The Agony of Aesthetics

October 28, 2022

Graphic by Ava Jiang

I’ve spent all my life trying to cram myself into boxes I just can’t fit into.

From the moment I wake up, the first thing on my mind is catching up on what I missed while I was sleeping. Before getting out of bed, I immediately reach for my phone and begin endlessly scrolling through my Instagram feed. I’m never concerned about the notifications that I missed overnight or the new texts that I may have received; instead, I always seem to find myself scrolling through the explore page, looking for inspiration in the new “fashion” and “aesthetic” posts that Instagram has generated for me. Then, I may go on Pinterest or Tiktok for a while, looking at more of the same trends that have seemingly become popular overnight. No matter what I end up scrolling through, it always consumes my attention completely. In my mind, if I’m not “in the know,” then I’m left out — and if I’m left out, I’m left behind.

Lately though, my habit of scrolling through my phone as soon as I wake up has become less of a “me time” habit and more of a stressful way for me to feed an even longer-term addiction. It wouldn’t be such a big deal except that what I see on my phone always sets my mood for the entire day. After I drag myself out of bed, I make my way to the bathroom, brush my teeth, wash my face, and immediately try to emulate the effortlessly beautiful makeup tutorials scattered throughout my Pinterest boards. From the “indie grunge” aesthetic to the “no-makeup makeup” look, I have nearly perfected the art of being able to copy exactly what I see on my screen onto my own face. And it’s not just my morning routine that’s affected — everything I do, everything I say, and everything I wear has to be perfectly aligned with my current aesthetic.

Most people spend their lives trying to find ways to stand out from the crowd. But for me, everything boils down to fitting in.

It should come as no surprise, because this habit of mine is nothing new. I’ve always been one to take inspiration from others — celebrities in particular. Growing up as an only child, I didn’t have any older siblings to look up to or imitate, so I took inspiration from the TV shows I watched and all the models I saw in magazines. I spent countless hours watching “Vogue Beauty Secrets” on Youtube, taking mental notes on how to apply the exact same steps I saw in the videos to my own morning routine. I was constantly watching YouTubers like Emma Chamberlain and studying everything from their “What I Eat in a Day” videos to their millions of accessory and clothing hauls. The whole reason I signed up for a one-week intensive dance course in the summer after sixth grade was because I wanted to be more like the “Dance Moms” girls I saw on TV. Of course, to some extent, every little girl aspires to be like their teenage role models. But for me, it was different. I was obsessed with keeping up with all the latest trends, thinking that if I could mold myself into some sort of “aesthetic ideal,” all of my problems would disappear. And maybe I could be admired as much as I admired the actresses and models I was taking inspiration from.

But amidst all the Bella Hadid street-style inspiration posts and the “clean girl aesthetic” self-care routines, it was hard to keep up with everything being thrown my way. And with the constant bombardment of new micro-trends and aesthetics blasting through my phone screen, it eventually became difficult to determine which of my new ideas were my own and which were copied from the millions of posts I saw online.

I’ve always found it ironic how social media apps like Instagram and Pinterest claim to promote self-expression and connectivity, but end up advertising the complete opposite. Something these social media apps all have in common is that they’re very fond of categorizing people and putting them into boxes — tight, rigid boxes that they just can’t seem to escape from. These “boxes” (or aesthetics, as most people call them) are nothing more than a set of impossible standards grouped together to form an unreachable ideal or lifestyle that everyone should strive to imitate. Except, in my experience, you can’t imitate them. It’s simply impossible. No matter how many times I curled my hair to look like an early 2000s-era Britney Spears or rolled out my face in hopes of getting a sculpted jawline like Bella Hadid, I never felt like I belonged in any of the boxes that I was trying to jam myself into. And I still feel that way. But that doesn’t stop me from trying.

Sometimes I like to imagine that I’m in a room full of mirrors, and every mirror I see represents a different version of myself, a different aesthetic that I’ve tried to live up to. There’s the sporty girl, the indie sleaze teen, the “Blair Waldorf” type-A kind of student, the Y2K icon — essentially, every aesthetic you can think of. But as I look around the room, staring at all the different aesthetics I’ve tried endlessly to uphold, I can barely recognize myself in any of the reflections staring back at me.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve tried everything I could to break my unfortunate habit. I’ve left my phone on the other side of the room while sleeping, journaled my thoughts, and even left little notes for myself. But nothing has seemed to work. No matter how hard I try, I simply can’t seem to pull myself together.

But, in my mind, that’s a start.

The more I reflect on my experiences, the more I realize that my whole life has been one big race to pull myself together. My obsession with making my life feel organized has led me to hold myself to impossible standards — standards that I’m tired of trying to live up to. But if there’s anything in my life that can count as evidence of my progress away from perfectionism, it’s the fact that I’ve never been successful at upholding any of the aesthetics that I’ve tried to force myself into. I always try my best, but despite my efforts, I never reach the perfectionist ideal that I have envisioned for myself. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe, just maybe, it’s a sign that my own personality is still somewhere deep inside me, buried underneath all the aesthetic routines and fast-moving micro-trends that I’ve tried my best to cover it with.

One day, maybe I’ll be able to wake up and not scroll through my phone for at least thirty minutes before I get out of bed. One day, maybe I won’t feel the need to hold myself to impossible standards just to keep up with the latest aesthetic posts that make their way onto my Instagram feed. And one day, maybe I’ll actually be able to see my own reflection in that room full of mirrors that keeps making its way into my imagination.

But until then, small amounts of progress will have to suffice. ■

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