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JOLIE: In navigating aesthetics, uniformity is not the goal — embrace your own tastes and style

Column: C'est Tout

Our fashion choices demonstrate who we are — we must prioritize our own tastes. – Photo by Fashion Week / Twitter

For at least the first month of the semester, the campus is our runway. Showcasing fashionable ensembles is a part of the fall semester experience where we attempt to exude confidence and optimism. While not every student observes this unwritten tradition, spend some time looking at classmates or surveying the wall-to-wall packed buses, and you will notice that many do.

Understanding aesthetics is essential to assembling fashionably-sound outfits. Aesthetics can be conceptualized as the vibe one wants to impart via fashion and demeanor. These two are co-constitutive, helping one form an assessment of people’s personalities, ambitions and interests. The value of aesthetics is in the ability to communicate these attributes nonverbally.

There is much incentive to subscribe to aesthetic presets because they function as indicators. A glossary of style aesthetics defined "barbiecore" as stereotypically glamorous as it indicates one’s liking for traditional femininity. The "Black Power" aesthetic comprises black leather, black berets and afro-textured hair, connoting militancy and pride. Beyoncé’s 2016 Superbowl costumes indicated her pro-Black political stance. 

It is easy enough to understand that while we are still curating our identities and hopping between life milestones, students still desire a semblance of coherence — most times, this is through aesthetic conformity. 

Aesthetic conformity provides an elementary basis for behavioral conduct, wardrobe, music taste and more. This specific medium for finding our place in the world is so popular due to how easy it becomes to form an identity once we choose a categorical aesthetic.

TikTok, YouTube and other social media are filled with content that lay out plain, practical instructions on how to achieve one’s chosen aesthetic. Clothing hauls introduce the essential pieces one should adorn their bodies with. “Day in the life” videos outline the quotidian affairs of each aesthetic subset.

One would likely see a "dark academia" aesthetic video suggesting that prospects wear somber sweaters and visit dimly lit libraries with tall wooden bookshelves. "Clean girl" aesthetic prospects are sure to find how-to videos on a sleek low bun and links for where to buy small gold hoop earrings.

These videos are useful because they help people decipher which aesthetic feels the most like them. Unfortunately, the sense of belonging that we scout for is often muddled by the blatant reality that social media is not a space free of discrimination. 

Shanspeare, a YouTube video essayist, accurately said, “we’ve chosen to find beauty in our biases. Aesthetic niches are often wrought with exclusion due to the systems we have in place outside of social media.” Our aesthetic inclinations are blemished by biases such as racism, queerphobia, ableism, classism and sexism.

In an article that tackles the racism inherent in the cottage core aesthetic, Abigail Reasor, writer for Her Campus, argues that “the aesthetic is dominated by white people, so white people continue to be recommended, while smaller racial groups continue to be pushed down.” 

The idea that dominant groups — which are categorically white, heterosexual, able-bodied and middle or upper class — are promoted as the leading actors in aesthetic participation is a byproduct of social media users finding beauty in their biases. 

Aesthetic taste is defined by the APA Dictionary of Psychology as “an individual’s judgment of works of art as being more or less beautiful or otherwise pleasing.” 

Plainly, this means that our aesthetic tastes are not divorced from the social, political and economic landscapes of society. We are more likely to find beauty in whiteness, able bodies, high-brow culture and cis-heterosexual tropes. 

For this reason, when one searches for an aesthetic on TikTok or Pinterest, people of color, queer people, lower-class people and/or people with disabilities are less visible.

This not only limits the exposure of underrepresented groups participating in the aesthetic but also unfairly reserves the opportunities for greater success for the most socially acceptable groups.

Social media has led the way for people to capitalize on aesthetics, amassing a large following and receiving sponsorship opportunities. The people who benefit most from aesthetic trends appear to fit the social hierarchy that comes along with western hegemony.

Furthermore, one must eventually question whether aesthetics are dwindling authentic self-expression. Rather than inventing, we have become more attuned to aligning ourselves to preset aesthetics.

Social media poses a challenge to the survival of aesthetic agency — I would define this as the ability to curate one’s own aesthetic. The coercive tide of social media pressures users into adapting while also removing the need for originality.

Aesthetic participation has become increasingly about forming a homogeneous, uniform expression. Social media users are provided with a set of elements that they must abide by in order to embody an aesthetic correctly.

Because not everyone looks the same, aesthetic uniformity should never be the goal. It is beneficial to let aesthetics take on further variations and materialize in people of different backgrounds. As it has repeatedly played out, it is inherently discriminatory for there to only be one “right” way to perform an aesthetic.

Navigating aesthetic alliance can be fun so long as we recognize that it is not fixed nor is it reserved for people belonging to privileged groups. Bien, c’est tout.

Faith Jolie is a junior in the School of Arts and Sciences majoring in journalism and media studies and women's and gender studies. Her column, "C'est Tout," runs on alternate Mondays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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