The Clean Girl Aesthetic: The Cost of Looking Like You Didn’t Try

Every single day  before secondary school (high school) I would apply a layer of dream matte mousse on my face. I vividly remember the day I went to school makeup free and was frequently asked if I was sick. Solidifying the idea that I looked better with it than without. 

While today we might look back and laugh at the bad makeup trends common to the end of  2000’s and early 2010’s; it was the epitome of a time before youtube tutorials when all of our beauty advice came from teen magazines. I would argue that today having adequate makeup is a requirement to present femininely. It is rare to see someone with “bad makeup”, rather critique comes from an individual not keeping up with contemporary makeup trends. For example, the recent hate towards people who continue to heavily fill in their eyebrows in the 2015 style of “square brows”, or the dislike of “heavy glam” makeup against the current “clean girl” aesthetic.  The new trend of “no makeup-make up” might appear to be a move in the direction towards embracing your own skin. The clean girl makeup still requires a lot of products, and is focused on having perfect skin. This perfect skin is achieved by 10 step skin care routines. There are always more products to buy, more steps to the routine, new makeup styles to follow, more, more, more… Now we are expected to look perfect as if we haven’t tried at all. Is this empowerment? Or just commercialisation hidden under the guise of “freedom”. 

Apart from the makeup and skincare associated with the clean girl trend, there are hidden costs associated with achieving it. The less foundation one wears, the harder it is to hide the imperfections. Thus to look makeup free can require one to turn to expensive medications (accutane to achieve spot free skin) and laser treatments (to face scares)  to achieve naturally clear skin. Looking youthful appears to be another key element of the trend, and thus we have the rise of baby botox. Young people in the early twenties are already engaging in the practice to prevent emerging wrinkles and lines on their faces. 

The cost and effort associated with the 2010’s heavy made up makeup was, in some ways, visible. You could see the long process of acquiring the intricate eyeshadow looks on instagram or youtube; the time and effort was clearly evident. The clean girl aesthetic looks effortless. Therefore, the time and effort are hidden. 

The clean girl aesthetic is of course much more than just makeup. TikToks promoting this “lifestyle” also involves waking up early, eating fresh and organic fruit and vegetables, and doing pilates. This is incredibly time intensive, and is not financially accessible to everyone. Being able to achieve the clean girl aesthetic requires time and economic capital. The outcome of which gives an individual another form of capital: “beauty capital”. 

The expectations on feminine presenting people are higher than ever. The range of products and treatments once only available to the rich and famous are now pushed towards the everyday person through marketing on the internet. Many are available through pay-in-four payment schemes, which are facing criticism in their own right with people facing mounting debts after frequent use of the payback programme). However, it must also be stated that these treatments are not a one off event and require constant upkeep to maintain the perfect look. 

Some of the arguments outlined here could be framed against many of the new aesthetics emerging in the 2020’s. However, the difference with the clean girl look has the appearance of being “easy” and achievable, and it is not. The following costs are in Australian dollars.  The Cerave products were viral in 2021 for being both effective and inexpensive (retailing around A$20). However skincare prices can rise to extraordinary heights. Skin laser treatments, in Australia, start at A$100 and “for best results” 6 treatments are recommended.  The lowest dose of Isotretinoin (brand name Accutane) costs A$45 per month (from an online Australian pharmacy). The largest dose costs A$175 a month… I’ve heard anecdotal stories of brides, without acne or serious skin problems, going on accutane before their wedding to prevent having a pimple on their big day. Here, we can see how the cost of looking naturally perfect begins to take shape. 

An Attic Under Attack

Our bungalow sat neatly between two houses. My father, a painter by trade, bought the house in the late 1980’s; it featured daring fire red bricks. 

One summer afternoon, we rested at the kitchen table in silence after enjoying an early dinner. 

“Can you hear that?” my father asked, “that low buzzing?” he continued. 

I thought he was winding me up, and I was waiting to hear the punchline. Then I heard it loud and clear above my head. 

“Oh! I can hear it, it’s coming from the attic!” 

My father took one of his large ladders from his van, and proceeded to climb into the dark attic space. 

“I can see them. I think it’s bees, or worse, wasps,” he said. “They’re gathering at the gable end.” 

I waited anxiously holding the end of the ladder. He descended, and I followed him outside to investigate. We looked up at where the wall met the roof. There was a flurry of yellow and black flying critters buzzing loudly. 

“I think they are wasps,” my father announced upon inspection. “And, according to the google,” the site to beat it all, “we need to block their entry points.”

From the shed he unearthed a collection of long sticks and old sheets and duvet covers. Stacking them up along the facet and soffit, he smiled at me with excitement. Although I never met my grandfather, his ingenuity was always described to me with a sense of humour. In this instance, we were both reminded of him. I returned my father’s smile.

As the house slowly began to look like a pretend ghost. But it was unsuccessful. The next day, we tried to hose them down with the power house. 

My father braced himself by wearing a blue face mask, his bucket hat covered with paint, and a pair of waders purchased from the middle aisle of Aldi. 

“I feel like an action hero,” he said as he aimed at each and every wasp that came within a foot of him. 

Despite the fun, it was another day of no luck, the wasp colony had grown. I checked my phone for another answer. 

“Apparently, we can set up traps,” I told him.

“Of what?”

“A mixture of just sugar and water!” 

A simple solution that soon produced great results. 

“248 wasps so far!” 

“Just because of the sugar?” I asked. 

My father nodded with confidence.

Each day that passed he updated me on the number, “568 today!” His delight was palpable as the numbers quickly dwindled. Unfortunately the more wasps he caught, the more wasps that arrived. The smart little buggers emit a chemical to alert their friends. The attic remained under attack until a professional was called. 

Despite our failures, I revelled in the pleasure of the past couple of days. I knew that this was a memory I would, in the future, recant to my children. 

Gender and hobbies: What value do we, and society, place on how we spend our free time?

When I met my now fiance, his passions for music intrigued me. I had attempted to learn a couple of instruments in my youth but none of them stuck so to speak. This despite  music being one of the greatest joys in my life. This man could play any instrument, guitar, bass, drums, and even the ocarina. I can sing, I guess, but I don’t like to. In the early days, I loved to watch him play guitar. I would close my eyes and listen. Today, we have an almost full drum kit in our two bedroom apartment, an electric guitar and an acoustic one. (We did have a borrowed bass for a period of time as well.) I do have to admit that the drums irritate me, only in their loudness and our proximity to others around us. But apart from that I enjoy him playing his instruments. I love that he is musical. It’s attractive. 

A couple of days ago I gushed about a new skincare product I was using: a lactic acid from Sunday Riley. I received it in a goodie bag from my Vogue Australia magazine subscription. My fiance was flabbergasted by the cost, $128. I consider skincare to be one of my hobbies. At a young age I watched my mother apply various lotions and potions and witness the joy they brought her. At 65 she is frequently told she looks at least ten years younger. Her skin is soft and supple with few wrinkles. When I was 13 she gifted me a Clinique gift set containing a cleanser, toner and moisturiser. 14 years later, I can vividly see the clear hard plastic bag that it came in in my mind’s eye. It was purchased at the duty free section of the airport before our journey to Turkey for a week. This was mere weeks before I was due to begin secondary school, the fancy skincare made me feel like a “real” teenager. 

This is a tradition, perhaps that’s the correct word, passed down from my grandmother who died before I turned one. My mother lovingly spoke of how every Christmas my grandmother would ask for a “good’ (code for expensive) moisturiser for a present. Dressing well and looking good was important for her as she faced the public behind the country pub her and my grandfather owned. 

I cannot say for certain what my skin would look like if I never had a skincare routine. Or to what extent genetics plays in how I will age, or how well both my mother and grandmother did. But I have great skin despite smoking for over ten years (quitting has improved the overall pallor of my skin tone) and drinking heavily in my teens and twenties, both of which contribute significantly to the ageing process. 

My mother often jokes that she can no longer stop using one cream or the other for fear the scaffolding will all fall down. We continue this tradition she began as we talk at lengths on the phone about the products we are using. I update her on the latest trends I have seen on tiktok. She sends me my favourite eye cream (Chanel’s Hydra Beauty Micro Gel Yeux), that retails in Australia for $100, as a special treat I am ecstatic!  As an aside, it is the only eye cream I have used that I’ve witnessed a noticeable difference while using. Each year I buy her a huge Soap and Glory Christmas gift set. It is so ingrained that the one year I did not get her one she was hugely disappointed. 

As a student it’s difficult to budget these creams but I think of them as an investment. Not only as an investment into my skin but into myself. Once during a therapy session my counsellor described my devotion to skin as a hobby, something I had not totally considered before. He described the twice daily dedicated time I set aside for me as a form of self care. I start and end my day with my skincare routine. 

A hobby is a regular activity done for enjoyment or pleasure. It is hurtful when my fiancé ridicules a pastime I have spent more than half my life engaging with. Something I would never dare do to him and his music. He often jokes that the cost of my skincare is the reason he should be in charge of our finances. He does not see the value in it. 

When we first met my fiancé he was enamoured by my skin, how soft it was, how unmarred by pimples, and how good I smelled generally (I include body scrubs and body lotion as a part of my skincare routine.) This was attractive to him in much the same way music was to me. 

My finance believes my hobby is in deep contrast with my political leaning as “an active consumer in capitalist society”. Am I simply materialistic? I believe that the idea of “being a materialistic person” is far more nuanced. The rise of the Marie Kondo lifestyle, and minimalism more broadly, has led people to focus on the greater meanings of life. It also insinuates that materialist values rob us of joy. But there is value in the material. There is value in “our stuff” that should not be demonised. It brings joy. Partaking each and every day in my skincare routine brings me joy.  I fear that this demonisation extends more broadly to items that are categorised as more feminine.  

I have recently realised the extent to which hobbies are gendered. Not in the way that men engage with certain types of hobbies and women with others, but the perceived value of that hobby. 

To be over simplistic for a moment, hobbies associated with embodying a masculine energy often fall into certain categories. A google search for “hobbies for men” are focused on the physical: Sports (soccer, boxing, martial arts), hiking, or typically traditional feminine household jobs: cooking, gardening, baking, to name but a few. Of course there are numerous other hobbies: photography, music, and reading, 

There has been a number of recent TikToks regarding the societal perception of sports fans versus Kpop fans. In these videos, the creators point to the glaring misogyny of how both fans are described. The typically feminine fan bases of kpop are described as obsessive while the sports fans are described as passionate. It is obscene to spend thousands of dollars to visit their favourite music group in another country yet it is acceptable for a soccer fan to spend similar to see the world cup. Both groups of fans share many similarities: having a favourite group or team, a favourite member or player, and spending money on merchandise or jerseys, becoming excited during a concert or game, and then becoming incredibly upset if a member leaves or a team loses. It can even be argued that the latter has wider societal implications as sports fans have been known to riot after games which impacts the area hosting the event. Feminine associated hobbies, or hobbies that mostly women participate in,  are deemed as frivolous, obsessive, and not of value. 

During the p-word (pandemic) many people tried to take up new and exciting hobbies to fill the extra hours they found in their days, especially ones that could be conducted at home. Many of which I am sure have fallen by the wayside. However, during this time  I became more invested in the hobbies I already had, skincare. I went down rabbit holes of youtube videos and TikToks. I bought the latest trending products. It filled my time but it also allowed me to truly test the products I was using. I tailored my routine into what worked but also what I could manage (the 10 step routines look great but sometimes would not fit into my day). These “materialistic” items and routines brought me joy and gave me a sense of purpose that continues out of lockdown. Hobbies are supposed to bring pleasure to a person’s life no matter how “frivolous” society deems them to be. Of course, there are other arguments to be made around the sourcing of these products, and the subsequent environmental and ethical demands. However I rarely see arguments against sports or music being made under the same constraints. 

Gender can be performative. To be a woman is to adhere to, and strive towards, conventional standards of beauty. I have been, and still am, continuously constrained by looking good to meet what I deem perfect. In this essay, I am speaking to both looking younger and being without spots. (Two of the huge marketing aspects of skincare). I am aware I am engaging with a hobby I like that has been pushed onto me through the media I consume. A point that my fiancé frequently makes. It is a paradox I struggle with. Yet, as I began to describe earlier in this piece, he enjoys how I look and how I present myself. On our first meeting my skin was clear, my makeup delicately applied, and my bleached blonde hair curled and hairspray-ed. Isn’t it ironic that the patriarchy that wants feminine presenting people to be perfect, beautiful, beings, then laughs when they try to do so.