Some social media trends pass by in a flash, while others prove to have entirely too much staying power. The clean girl aesthetic is one of those trends that's showing no signs of slowing down; since its emergence in early 2022, videos with the tag have over 750 million TikTok views.
It sounds innocuous enough, as if its proponents simply shower regularly. But there's much more to the clean girl aesthetic than literal cleanliness—and frankly, it's a problem for many reasons. Let's look at what exactly this trend is, and why it's harmful to so many people.
What Exactly Is the Clean Girl Aesthetic?
From head to toe, the clean girl aesthetic requires you to be at your best, without looking like you spent time getting there. Here are some of its calling cards, which make for an overall look that is known as fresh, effortless, and natural—but, in reality, is none of those things.
Slicked-back buns are nothing new. They've been popular with brown and Black women since the 1960s, and ballerinas are notorious for them. They're a key signifier of the clean girl look, often with a slight center part in front. The bun looks perfect, without a single hair out of place. An alternative to the bun is a slicked-back ponytail, often with the tail of hair braided. If hair is worn down for the clean girl look, it's always highly smooth and shiny. The glassier, the better.
"No makeup" makeup is epitomized by this trend. Clean girls (and aspiring clean girls) use makeup products that perform functions such as covering up blemishes without being obvious. Glossy lips are key, but they shouldn't be overly colored. Blush is heavily employed to give the face a rosy glow, and the brows are to be perfect. Highlighter and contour further help to achieve a glowing finish, but the goal is for them to be undetectable.
Looking polished is a key component of the clean girl aesthetic, but you shouldn't appear as if you thought too much about your outfit. A sense of effortlessness is crucial: Think well-fitting basics like black or white t-shirts and tank tops, boyfriend-cut blue jeans, white button-up shirts, black oversize blazers, and nude or neutral color slip dresses. The look is preppy, but not stuffy; stylish, but understated; and simultaneously modern and classic. Think off-duty model.
The clean girl aesthetic goes beyond one's own body, encompassing what a woman does and how she lives on the daily. In the morning matcha lattes are more clean girl than coffee, but an Instagram-worthy afternoon iced coffee is acceptable, too. Smoothies should be sipped regularly, as should green juice. Minimalist decor is the choice for a clean girl's home, because, let's face it, that works best for photos.
Why The Clean Girl Aesthetic Is Problematic
As you may have begun to suspect, this trend is unattainable for most people. Let's break down all the ways its problematic.
Clean is the opposite of dirty. You'll notice quickly looking at #cleangirl posts that everything about this look is sparkly clean, and dirt is avoided at all costs—which is something that is only possible on the regular for someone who doesn't have to do much with their life. Spend any time at all on public transit, in a job that requires physical strain, caring for a child, or even walking in public, and the look is out the window.
Additionally, this look is pricy. The brands favored for the clean girl's makeup, clothes, and decor are all high-end and expensive. The trend posits a lifestyle in which you don't get dirty, and that isn't realistic for anyone who isn't quite wealthy.
In scrolling through the #cleangirl posts, you're immediately struck by how thin everyone ascribing to the trend is. Fatness is judgmentally considered unclean by many people in western culture, and that prejudice holds true in the trend. In fact, a Google search for "clean girl fat" or "clean fat girl" yields absolutely nothing relevant. This trend is all about shoulder bones, collar bones, and hip bones. If yours aren't visible, you're seen as less than. And that, of course, is not ok.
While there are some POC clean girl ambassadors like Selena Gomez and Zoe Kravitz, clean girls of color are few and far between. Social media has accepted that clean girls are generally white: A Twitter post entitled "'Clean Girl' aesthetic but make it black" published in May received over 90,000 likes, which exemplifies the fact that Blackness is not inherently accepted as part of the look. That's despite the fact that clean girl elements like buns and gold hoop earrings were popularized by Black and Latina women decades ago. The most prominent "clean girls," famous and non-famous alike, are white.
Clean girls are young women, with the trend seemingly appealing most to the 25-and-under crowd. The idea is to look fresh-faced and youthful, as if life hasn't had its way with you yet. Our society already has a major issue with undervaluing older women, and trends like this compound that problem. By placing an even larger emphasis on youthful attributes that are impossible to keep as we age, the clean girl aesthetic further amplifies the message that aging is undesirable, or even dirty.
It's Unattainable for Most
Beyond being classist, racist, ageist, and fatphobic, the clean girl aesthetic simply isn't viable for the average person. The makeup involves not having freckles or acne; your hair needs to be loosely textured or your bun or slicked back ponytail will develop frizz; your clothes should be free of wrinkles and appear just washed; green bowls and smoothies hold more cultural value than a burger or a sandwich. And while conforming to all of those standards, you need to appear as if the effort to do so took you no time at all. For anyone with a job or a child—or heaven forbid in relation to this trend, both—that kind of time in one's day doesn't exist.
The clean girl aesthetic may appear harmless at first glance, featuring young women with glossy hair and skin who look like off-duty models. But it worsens the already too prevalent problems in our culture of not valuing women of color, those who earn lower wages, and anyone else who doesn't have the look of a skinny, white, unblemished ingenue.