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Echoes of Uniqueness: The Paradox of Modern Beauty Subcultures Homogenizing Individuality

Published May 21, 2024
Published May 21, 2024
Getty Images via Unsplash

The Death of Subcultures and the Birth of Aesthetics

Subcultures have played their part in history to shape the world we live in today. Some argue that such groups have existed since ancient times, while others argue that subcultures are a more recent occurrence, pointing to more modern manifestations starting in the 20th century such as flappers in the 1920s and Teddy Boys in the late 1950s. Regardless of their origin, subcultures are dynamic phenomena shaped by social, cultural, and historical factors, often created by those who wish to avoid fitting in with the status quo.

The debate surrounding the strength and impact of subcultures in today's society is ongoing. Several scholars, including Dylan Clark, identify punk as the final subculture, meaning nothing new has emerged over the past 40-50 years. In Clark's book The Death and Life of Punk, The Last Subculture, the author highlights that punk began as an anti-commercialization, anti-establishment, and anti-government way of life, yet as the movement became more widespread, it merged into a consumer-based society, which then became the go-to representation of youth culture.

"Punk degenerated from being a force for change to becoming just another element in the grand media circus. Sold out, sanitized, and strangled, punk had become just another social commodity, a burnt-out memory of how it might have been," author and poet Penny Rimbaud once wrote.

However, despite those from older generations believing that commercialism ended subcultures, today's teens and young adults feel that subcultures are more prominent than ever. Specifically, 88% of young people believe that subcultures exist today and impact how they lead their lives.

But what's changed to lead us to such a divide? For many, the answer is the internet, social media, and their contributions towards a new era of subcultures. Take TikTok for example. In the kaleidoscope of the app's vibrant digital landscape, subcultures are now emerging rapidly as dynamic groups, each with their distinct identities and aesthetics. In the past couple of years alone, beauty consumers have created endless lists of subcultures, from Glossier-loving clean girls to Roblox-infatuated e-girls and even skincare-hooked Sephora kids as young as 10.

The Digital Shift

Within this array of niche communities lies a paradoxical phenomenon: the shift of individuality into a collective sameness. Despite the platform's intention to foster diversity and creativity, TikTok subcultures are beginning to catalyze a process where the pursuit of uniqueness results in a homogenization of expression and individuality. While this seems ironic as part of belonging to subcultures means adopting a certain look, there is now a rising concern that such rapid adoption of different subcultures on social media is leading to consumers not truly knowing who they are and what they stand for, falling into a trap of fast-paced, quickly discarded trends. As per videos from several beauty Tiktokers, the community is beginning to feel that new-era subcultures are aiding a subtle erosion of individuality, taking away the true meaning behind the word.

Content creators, including @hellobilzyb, AKA Nabilla, have been shedding light on the growing belief that the quest for belonging and validation in the modern day has inadvertently left many feeling they have become susceptible to a culture of conformity and replication. The topic is discussed in depth in a video by the creator, which has amassed over 1.1M views. Nabilla expresses her belief that there is now a lack of personality aligning with each trending internet subculture, leaving everyone to become a copy of one another, the opposite of traditional subculture's core values.

"There is absolutely nothing wrong with trends. Trends have existed before us and will continue to after us. You can still have your own personality and lean in to adopt a trend. The two are not mutually exclusive. But the key thing is when you have your own personality, you don't adopt a persona based on a trend," she says in the video. "When people do this at the rate they are, all it does is show people that you are having an identity crisis. You should have no space within your personality to be able to jump from here to there so quickly."

While Nabilla’s opinion may seem black and white and does not speak for everyone in the beauty community, her point addresses the importance of maintaining one's individuality when adjusting to subcultures. Many users adopt these trending looks with a one-in-one-out policy, dabbling in and out of new identities each week almost as if pre-planned while not aligning with the subculture's personality type or values. As a result of the speed at which these subculture trends are being birthed and dying out, there is no time for them to properly reach an offline community. Traditionally, the identification of a subculture comes after it has already formed, recognizing a group with shared values, behaviors, and personalities that become distinguishable from the broader culture. Therefore, if someone on TikTok creates a TikTok subculture makeup look and tells others to adopt it under a given name, it is arguably not a subculture theoretically speaking, but just an aesthetic.

The days of traditional subcultures are over, and the era of aesthetics has begun. Online, Aesthetics Wiki has hundreds of different definitions, from recognizable kid core to the extremely niche meat core (think Lady Gaga's red-carpet moment). When presented with such a high number of options to choose from, it's not shocking that many young consumers feel lost in their own identities. While it is not inherently wrong to experiment with said identities, the confusion surrounding subcultures and aesthetics has sometimes led to real-life cultural clashes and, in some cases, accusations of cultural appropriation.

At the beginning of the year, the mob wife subculture took TikTok by storm, with #mobwife racking up 1.8M views. However, while several users flung themselves at the opportunity to present as mob wives through their makeup looks, real-life mob wives were not too pleased.

"I'm not one to tell people what they can and cannot wear, but mob wife is not a makeup look," says user @AllyK in a video that has gained 644.4K views. The creator shares the reality of being a mob wife, constantly fearing what may happen next. She then explains that what some may see as a fun costume is "a costume of decades worth of women's pain."

"Beauty is being redefined daily by consumers."
By Mintel

Navigating Branding Opportunities

In an industry filled with advertisements telling consumers how they should look while claiming everyone should be their own person, confusion and conflict are arising among communities, and evidently its leading to mass identity confusion across beauty consumers. However, while these debates persist, there is an opportunity for beauty brands to navigate a new path for their marketing strategies that explores new-era subcultures and individualism in a healthy way, while still remaining relevant on social media.

This does not mean subcultures and aesthetics need to be entirely eradicated, but instead, the approach to them adjusted. "Trends and aesthetics drive high views and 'virality,' so it's important to keep those in the weekly or monthly posting cadence, but ensuring the content aligns with the brand's digital 'persona' and resonates with the target audience is most important," Katelyn Winker, Vice President of Client Strategy and Services at Front Row Group, tells BeautyMatter.

Through authentic storytelling and community-building initiatives, brands can create spaces where consumers feel supported and inspired to embrace their unique features and develop their style independent of societal norms, trends, or fast-paced subcultures and aesthetics.

"At the end of the day, it is all about loyalty and community building. No matter how viral or trendy your posts are, if a user doesn't feel like they can be a part of something unique and find something they can relate to or truly want to purchase, they will never want to follow," Winker continues.

Remaining true to branding also helps to minimize the collateral damage of consumers engaging in trends that have led towards talk of cultural appropriation, such as the mob wife aesthetic. If brands are staying true to their own messaging and community, consumers will not feel they must become something they aren't just to fit in and feel part of the latest trend.

In short, sometimes it's better to ignore trends and carry on with internal content plans. "Brands must evaluate trends strategically, based on how they align with brand values, persona, and long-term goals. Ignoring trends that don't align with who the brand is, will allow the brand to come off more authentic when they do participate in trends," Winker adds.

Although not directly related to subcultures, Dove's recent #TheFaceof10 campaign is a commendable example of marketing that influences young consumers to be themselves, regardless of what others on TikTok tell them, while keeping up with core branding principles. The initiative stems off the back of Gen A being influenced by TikTok trends to use anti-aging products designed for adults. The campaign features videos from celebrities, influencers, and dermatologists, including advice from Dr. Phillippa Diedrichs and body image expert–certified dermatologist Dr. Marisa Garshick, educating parents and caregivers on the best way to tackle the overhaul of online content young people are exposed to daily. Not only does the strategy promote age-appropriate skincare, reinforcing a positive message about self-acceptance and embracing natural beauty, it also remains true to Dove's lifelong branding, a perfect example of engaging in trends in a way that aligns with the brand's business model and messaging.

As said by Mintel, "Beauty is being redefined daily by consumers." Although beauty brands cannot dictate or predict trends, they can play a crucial role in helping consumers navigate and respond to them effectively. Instead of imposing rigid beauty standards and sameness among consumers, brands can serve as guides, offering inspiration, education, and resources to empower individuals to make informed choices that align with their unique preferences and identities. By staying attuned to cultural shifts and a newly defined view of subcultures among younger generations, businesses can anticipate consumer needs and provide relevant products and content that resonate with their audiences.


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