What Do Teens Mean When They Talk About an Aesthetic
Like many people, I spent a great portion of the mid-pandemic listening to the new Taylor Swift album, Folklore, on repeat. It was haunting and melancholy and fit my mood. Last week I saw a post about how the album was “Cottagecore” and about the “Cottagecore Aesthetic” and I fell down a rabbit hole trying to figure out what that meant. I have always believed in trying to understand that current things my tweens and teens are talking about.
Don’t get me wrong, I was vaguely aware of the idea of a social media aesthetic for a long time, I just hadn’t given it a lot of thought. And when I looked at Cottagecore I figured it was mostly an adult thing, turns out I am wrong. It is not the first time I have been wrong, and it won’t be the last.
Having been married to an art major for some 25 years now, I am familiar with the term aesthetic. But I wanted to know more about what it means to teens specifically and to social media. Here’s what I’ve learned.
In the most basic definition, aesthetic means: concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty (that’s the dictionary definition). When applied to teens and social media, it means:
“In reference to social media, the term “aesthetic” is usually used to refer to the overall visual theme and mood of an account. Most often associated with Instagram.” (source: https://stayhipp.com/glossary/social-media-aesthetic/) This definition mentions Instagram, but it also applies to Tik Tok, Snapchat, etc.
As I mentioned above, Cottagecore is one of the currently popular aesthetics which is highlighted by the newest Taylor Swift album. Cottagecore is an aesthetic that is pastoral leaning. You’ll see lots of pictures of nature and picnic baskets and girls in long, flowing prairie dresses. Cottagecore is vintage and antiques in outdoor spaces with pastel flowers and sheets hanging on outdoors drying lines. The Teen says it’s has bright, soft lighting. You can find out more about Cottagecore here: https://foryouaesthetics.com/blogs/news/cottagecore-aesthetic. I also want to make sure we really look at and examine the various aesthetics and stumbled across this article about Cottagecore and the Far Right: https://honisoit.com/2020/09/cottagecore-colonialism-and-the-far-right/.
Corragecore is not, however, the only popular aesthetic. Last year I was asked to buy Thing 2 hair scrunchies and Hydroflask water bottles because of the VSCO aesthetic. You can even find articles and ideas about VSCO girl starter packs on popular teen sites like Teen Vogue: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/vsco-girl-starter-pack. (I bought her scrunchies but made her save up her own money for the Hydroflask because those are super expensive.)
There are other aesthetics popular with teens: soft girls and dark academia and afrofuturism. The list over at aesthetics.fandom.com of aesthetic types is actually quite long: https://aesthetics.fandom.com/wiki/List_of_Aesthetics. And YPulse has a really good look at the influence of, well, social media influencers and aesthetics here: https://www.ypulse.com/article/2019/07/31/e-girls-instagram-baddies-and-vsco-girls-the-social-media-styles-influencing-gen-z/. Buro247 has a list of popular 2020 aesthetics here: https://www.buro247.my/culture/buro-loves/from-vsco-girl-to-e-boy-these-are-the-aesthetics-o.html.
Aesthetics is about branding. Branding oneself. But also, brands have latched onto the idea of aesthetics to market to Gen Z as well. I even used this concept recently, without really knowing I was doing so, when I created an RA list of readalikes for Billie Eilish fans and one for Taylor Swift fans. I was applying the concept of the aesthetic with book recommendations.
When reading about aesthetics you will quickly find that a lot of the aesthetics being talked about in the media are very white centered, as unfortunately a lot of the media always has. As teen librarians, a field dominated by white women, we need to be really careful when reading about and thinking about using the idea of aesthetics as promotional tools not to become too white focused and exclusionary. So engage in research and promotion with intention and an eye to inclusion, as you should all things.
I wanted to check and see if this idea of an aesthetic was just something adults were putting on to teens or if it was a thing teens talked about, so I went and consulted with my sources. They immediately began to talk to me about various aesthetics and seemed pretty interested in the concept. Sometimes the media talks about teens in ways that don’t resonate with teens, but the teens I talked to were very much aware of the concept of aesthetics on social media.
For iPhone users, the newest update even allows them to personalize their homescreen to fit their personal aesthetic: https://www.cnet.com/news/from-tumblr-to-ios-14-how-aesthetic-home-screens-became-a-trend/. This is something that apparently Android users have been able to do for a while.
Here are some more articles on the topic of aesthetics for you, should you too want to jump down this rabbit hole.
What I’ve learned is that aesthetic is about branding, in some ways, but it’s about identity. And teens have always been about identity and wearing your heart on your sleeve to make your identity known. From punk kids to emo kids to jocks . . . teens have always had an aesthetic. Well, most teens do. It’s just now they have taken those identities and that aesthetic online and onto social media. So in many ways it’s the same thing as always, just expressed differently for a new generation. Which doesn’t mean it lacks value, because it does. Who you are and how you choose to share that with the world is and always will be very important to teens. It’s exciting to see the ways that teens are using new tools to express themselves.
I asked The Teen if Book Nerd or Doctor Who fan could be my aesthetic and she said, not really but sure.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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