My relationship with social media began in 2006. As a pre-teen, the internet provided me with a sense of freedom. Every time I opened my laptop, I was able to shed the awkward, lonely person that I embodied in the real world, and enter the digital space as whomever I wanted to be, which allowed me to explore my interests without the pressure of having to explain myself. When I scroll through my social feeds today, it feels like the goal is to find increasingly specific ways to define oneself. On Instagram, you don’t simply wear blush, you become a “strawberry girl” On TikTok, you don’t just try to eat healthy, you enter your “clean girl makeup, simple gold jewelry, that girl morning routine, going to bed early, in depth skincare, eating healthy era”. Everything you do, every thought you have, every outfit you wear, indicates the type of person you are and your corresponding aesthetic. Hiking gear is “gorpcore,” business casual is “corpcore,” eating a bag of chips for dinner is “girl dinner.” Up is down; left is right—away I scroll.
Social media makes it possible—and easy—to compare oneself to an endless array of people of varying socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities, ages, genders, career paths and appearances. I fall into the trap and end up exhausted and desperate to find a way to set myself apart from the millions of better people whose content I just scrolled past. Now, more transparently than ever before, teens and young adults are utilizing self-identifying labels in order to differentiate themselves from those around them. While previous eras of youth culture refused to define themselves, Gen Zers believe that individuality can be found within labels.
Online, Gen Z is entering its individuality era, but that doesn’t mean that the obsession with aesthetics and the pressure to constantly chase the next cool thing is going anywhere. In fact, eight out of 10 Zoomers asked by Day One Agency feel an increasing pressure to be “the main character” on their social profiles. Being different is just Gen Z’s newest trend, because even as we grow fatigued of the pervasive trend culture perpetuated online, we can’t seem to break free from our desire to be perceived as either subscribing to or shirking these trends. The juxtaposition between Zoomers’ actions and their feelings about their actions breeds a pattern of behavior that promotes the illusion of individuality in lieu of actual individuality. Everyone can be different in the exact same way, all you need to do is ‘invent’ a new term for literally whatever you’re doing at this moment.
But the reasoning behind Gen Z’s habit of renaming things and calling it a ‘new aesthetic’ makes sense.The inclination to register and categorize things—whether it be religious or personal identity, body type, aesthetic preference or behavioral patterns—is a natural part of life online. A census-like categorization of social factors like age, gender and sexual orientation has proliferated since the world wide web became publicly available in 1993. In order to define, search for, and then discuss online cultural phenomena, people developed definitive terms for online concepts like copypastas, photobombs, memes, trolling, and even aesthetics, which originated in the early days of social blogging platform Tumblr as a term meant to describe an overarching visual style.
I'm constantly seeing people online romanticize every aspect of their life and when my reality doesn't feel or look like the online version, I feel like I'm not living up to that same potential.- Teodora Ivanovic, D1A
The development of internet terminology is a bit like a Seinfeld skit— a scenario is observed and then given a name as part of the punchline, with the added bonus of making the concept in question easily searchable. Because Gen Zers grew up with internet-born phrases as an integrated part of their vocabulary, young people are accustomed to using clean, all-encompassing phrases to categorize otherwise elusive ideas. It’s much easier to call something a meme than it is to try to define what a meme is. It’s simply one of the ways that the internet has changed language. In true Gen Z fashion, the act of creating categorical labels has been given its own little label, “aesthetics.”
Similar to how subcultures have provided young people with a naturally formed community identifiable through a distinctive appearance in the physical world (a mohawk, for example), aesthetics generate a feeling of belonging through a shared visual identity in the digital realm, albeit without the profound substance traditionally offered by fully developed subcultures.
In a time where the majority of socialization happens online and young people feel extremely isolated, it’s only natural that young people are inclined to self-identify with easily searchable phrases in order to socialize—virtually—with like-minded people. That desire to connect with people, paired with Gen Z’s penchant for using and creating internet lingo, makes the perfect climate for aesthetics like “cottagecore” or “rat girls” to spread and trend.
Strangely, while young people are turning to social media in search of a less lonely life, they are also inundated with content that pressures them to be “the main character,” a phrase that, in essence, is meant to refer to someone who romanticizes one's life and is the center of attention, thus unique.
Grace Antino, a creative producer at D1A, explained that she believes that “we are all searching for validation online and feel defeated by the situation of the world, leading us to push this main character concept to feel better about it all and ourselves”.
Another D1A employee, Teodora Ivanovic, agrees with the sentiment, saying, “I'm constantly seeing people online romanticize every aspect of their life and when my reality doesn't feel or look like the online version, I feel like I'm not living up to that same potential.” On social media, Gen Zers cope with these contradictory desires by following the prevailing trends, which provides a sense of belonging, while calling it a new— and therefore unique—thing which, in turn, helps them feel like they are “the main character.” It’s not hard to see how this could lead to destructive thought patterns, but Gen Zers are a perceptive bunch and they see the issues associated with renaming existing interests as aesthetics and they are critical of it, even if they aren’t all that interested in overcoming the cycle.
In June, trend forecasters dubbed what they called “blueberry milk” nails as the next hottest trend, but as TikToker Mary Thompson pointed out, the manicure was nothing more than a specific shade of light blue. Gen Z TikTok creator-commentator, Caitlyn, summarized the general reaction to the trend, saying that people were fed up with the commonplace practice of repackaging existing styles as an emerging trend or aesthetic. This was by no means the first time social media had aestheticized a beauty-related trend. Before “blueberry milk” nails, shimmery nude shades were repackaged as “glazed donut” nails; unpolished nails became “naked” nails; and nude brown shades became “vanilla latte” nails. In spite of the outrage, however, a new slew of memeified identifiers, like “girl dinner,” “girl rotting,” and “red wine girl” were soon ushered into Gen Z’s lexicon. So why was “blueberry milk” treated differently? Well, it stems from the desire to be “the main character” and that aforementioned desire for community. Popular aesthetics, like the “rat girl,” are embraced because their overarching concept implies the existence of some indescribable baseline and evokes an amalgamation of different habits, ideas and aesthetic qualities.
Gen Z has learned to live a contradictory existence that, somehow, finds moments within extreme conformity to celebrate the concept of individuality and allows them to become both self-aware of the hivemind, and prisoner to it. The collective mindset of the generation is one of cognitive dissonance. And despite older generations’ confusion at Gen Z’s rush to label their habits and traits, this makes sense. The societal landscape that Gen Z has come of age in requires them to simultaneously critique the world around them and assimilate into the hyper-capitalist society they live in. Gen Zers generally have strong values related to sustainability, but are also the biggest consumers of fast fashion. They champion self-expression and personal style, but are uniquely preoccupied with trend-chasing and fitting in. They reject hustle culture, but are also increasingly pursuing and monetizing side-hustles. If there is anything truly unique about Zoomer’s behavior, it’s how the generation’s overall understanding of the world differs from the generations that came before them. Young people strive for individualism, but refuse to experience it solo—they don’t want to let go of sharing it with a community. Gen Z is, afterall, a generation characterized by their deep-seeded emotional attachment to their phones and the constant connectedness it provides. Instead, they find a sufficient sense of individuality in the sometimes overlooked characteristics and experiences that other generations don’t share. These communal behavioral patterns allow Gen Zers to view themselves and others as unique, meaningful “main characters”—even if they know that they’re all auditioning for the same part.