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.