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It’s not you, companies want you to fit an ‘aesthetic’

By Maria Paulina Castro Published Jan 26, 2024 5:00 am

Nothing defined my late teens and early 20s more than the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Her brightly colored hair and Urban Outfitters wardrobe were all over my Tumblr dashboard. She’s everything I wanted to be. She’s also the reason I struggle with personal identity until now.

For most of my formative years, I pinched every buck from my part-time job and school allowance on hair dye and chokers—on things that tell everyone, “I’m a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, this is who I am,” until I realized I had no idea who I actually was. The purple hair, minimalist tattoos, and overpriced KVD Beauty winged liner said nothing about me. They were just things I’d accumulated over time to complete an imaginary checklist, to fit the aesthetic, to be one of “them.”

There’s always a checklist to be cool, and it often comes with a cute nickname. In the early 2000s, there was the Y2K girl with her low-rise jeans and Juicy Couture sweatshirt. In the 2010s, it was the Dark Academia girls with their Pottermore accounts and bookshelves full of young adult fiction. Now, TikTok pumps out at least two microtrends every year, and though they vary in color palettes and starter packs, I came to realize that they had one thing in common: We are expected to spend a lot of money in pursuit of self-expression, all while we’re too young to know ourselves fully.

Admittedly, as detrimental as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl was to my sense of self in the long run, it provided a security blanket. Despite not having a lot of friends, it allowed me to feel like I was part of a collective. In “TikTok Core: The Fashion World of Today,” Anna Mikhaylyants writes that the different “aesthetics” make self-expression accessible through clothes while building a community with like-minded individuals. It’s not just about dressing the part, but a whole lifestyle.

Snapshotting life's moments in pixels

The caveat of these clearly defined outlines for belongingness is that they also impose limitations. For example, my 2015 Instagram feed was littered with photos of me in Doc Martens and smoking Marlboro Reds, and it felt correct. I was committed to my Manic Pixie Dream Girl aesthetic. This is what people expected to see from me.

But the moment I raved about my love for Taylor Swift's 1989, people almost felt betrayed. I wasn't supposed to like that. I couldn’t even document my love for things without inciting outrage from other Manic Pixie Dream Girls. This expectation for us to stay in our chosen aesthetics—the aesthetic we emulated at a time when our sense of self was still shaky—limits our ability to grow and explore.

We are expected to spend a lot of money in pursuit of self-expression, all while we’re too young to know ourselves fully.

I remember reading a study called Young Adult Identities and Their Pathways when I was curing my fractured personality. It details the process during young adulthood: a tumultuous time that involves a lot of change as we begin to form and solidify our sense of self. Our perception and the collection of traits we define as our own greatly impact how we live as adults. If we don’t know who we are, we won’t know what we want or what we’re not okay with.

Because of my commitment to the MPDG aesthetic, I halted the process of getting to know myself. I skipped over the trial-and-error phase. Instead of trying new things, I looked at something and said, “No, thanks. That doesn’t fit my aesthetic.” Self-expression became more of a performance than it was a window into who I was. It became a job to put on makeup, talk in platitudes, and consume media that fit the expectations people had for me.

Over time, I found that I couldn't fully articulate who I was despite completing my checklist to fit my chosen aesthetic. "Tell me about yourself" became the bane of my existence because I couldn't answer in an honest way that still conformed to my Pinterest board personality.

As I began studying and working in advertising, I realized this is exactly what fast fashion companies are hoping we do. In her video about social media’s aesthetic obsession, YouTuber Cara Nicole talked about how companies use curated brand personalities to make us see their products as an extension of ourselves. Companies attach human emotions and desires to products so people associate consuming material things with embodying the attributes we want to see in ourselves.

Aside from preying on the developing psyches of Gen Z, fast fashion brands rely on the quick expiration dates of these aesthetic labels. In Vogue’s Core is the New Chic, Sarah Spelling writes about the true concern: the rate at which these microtrends show up, which creates a cycle of identifying with something, consuming too much of it, and then forgetting about it one month later. Just last year, Hailey Bieber, the pioneer for the Off-Duty Model and Clean Girl aesthetic, was dethroned on TikTok by model and beloved Nepo Baby Sofia Richie as the app’s It Girl. With that switch, everyone ditched their wide-legged pants and brushed-up eyebrows to make space for old money-inspired blazers and slacks from Shein or H&M to achieve Sofia's quiet luxury look on a budget.

Evolving with style. From classics to trends, my wardrobe tells a tale of changing aesthetics.

Several studies have already found that fast fashion comes in third next to aviation and shipping in terms of carbon emissions. At the rate that TikTok aesthetics are going, clothes get taken off racks in a matter of months, the majority of which will go to landfills.

Online aesthetics provide a great stage for people to exercise their creativity, and the MPDG aesthetic ultimately became a starting point for me to figure myself out. But it did me well to really analyze which parts of this subculture represented who I am. Taking a step back from the MPDG aesthetic allowed me to be more intentional about my purchases and break out from the trap of hyper-consumerism. In the process, I figured out who I was underneath all the things that made the Manic Pixie Dream Girl who she was. I created an aesthetic for my personality, rather than letting an aesthetic be my personality.