In the late ’90s and early ’00s, everyone wanted to be an “it girl.” These girls were super cool, popular, and always striving for perfection. As the years passed, younger generations have decided to shake things up and embrace being whomever they want to be, discarding the ideal of everyone looking alike. The power of the internet and social media then came along and began to play a big part in this new way of life, with apps such as TikTok influencing Gen Z to showcase their latest fashion must-haves, beauty secrets, and, now, subcultural aesthetics.
Each month, a new appearance-based checklist seems to make its way to TikTok for young users to cross off their to-do list, which is no surprise considering the fast-paced rate with which these videos are consumed. With Gen Z spending a total of 24 to 48 hours per month scrolling through the app, they are bound to find a beauty subculture to resonate with, even if only at a surface level. From laid-back, messy-haired downtown girls to sad girls who are not afraid to express the beauty of crying, here are the top four beauty subcultures taking over TikTok:
That Girl (Clean Girl)
Arguably the trend that created a ripple effect for all the “girl” aesthetics, "that girl” is the perfect example of the ultimate aspirational woman. Sometimes referred to as the “clean girl” aesthetic, “that girl” is organized, full of self-love, in top form at the gym, and a general all-round boss-babe. “That girl” leaves a trail of confidence everywhere she goes―with the makeup, hair, nails, and outfit to match.
For this aesthetic, embracing minimalism is key. As shown by @aliciabreur's video, “that girl” sports a "no makeup, makeup look" with clear, dewy skin, heart-shaped pout lips, long lashes, a soft pink blush, and fluffy eyebrows. The aim is to look effortlessly beautiful. Breur's video tutorial, which has 2.6 million likes, features an original sound by @xoliahbeauty that talks users through the techniques―offering tips such as applying concealer in an upwards fashion to create a naturally lifted face without contour. The “that girl” hair is also always effortlessly perfect, pulled back into a sleek bun with a claw clip or free-flowing in gentle and healthy-looking waves. Her nails are always pristine, with French manicures a must and no regrowth showing.
“That girl” is heavily invested in her hygiene, using kind-to-the-earth bathroom products and never skipping her viral skincare routine. She also believes that beauty begins from within, indulging in clean eating, self-reflection, and a good night's sleep―although she will be awake by 6:00 a.m. to ensure her day is as productive as possible.
Many users enjoy the “that girl’” aesthetic, encouraging them to become the best versions of themselves and embrace their natural features, although others have commented on the intense self-discipline needed to fit these standards. To solve this, countless videos recommend starting small; for example, ditching heavy foundations for a light concealer or waking up a mere ten minutes earlier to make the most of the day. Regardless of how the aesthetic is achieved, it's all about self-betterment and protecting mental energy.
“That girl,” but just a little cozier, a “vanilla girl” is known for her easygoing approach to life. While she still meets all her work deadlines, self-reflects, and eats her five a day, a “vanilla girl” celebrates taking each day as it comes. “Vanilla girls'' are always associated with neutral colors such as white, beige, cream, and, obviously, vanilla. Surrounded by cashmere cardigans, tactile textured blankets, satin pillows, and an abundance of candles, a “vanilla girl's” carefree approach to life means she can face anything thrown her way.
The aesthetic follows a similar makeup vibe to a “clean girl” but adds a slight twist of color to the lips and a subtle sparkle on the eyes. The TikTok, @olvijaoli video, which now has over 1.2 million likes, walks users through the steps needed to obtain the look. Starting with a small dab of undereye concealer, the creator then applies cream contour and an apple red cream blush. Eyes are next, with a sheer, gold sparkly eye shadow accompanied by a small brown pencil eyeliner wing and long wispy eyelashes. A warm, brown shade is then added to the lips, glazed with dewy lip gloss. Many donning “vanilla girl” makeup show their freckles, while those who don’t have natural freckles add them across their nose and cheeks with freckle pens. Soap brows are also a must.
“Vanilla girls” almost always wear warm, teddy-bear-inspired, brown nail colors, chunky curtain bangs, and caramel highlights to complement their hair color. Soft waves and laid-back ponytails are a frequent sighting, with gold hair accessories a go-to. For those who want to indulge in the coziness of fall and winter, the “vanilla girl” aesthetic is the way to go.
It's okay to be sad (and post a complementary selfie when crying). The “sad girl” aesthetic celebrates the recent social media phenomenon of being authentic online, encouraging users to show how they really feel day-to-day. This is showcased by Bella Hadid's Instagram folder of sobbing selfies and Lizzo's tearful TikToks. The aesthetic allows those who feel low to embrace their mood and remember that hard times eventually pass.
While the vision can be executed simply by posting a bunch of selfies mid-cry, some have taken things a step further, creating specific makeup routines to achieve the look. Watery eyes, flushed cheeks, and all things that resemble a good, old cry are essential―as shown by TikTok tutorial creator @sarahnewsfx, whose moping masterclass gained over 7.5 million views and 1.5 million likes. In the video, the creator applies bold, red blush to the apples of her cheeks, down the bridge of her nose, across the lips, and heavily onto her waterline, emulating a run-down stance. She then applies clear lip gloss to her lips, under her eyes, and in her inner eye corner, creating a wet and teary look. To complete the guide, the TikToker applies mascara, ensuring lashes are subtly clumped together as if joined by her tears.
Despite racking up likes, the “sad girl” aesthetic has come hand-in-hand with some unhappy users (no pun intended). In the comments, one user asks, "What is the point of this? People are struggling and crying, and others use this to create a makeup trend and gain views. Seems wrong to me." Aside from the moral aspects of the aesthetic, which ultimately is the responsibility of those participating, the tutorials are great for those who wish to produce such looks for SFX and acting purposes, as many users have pointed out. Meanwhile, others are comparing the face to the popular "Douyin makeup," a look that rose to popularity last year on TikTok that resembles elements of East-Asian beauty such as eyelid lifts created with pencil eyeliner and blurred lips.
Downtown girls live for the simple pleasures in life. An oversized sweater, an independent coffee shop, and a good book are all they need to enjoy the day. Typically associated with downtown New York―specifically places such as Brooklyn―a “downtown girl” can always be spotted by her choice of dress, often sporting band t-shirts, platform shoes, layered jewelry, and oversized headphones to block out the world.
Like all the other aesthetic trends, the “downtown girl” is highly celebrated on TikTok, with several people posting videos informing their followers on how to get the look. Under the search term “downtown girl makeup look,” @cosmic_lila takes the top spot, with her visual tutorial receiving 42.3 thousand likes. In the video, the creator begins by adding freckles across her nose and cheeks, followed by bushy brows, and burnt red eye shadow on the eyelids and under the eyes to create a lived-in look. She then adds a berry red blush, heavily applied to the nose and lips, leaving a flushed look similar to the “sad girl.” Next, she adds smudged, brown eye shadow to the eyes, which acts as eyeliner, and pairs this with a messy mascara application that creates a doe-eyed look.
“Downtown girls” are classically known for their wolf and butterfly-inspired haircuts, which fall into place as soon as they hop out of bed in the morning―resulting in a grunge-inspired messy look. It is also almost a guarantee that those following the aesthetic will have a chipped black manicure, championing the message that not every girl has to look girly and perfectly polished. While there is currently no demand for an “uptown girl” aesthetic on TikTok, with some arguing this is similar to “that girl,” it will be interesting to see how these trends evolve and play out across the app in 2023.
The idea of subcultures is not a new one; however, the pace at which Gen Z are chopping and changing them on TikTok is undeniably inspiring. Now, no one has to fit into a box, and mixing and matching elements of each aesthetic is widely encouraged, allowing teenagers and young adults to express themselves freely. For brands, this could be music to their ears; with a constantly evolving landscape of subcultural trends, there is a lot of room for cosmetic companies to play with their SKUs and match them to particular trending aesthetics.
What's more, regardless of naming these subsections of beauty "girl," many who follow the appearance-based rulebooks are speaking out against gender norms, encouraging anyone―no matter their assigned sex―to immerse themselves in the world of social media subculture trends. This will ultimately lead to more inclusion, and as a result, more sales across the beauty industry. Through the power of TikTok influence, beauty is set to enter an era where consumers call the shots, with rigorous trendsetting of Gen Z paving the way for what's next.
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