit of academic fulfilment, which is certainly admirable. While living self-sufficiently in the English countryside or pursuing higher education may not be accessible for everyone, these aesthetics allow for a form of escapism within which we can achieve or at least visualise our dreams.
This social media phenomenon doesn't seem like it's going anywhere any time soon, so we should embrace it for what it has been able to provide us with, from the comfort of escapism to the simple happiness of discovering a new style. Nevertheless, we should remain cautious in preserving individuality first and foremost, while an ‘aesthetically pleasing’ social media account should come only secondarily (if even that)!
Illustration: Olivia Little