If you're like me, you have more than a few social media accounts. And if you're even more like me, you're not someone who tries to keep up with trends so you can do what all the "cool kids" are doing, but you like to still be in the loop about what topics are drawing everyone's attention. And for the past 2 or 3 years, there's been a lot of talk about aesthetics.
Whether you frequent Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram or TikTok, the hype around aesthetics has led to some pretty enlightening discussions, but also some important revelations about how we approach identity and authenticity. And you know how much I like to talk about authenticity.
But what is an aesthetic? According to those in the know, an aesthetic in its barest sense is ...
a combination of things that are pleasing to look at or experience, and the elements that make up what is considered pleasing or beautiful.
Aesthetics can take on the theme of any idealized perspective or lifestyle that suits the individual. Some of the most popular aesthetics making the rounds today are:
As expected, different aesthetics claim to embrace different concepts, activities, color palettes or media consumption. While the Dark Academia aesthetic (one of the most popular aesthetics on Tumblr and Instagram) embraces museum exhibitions, tweed blazers, courses in romance languages, and late night study sessions with jazz or classical music playing in the background, the VSCO aesthetic embraces surfing, crop tops, practicing excellent skincare, and environmentalism-friendly causes.
Now as we all know: Where there's popularity, a backlash is sure to follow. The greater number of aesthetics in play, the more criticism of certain aesthetics abound, as well as a complete rejection of them altogether. For example, a popular rebuke of the Cottagecore aesthetic is that it is predicated on the romanticization of European colonialism throughout the Americas, as well as the whitewashing of the oppression endured by ethnic communities in Europe, such as the Roma and followers of pagan faiths. A major complaint some have about aesthetics in general is that they, for lack of better phrasing, "erase the individual."
Some have interpreted aesthetic concepts as personas others only adopt because they're afraid to be themselves, and instead embrace a facade that perpetuates stereotypes, stifles personal growth, and bolsters the dependence on cliques who may shame or berate you if you don't mimic the aesthetic perfectly. I've seen some go so far as to insist that young people are pursuing careers simply based on an aesthetic, which is an idea that those who don't subscribe to aesthetics then mock and deride those young people for. (The irony is lost on them, sadly.)
You can pretty much type in any aesthetic name or just the word "aesthetic" into YouTube and find a bevy of videos with people complaining about that aesthetic or all of them in general. Some valid points are made, but in the end, I think there's a lot of presumption on the motivations of the person donning the aesthetic.
Let me explain.
It's true that any trend or aesthetic can come across as superficial if it's adopted simply for its popularity. And yes, someone can theoretically deny themselves the opportunity to enjoy a variety of experiences because they became too wrapped up in following one particular aesthetic over another.
However, as someone who plunged headfirst into the Academia aesthetic well before anyone ever called it by that name, I say all the naysayers are overreacting, just a tad.
Just as many a Gen X'er went through a "punk phase" or an "emo phase" or a "hipster phase," aesthetics are just a way to learn more about yourself in a manner of your own choosing. Instead of viewing it as giving into fads or trends, I see it as a fairly safe and honest way to explore what you like and how to incorporate it into your life in a way that feels liberating, yet secure.
Look, I'm the first to encourage everyone to think for themselves and allow their individuality to shine like the brightest star. But I'm also aware of how, for many of us, we didn't know who we were until we began to explore what liked, what we didn't know about, and what we only dreamed of. For a lot of young people (particularly in Gen Y & Z), aesthetics are just good fun. A chance to show off what they're into now, but also maybe try on something new and see if they like the way it fits.
Sure, today that 16-year-old "Art Hoe" may enjoy photography, Christmas lights, Mom jeans and all things Amandla Stenberg. Yet in 10 years, she may still love to wear berets and snap photos in her spare time, but now she fills her backpack with books on herbalism, a portable mini-altar, and a notebook full of ideas for her YouTube channel dedicated to witchcraft.
On the outside, some will see her as shallow, flitting from trendy aesthetic to trendy aesthetic. But I see someone who is giving herself space to develop her interests at her own pace. As long as she feels safe to say, "No, this particular aspect is not for me," and doesn't forget that she is always welcome to tweak what works and what doesn't, I say "Do you!"
Is it possible that some of the aesthetic lovers aren't diving deeper into what makes the aesthetic more than what you see on the surface? Of course. But that doesn't make the exploration any less worthwhile.
Self-exploration, when pursued with honesty and awareness, should be encouraged. Because over time, it cultivates a multifaceted person who may have an array of interests that grow and fade over time, but ultimately produces an individual who can appreciate multiple aspects of culture with various degrees of expertise.
As I mentioned to enthusiastic YouTuber Gelsey Blythe, I'm getting a little kick out of the idea that a younger generation thinks what I used to do in my full nerd glory is now an aesthetic. But if anyone is worried that aesthetics are limiting, then I say stop worrying.
Yes, Dark Academia is inherently Eurocentric, but as an English major who spent a semester abroad in London, studied Ancient Greek, and began reading Shakespearean plays on my own when I was 9 years old -- it was only The Two Gentleman of Verona, don't be too impressed -- I felt that it suited me (someone who is neither European nor subscribes to a Eurocentric worldview).
Plus, at no point did I let the Dark Academia aesthetic stop me from exploring art, music, history, and culture from beyond European shores. Sure, I began with Mozart, Herodotus and Orwell, but I expanded my appreciation to Vaughan, Ibn Battuta, and Allende. Just as the vintage fashion community today adopts the motto, "Vintage Style, Not Vintage Values," we can assert how clinging to archaic beliefs about whose ideas are worthy of our attention based on ethnic or national origin is completely absurd in a 21st-century enlightened society.
Not only that, but my personal style has changed as well. Yes, I still own a tweed blazer, frequent coffeeshops, and adore the theater, but I also appreciate the revival of the punk music scene, enjoy Korean action films, and know far more about the Beat movement than most people my age. What fascinated me at age 23 is not the foundation of my self-expression at age 43, but the elements I connected to the most when I was younger are still with me.
At the end of the day, I believe aesthetics are best engaged by adapting them to your individual likes and dislikes (e.g., no to Dead Poets Society; yes to Enola Holmes). Self-expression is always going to be subject to scrutiny from gatekeepers and those quick to judge what is right for everyone.
But instead of trying to force others to pursue personal development in only the way someone else dictates, let's allow people to walk in the aesthetics they find most appealing and see what speaks to their personal authenticity in a safe, understanding and accepting world.
What is your opinion on aesthetics? Do you have a favorite? If so, how does it speak to you?
Top Image: Aesthetics by Vanessa Serpas | Middle Image: Dark Academia Essentials by @scorpiombs | Bottom Image: Artist in Underground Bazaar by Adli Wahid
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