The Urban Legend

The School Newspaper of Urban School of San Francisco

The Urban Legend

The School Newspaper of Urban School of San Francisco

The Urban Legend

Clean girl aesthetic: cute and classy, or culturally appropriative?

Gen Z is no stranger to the trending Clean Girl aesthetic sported and advertised through countless forms of online media such as Pinterest and TikTok. However, much less marketed is its exclusiveness and cultural appropriation, defined as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture” by the Cambridge Dictionary.

Trends such as the Clean Girl aesthetic run rampant on online platforms used by young and often female-identifying people. These trends are wide-ranging and short-lasting but never fail to have strict and virtually unachievable requirements — think Coquette or Tumblr Girl. 

Because teenagers are constantly exposed to countless forms of online media, it is easy for trends that are often rooted in cultural appropriation and exclusiveness to become popular. 

According to Seventeen Magazine, a teen magazine that covers fashion and beauty, the Clean Girl aesthetic hashtag has racked up nearly two billion views on TikTok. The trending aesthetic’s vast exposure in nearly all forms of online media makes it highly visible to teenage girls.

The Clean Girl aesthetic promises to be achieved through flawless yet natural and glowing skin, sleek hairstyles and stacked gold jewelry. When one searches for the aesthetic on Pinterest, they are met with countless women deemed clean by their lean body types, European features, luxury clothing and jewelry items.

Miriam Endelman ‘26 said, “Hailey Bieber pops into my head because she fits this certain stereotype … She’s white, kind of lean and skinny, but not too skinny, does slicked-back hair and uplifts her face [with makeup].”

The pressure to achieve impossible standards of facial perfection, skinny body types and a wealthy lifestyle can prove incredibly taxing. 

“It’s being marketed to very young people … I see people my age online doing this trend, and people are already seeing flaws within themselves,” said Elizabeth McNeel ‘27. “It creates this ideal person in your head that you can’t quite live up to and it adds all this pressure … It’s creating another beauty standard for women that I think is causing a lot of stress, especially for Gen Z.”

Advertisements for viral trends by popular influencers and brands reinforce skinny body ideals and Eurocentric beauty standards to young women on social media.

“I get fed Instagram ads or TikToks by whoever I follow, brands too. It’s all the same type of person,” said Endelman. “It makes me sad just because I feel like it’s going to stay the same … I have a little sister and I feel like it’s just going to be the same for her, too. It’s not impossible to get different models — there are so many people in the world.” 

While not explicitly mentioned, the aesthetic is virtually only attainable for people of wealth who have the time and money to invest in it. Between the chunky gold jewelry, cosmetic procedures and high-end products required to achieve the look, expenses add up quickly.  

“It’s definitely for people who have a slower lifestyle who maybe don’t have a super demanding job and can afford to go to the gym every day and have this Instagram-worthy life, and that’s definitely not accessible for everyone,” said McNeel. “It’s marketed toward people who have enough time to invest in their appearance and it doesn’t leave room for improving mental health and well-being.”

An unspoken baseline requirement to meet the criteria for the Clean Girl aesthetic or similar trends such as the Vanilla Girl is being white or at least having Eurocentric features. 

“I see these collages [online] like Vanilla Girl aesthetic pack[s] that are super dependent on being blonde and white. I think that you can be a Vanilla Girl and have black hair and be a person of color, but a lot of people on the internet don’t think that,” said Ellis Monty ‘24. “I saw a video of this girl who was like, ‘Am I doing the Vanilla Girl aesthetic right?’ and someone commented, ‘No, you’re a chocolate girl.’” 

While trends such as the Clean Girl aesthetic exclude women of color, their elements often appropriate styles from those same communities. Slick-back hairstyles, a Clean Girl staple, are drawn from the centuries-old Indian practice of hair-oiling. Large gold hoop earrings, another marker of a Clean Girl, have been an accessory of empowerment for Black and Latina women for decades. 

Monty said, “There have been multiple instances where I’ve gone to some influencer’s page, and they’re like, ‘New hair oiling trend,’ and it’s like, Indian people have been doing this for decades — this is not new.”

Emily Loyola ‘24 said, “The slicked-back buns, glossy skin and gold jewelry of the Clean Girl aesthetic … that’s something that I grew up around within Mexican culture and the Chicano Movement. Now I see these girls on TikTok trying to recreate it.”

Turning culturally significant beauty rituals and accessories into a trend marketed towards white women proves harmful in many ways. Another example is found in rosary beads, jewelry used to count and represent Catholic prayers that have become a prominent accessory in many LatinX cultures and belief systems. Accessories drawn from items like rosaries, including cross necklaces, are often found in aesthetics such as that of the Clean Girl. 

“Growing up Catholic and seeing Brandy Melville sell rosaries … it’s so weird. The intention behind making it an aesthetic is just kind of demeaning in a way that undermines what it actually represents for the LatinX community,” said Loyola. “I see these girls walking around with little crosses who are not religious whatsoever. To take something that’s very culturally significant and make it into a trend or aesthetic is just so weird.”

Because women of color have been bullied and shamed for their ethnic features and beauty practices for decades, white women capitalizing on these very elements can feel ironic and perpetuate harm. 

“Recently, beauty standards have been trending towards features on people of color that maybe 50 years ago were criticized,” said Monty. “The fox-eye trend was really strange to me because yeah, it’s one of the beauty standards now, but when I was little, people would pull their eyes back and mock Asian people. Now people are getting surgery to have that look permanently.”

From cosmetic tools such as the gua sha, used in traditional Chinese medicinal practices, to specialized cosmetic surgeries, the beauty industry spares no mercy when capitalizing on the previously looked down upon practices and features of women of color when convenient.

The conveniently packaged beauty trends from the Clean Girl craze are innately tied to capitalism and greed from bigger corporations. 

“When things become trendy, it makes it so that previously, you would probably have to buy a gua sha from a small, API-owned business, but now you buy it from Target or other large corporations,” said Monty. “Taking things away from people of color and their small businesses is definitely an issue.”

Amid ever-changing and widely marketed trends, it becomes invaluable to distinguish between cultural appreciation and appropriation. 

“In MultiCulti yesterday, somebody was wearing a shirt that said, ‘You can’t appreciate the culture and not support the people,’ and that’s very true,” Monty said. “Generally, there’s really nothing wrong with using a gua sha or oiling your hair, but if you hate Asian people, you shouldn’t be doing that.”

Ever-changing online platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and Pinterest allow trends to cycle rapidly and draw from cultures when opportune. 

 “These new trends just take what’s pleasing to the European beauty standard from cultural groups and communities, and it’s super interesting to see what they choose to pick out,” said Loyola. “They’ll choose to make fun of a certain feature but then take and appropriate something else.”

Rather than trying to meet unattainable aesthetics that often draw from cultural appropriation, developing love for one’s natural features is beneficial.

“It’s super important to just embrace your natural features … I don’t think anyone should feel pressured to conform to a beauty standard,” said Monty. “Your features are going to be in trend at some point.”

About the Contributor
Ella Chen
Ella Chen, Caboose Editor and Multimedia Manager