Aesthetics and the Manufacturing of a Curated Self
How social media distorted our perception of identity and fashion.
Arts & Culture Editor
@cigsafterclaire, Pinterest Via Katherine Saxon
I started to despise the word aesthetic. Truly, what I started to hate was not the word itself but the postmodernist definition we collectively harvested for it. How it resonates with fraudulent, restrictive, calculated undertones. How it allures to fast fashion and consumerism and all the bullshit social media normalized, comforted us about, or made us insecure about, especially in relation to the self and its projection. It is common knowledge that aesthetics are conditional to the question Who am I? as displaying an aesthetic is projecting a chosen identity. But I believe aesthetics portray another interrogation better: What do I reduce myself to? This is only the tip of the lugubrious iceberg that shapes the postmodern aesthetic phenomenon. Let’s now face what remained underwater for too long.
In history, the saga of aesthetics can be traced back to our beloved Ancient Greece. Notable philosophers Plato and Aristotle cultivated a fascination for the notion of beauty, and especially for how it could be defined. As Aristotle described beauty by the “absence of all lust or desire in the pleasure it bestows”, highlighting the goodness in a beautiful object’s character, Plato defined beauty as abstract and timeless, as something absolute that does not stand in relation with the observer’s mind. Order, symmetry, and harmonious proportions were deemed as essential features as well.
As aesthetics is the branch of philosophy that explores the nature of beauty and of taste, it explores the duality of subjectivity and objectivity, the ecosystem that emerges from a coexistence between the observer and the observed. The Greek word aisthētikós is defined as the quality of a “perceptive, sensitive, or pertaining to sensory perception” reality. Accordingly, beauty appeals to a mysterious, intuitive sixth sense instead of a more rational reading.
Throughout the following centuries, aesthetics’ purposes and displays shift drastically. Although beauty lies within the Arts, the State, Church, and wealthy patrons parade pompously as its rulers. Religion becomes intrinsic to beauty and, for a multiplicity of cultures, aesthetic value now resides in sacrality. What is holy is spiritually appealing, and therefore beautiful.
Today, beauty still can’t be dissociated from wealth and privilege. As they decide of the inarguable beauty (while also having the means to buy it), taste is a mystical wisdom only the ones who carry a garnished wallet inherit. This statement, of overwhelming absurdity, tackles the wonders of trendsetting and the ability to partake in said trends. The essential ingredient, money.
Now, what of the promised postmodernist main course, the notion of aesthetic as offered to us by social media. I wonder, do the words Cottagecore, Dark Academia, Balletcore, Mall goth, Fairycore, Y2k, Cyberpunk, or even Clean Girl, ring a bell? I bet so. Though what mindsets do they unveil in our social media filled psyche? A goal, an inspiration? A display of your personality and interests? A sense of belonging through a shared style? And maybe a slight echo of online chronicity?
I only referred to a few mainstream aesthetics, but the list could have gone on an entire page. The number of aesthetics that one can adopt is exponential. This applies to microtrends that we watch vanish as swiftly as they appeared as well. The fashion movements, canalized by the screens on which our fascinated eyes rest for hours every day, have seen their lifespans drastically reduced in the last years. Trends that used to last from five to ten years die after three to five months. In 2019 only, single-use outfits generated 95 million kilograms of wasted, discarded clothes. Society and social media achieved to glorify wearing an item of clothing once before dumping it in the trash as if it never existed.
Fast fashion and aesthetics culture are indissociable. By definition, partaking in an aesthetic binds you to a promise of unnecessary consumption. The cycle repeats itself whenever a new aesthetic is adopted: a vicious pattern on a mission to wreck an industry already fucked up to the bone. When carried to the extreme, this cycle becomes a cult of novelty, of ever changing trends. Its temple, social media, its leaders, phony influencers who are more closely related to robots or aliens than to actual human beings.
The postmodernist aesthetics obsession can’t be examined without highlighting the inherent racism beneath it. I decided to play the game and look up different aesthetics on Pinterest. I have two words: white and femme-presenting. And even when more diverse, aesthetics representations are dominated by Eurocentric features. The domination of such features over beauty standards advertised in most mainstream media is the lonely legacy of a colonial past. Many have also said not being comfortable engaging in a certain aesthetic as they didn’t feel accepted within the community.
Well, we’ve established that aesthetics kind of suck. But why are we so drawn to them? Why, even though I willingly claimed to dislike the term and its implications, does a part of my brain still wish I had the wardrobe to dress like a magical fairy every day without ever repeating the same look? Because aesthetics allow us to create a fantasy out of our dull lives. A fantasy that lies in romanticization obviously, but it also in a more than needed escapism. The world is sad and miserable and by creating a curated persona through clothing, we are allowed to escape it. Appealing, right?
But as this crafted persona through a distinct style is often perceived as a mean for creativity, I believe it is self-expression’s murderer. After all, by making aesthetics mainstream and marketable, what else do we express but the consumerist box into which we fit? Not only do aesthetics define one’s consumption, but they also often lead to the erasure of the culture, history or values originally associated with that very style. A classic example would be the paradox of the punk aesthetic, often stripped from the lifestyle it originated from. A core belief of punk is the refusal to partake in any form of consumerism. Therefore, the act of buying “punk” clothes and accessories completely defeats the initial purpose of the culture and depreciates the community.
Aesthetics associated with certain lifestyles often completely distort the meaning of that lifestyle. For instance, Cottagecore glamourizes a solitary existence in the woods and an independent lifestyle from societal influences. Many who experienced living on farms, etc. spoke up on how ridiculous was Cottagecore’s portrayal of what is in fact an extremely laborious and lonely existence. Sure, enjoying a certain style is awesome, but depleting it of its fundamental implications reflects a certain entitlement, especially towards the ones who witness their lifestyles being lightheartedly cosplayed.
Although engaging in an aesthetic is an individual decision often associated with self-expression, we can’t exclude the performative connotations of the phenomenon. In an article entitled “Aesthetic Consumerism and the Violence of Photography: What Susan Sontag Teaches Us about Visual Culture and the Social Web” written by Maria Popova, the importance of capturing and exposing the content of our lives is critical to aesthetics. A photograph freezes a moment in time, granting its author a sense of power and control. By posting on social media, we curate a persona, a fantasy available for others’ consumption.
“Everything exists to end in a photograph,” claimed Shanspeare, a thriving youtuber that also pinpointed the numerous red flags rooted in aesthetics culture. Time’s lack of tangibility creates a need for palpable moments, for grounding, for safety, for guidance. When aesthetics come into play, those needs get partly satiated but the deal remains pricey.
Aesthetics are not fundamentally bad. They are quirky, comforting, bring people together and solidify a sense of singularity. Still, I don’t believe in surrendering to the aesthetics of the hour. Notice the elements you want to embrace about the aesthetics that strike you instead of adopting the entire paraphernalia. Experiment with the wardrobe already in your hands. Don’t spend your entire bank account on a three-month basis as you oscillate between disparate styles.
Believe me, I understand all too well the societal weight to evolve alongside trends. Developing an identity through clothing or style is as draining as it is expected. From now on, allow yourself to be versatile, to be boring, to be eccentric, to wear the same outfit twice or a thousand times because it is a flex to reuse your old clothes and to be conscious that the fashion industry is a slaughterhouse on our cherished planet. Let yourself go (but please, don’t show up naked to Dawson), say no to this foul categorization process and to the infinity of tiny boxes that loiters on your Pinterest board. In a variety of ways, having an aesthetic is great, but sometimes, labels can simply go to hell.