The real “clean girl aesthetic”

The “clean girl” trend highlights the fine line between showing genuine appreciation towards the original creators versus the co-optation of non-white cultures and traditions.

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Scroll through TikTok and you will find trends that fill users’ explore pages, create conversation and serve to dictate current popular culture and viewpoints. Trends inspire how we pass time, locate our next meal, and inform what we consider beautiful.

The impact of trends on a deeper level, including how we understand current events, groups of people and our self-image are more often than not nuanced and/or overlooked. Slicked-back hair, hoops and neutral makeup are a part of what TikTok creators have coined as the “clean girl look.” The idea of looking put together and feminine by being polished brings up issues of its own in how it impacts the perception extended to women of colors’ natural features, including hair, skin and fashion as cultural signifiers. The trend tends to be defined by a near constant forward-facing representation of white women with straight hair and western, European features. For women of color, especially in Latinx and Black communities, this style of hair and jewelry has been worn for decades, long before mainstream media and white creators decided to enculturate the look.

I had the opportunity to speak with Chandra Delano, who carries many titles. Delano is a Spanish and Portuguese TikTok creator/influencer with 52.9k followers and a second-year psychology student at USC. Delano shared her perspective and experience with TikTok trends and Hispanic culture. In our discussion, I asked Delano to describe how she believes these trends impact Hispanic communities and women of color.

“The recent but also historical ties of the ‘clean girl’ aesthetic and trend are very harmful to marginalized women and to women of color in general. A recent trend within this niche was the ‘inventing’ and capitalizing off a drink called ‘spa water’ by a white creator. However this ‘new anti-inflammatory drink full of benefits’ has been around for years. This drink is called agua frescas and has existed in Latin American culture, most commonly and originally from Mexico for over a century. At the same time as this ‘spa water’ controversy, ‘cowboy caviar’ was also ‘created’ which is a variation of ceviche or salsas. This is harmful because it perpetuates the white-supremacist and colonizer mentalities which are very prevalent in social media, by taking ethnic dishes, renaming them, and taking credit for their creation,” Delano said.

Delano also noted the response from Hispanic creators, “Hispanic and Latinx creators started calling out these creators and educating them about how this was a form of cultural appropriation.” Delano described the counterarguments from non-Hispanic and Latinx creators as a tactic to ignore “the blatant colonization of these items through these ‘clean girl’ trends.”

This reality of social media being a space where rightful credit is not prioritized came up in our conversation in the context of dance as well. Delano pointed out the experiences of Black creators on TikTok, “To further illustrate how women of color are affected and damaged by trends such as these, let’s take a look at the most famous creator on the Tik Tok platform with 147 million followers, Charlie D’Amelio. She grew this platform by following TikTok dance trends, most famously for the ‘renegade’ dance created by Jalaiah Harmon, a Black woman. This dance along with many others created by Black dancers were used (without credit) by white creators to gain millions of likes, followers and curated cash.” Delano said.

Social media trends not only impact who we credit but also what is accepted and normalized within societal standards and superstructures. While examining the racial implications of the clean girl aesthetic only becoming popular once white women claimed the styles, Delano highlighted the exclusion based on socioeconomic status/class formations as well. Although the clean girl aesthetic is supposed to be “natural” and “simple,” the tutorials usually involve pricy makeup, hair and clothing products. Delano illustrates how this makes the look even more unattainable to lower-income women saying “It perpetuates that you need to spend excessive amounts of money on beauty products to be beautiful. This affects the self-esteem and self-worth of women, especially those who do not have the financial means to buy these expensive products.”

My experience when slick buns and hoops weren’t fashionable

The pressures that come from these trends, particularly on women of color, are felt from childhood to adulthood. I remember first seeing this trend circulating and being brought back to my memories of growing up in a predominantly white community and how my experience was very different from that of the 7-second Tiktoks. I would sit patiently at the feet of my mother, grandmother, or older sister as they carefully tied my hair into a tight bun. From the age of two my ears were pierced and always decorated with gold earrings passed down from my grandmother who carried them from her homeland of Ecuador. As an Indigenous, Ecuadorian mixed child living in a predominantly white town, the way I did my hair, dressed and existed was a different reality than what has become a trend for the masses to enjoy. Instead of proudly wearing my hair in the tight buns and hairstyles that are now celebrated and taught, I would feel unsure about how my hair wasn’t sleek and straight like my classmates. I would worry that the hoops I wore would be a focus of girls who hadn’t gotten their ears pierced yet. I was acutely aware of my differences and the commentary that would accompany them; this was not and is not a trend for me but who I was and who I still am. As I grew up I understood the pressures I was under as someone who did not fit the Western beauty standards plastered all over my lived reality. I realized that the beauty reflected in my hair, my jewelry and my culture was rooted in my family traditions and history. I learned how to put my hair up the way my mother did; proudly, I represented the many women who came before me. This is my childhood and my life; my traditions and memories are not just a trend.

The issue is not that others are learning to do the same things we grew up doing but that the credit has been completely lost and erased. It takes practices that are personal and important to us and presents them in a way that makes them popular and celebrated because of their newfound proximity to whiteness. It’s crucial to give credit where credit is due, meaning social media as a whole and creators especially, should find ways to celebrate, honor and have real conversations surrounding the impact people of color have had on so many aspects of what becomes popular in the mainstream from music to fashion and beyond. It is more than just an aesthetic or trend, it is the experiences and histories of women across cultures who are too often diminished when the beauty comes from within the complexity and traditions we have created for generations.