The Pursuit of the Perfect Aesthetic: Are We All Obsessed?


"Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)"

Walt Whitman

Someone recently asked how I define my ‘aesthetic,’ and to be honest, I was stumped. This question made me consider how I am perceived, and the way I perceive others. My own perceptions of my aesthetic might be entirely different than the way others regard me. So, of course, I did some digging. I landed on this: Aesthetics are fluid and always evolving—they can be seen as phases a person may go through, or stick to. We’ve watched our favorite celebrities go through a variety of aesthetics (or eras, if you will) just as we’ve done. There is a myriad of aesthetics currently taking over TikTok and Instagram, and people are obsessed. While TikTok only exacerbates the desire to find the ‘perfect’ aesthetic, whatever that may look like to you, one thing is certain: we are all trying to find our ‘perfect’ somehow—even if we don’t realize it. Aesthetics are just another way for humans to fit in, and, at the end of the day, we all want to, even when it seems like we don’t.

The Clean Girl

'Clean girl' outfit, hair, nails, bedroom, image courtesy of Barney Originals

Someone recently told me my pearly white nails were very “clean girl.” So, I looked it up. While I had seen this aesthetic on my social media, I had never named it before—nor thought I might be embodying this aesthetic through the color of my fingernails.


The clean girl aesthetic embodies a minimalist, pristine approach to fashion, beauty, and overall lifestyle. The clean girl aesthetic is “achieved” through makeup by using a more natural, minimalistic makeup look. The ‘clean girl’ prioritizes self-care (face masks, manicures, working out), mindfulness, and a balanced lifestyle. While the ‘clean girl’ aesthetic sounds great in theory, the pressure to be polished leaves no room for pimples, bloating, stretch marks, taking a rest day, having a messy house, and just being human. The clean girl aesthetic demands a style that is largely unattainable to have all the time.

Cottage Core

When I hear ‘cottage core,’ I think fairies, moss green, and Taylor Swift’s album Folklore. With an enchanting spin on the simplicity and beauty of rural living, the ‘cottage core’ aesthetic offers an array of cozy, simple decor and sparkly make-up trends that are a favorite of mine. While I do not necessarily consider myself subscribing to the ‘cottage core’ aesthetic, I love the various ways it invites us to escape the noise and chaos of city living and embrace the beauties of what a more  ‘cottage life’ may be like.


In the past century, as rural living gradually became less common, numerous artists captured the essence of the ‘cottage core aesthetic.’  Take American Gothic by Grant Wood as a prime example. The world swooned over its simplistic, ‘cottage core’ essence. However, one thing American Gothic and social media representations of cottage core fail to reveal is that farm living is a messy, physically taxing lifestyle. Nowhere online or in farmland landscapes does cottage core reveal the stench of horse manure and chaos of chicken slaughterings.

American Gothic, Grant Wood
American Gothic, Grant Wood image courtesy of Google Art Project

And really, if we continue to remove our rose colored lenses, the truth is, cottage core prioritizes a Euro-centric, white-washed depiction of farmland living. One New York Times article titled “Cottage Core, a beautiful aesthetic with issues to address” states, “A quick search of cottagecore shows mostly similar images: white women in impractical dresses standing in fields. There is a lack of visible people of color, along with a lack of discussion around the implications of land ownership. The few POC creators that embrace the trend are buried under the Eurocentric images that social media tends to favor due to biased censorship. The line between reclaiming countryside life and a history of racism, sexism, and colonialism is at times uncomfortably thin.” Just as a clean girl, cottage core is guilty of ignoring important issues that exist within this beautiful, yet complex aesthetic.

Light & Dark Academia

‘Light and dark academia’ aesthetics describe a romanticized, smart-looking portrayal of neutral colors, modernism, and a sense of nostalgia. While both ‘academias’ embody a minimalistic, chic style, light academia is soft, light, and cozy while dark academia is more serious, pensive, and multi-layered.

It is interesting how the way we dress truly changes the way we are perceived. I’ve heard people say they want glasses so they “look smart.” Light and dark academia embody this concept,—dress smart, appear smart.


Film, literature, and art grasp onto the ‘academic aesthetic’ time and time again. Perhaps one may think of Raphael’s School of Athens as the founding member of academic portrayals. One iconic present-day depiction of academia is seen in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, which embodies light and dark academia through their complex characters and memorable fashion takes.

Dark Academia example
Image courtesy of New York Times


While the realm of ‘goth’ is rather large, you might first think of goth as painted black fingernails, all-black clothing, piercings, and black hair. In reality, interpretations of the ‘goth’ aesthetic have significantly shifted throughout history and into the present day. While the term was first used to describe barbaric behavior in the 15th century, it has since transformed to hold entirely new meanings today.


‘Goth,’ rooted in a rejection of mainstream societal norms, encourages unique self-expression, including the exploration of the dark aspects of humanity. For centuries, artists have explored darkness and eerie  ideologies. Francisco Goya specifically specialized in exploring dark concepts and ideas through his work—perhaps he would have found solidarity with the goth community.

Goth example courtesy of VICE
Coastal grandmother aesthetic
Coastal grandmother aesthetic courtesy of What To Wear Collective


The ‘coastal’ aesthetic captures the essence of oceanside living. With gorgeous sea tones (blues and sandy whites), seaside landscapes, and natural elements often found in coastal regions, the seaside aesthetic is a favorite for those who love the ocean and want to take a piece of it with them wherever they go. The ‘coastal’ aesthetic grabs hold of a relaxed seaside atmosphere, a connection to nature, and the sense of freedom the ocean seems to embody.


Humans are fascinated by the ocean, and the ‘coastal’ aesthetic proves it. Artists seem to be drawn to the ocean. Countless seascape and seashore landscapes fill galleries and exhibitions—each one slightly different from the next.


And while the ocean itself is a free activity, achieving the coastal vibe can get expensive. Beach towns are pricey and having a second home on the ocean is reserved for a small percentage of wealthy people. Because of this, people may gravitate toward buying smaller items to embody the ocean. A common ‘coastal’ aesthetic in fashion and the beauty industry can be found in luxury perfumes. Dior has their ocean breeze-inspired Sauvage Eau de Toilette and just about every Ralph Lauren ad is reminiscent of coastal life, but they certainly come with a hefty price tag.

Nineties Skate

Nineties Skate
Image courtesy of New York Times

The skate scene has inspired a subculture called the ‘nineties skate’ aesthetic. And wow, are the nineties back! Take a look at any local skatepark and you’ll find baggy tee shirts paired with baggy jeans—no matter the temperature.


The ‘nineties skate’ aesthetic is characterized by its mix of pop culture references and more specifically its nineties skate subculture references. From grunge-inspired flannels to baggy jeans as seen in hip hop, the nineties skate aesthetic is back and making its way out of skate parks and into mainstream settings.


Today, the nineties skate aesthetic is commonly seen in pop culture. Skate fashion trends are a large part of skateboarding and the extensive culture that lives within it. These days, the skater aesthetic is so common, it is hard to differentiate someone who is wearing it as a fashion choice to someone that can actually land a kick-flip. When the skater fashion is taken out of the context of skateparks, the culture seems to be taken with it.


Vintage film photographs
Image courtesy of Esquire

Speaking of bringing the nineties back, ‘vintage’ aesthetics are so “in” right now. There is something so alluring about bringing old fashion trends into a modern, current-day context. The recycling of vintage fashion celebrates the history and previous fashion trends and creates new fashion trends by incorporating pieces of the past with new fashion developments.  From flapper dresses to bell-bottom jeans, the ‘vintage’ aesthetic offers a sense of refined sophistication and an appreciation for the past in exciting new ways.

Which Aesthetic Are You?

In the end, I couldn’t settle on one aesthetic that accurately represents my complexities—I tend to mix a few different styles to create my own. I believe these sentiments are commonly held—we are all too intricate and contradictory to be neatly sorted into one box.  If you are curious about naming your own aesthetic (of course, take this with a grain of salt), take this What’s Your Aesthetic Buzzfeed quiz.


Styles or ‘aesthetics’ provide us with distinct visual means to communicate identities, interests, values, and places in the world. More than anything, aesthetics should be more of a fun way to express visual tastes, culture, fashion, and art rather than a way to add societal pressure to achieve ‘the perfect aesthetic,’ which, in my opinion, does not exist.

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