- Alisha Grech
The Cult of the Clean Girl
I'm back on my bullshit (which sounds more impressive than what really goes on behind the scenes: picture me doubled over my laptop like Gollum, furiously and frantically typing away).
This week's blog post is brought to you by my insecurities, way too much Starbucks Iced Coffee and my scrappy caffeine-addled brain.
Last week (to quote a human from my DM's) I "crucified" bimbo and dissociative feminist subcultures. But don't worry, I don't hold grudges. Nor am I using this blog to bash how people dress or express themselves. I believe that clothing, hair and the choice to wear or not wear makeup are fundamentally tied to the way we want/or do feel about ourselves.
I do, however, want to be critical and push others toward thinking critically about the meaning behind these expressive choices, subcultures and for lack of a better word "trends" as many of them heavily relate to not only capitalist but also sometimes white, sometimes ableist, sometimes heteronormative, sometimes fatphobic, sometimes transphobic foundations.
DING DING DING
Will the next aesthetic subculture please stand up?
Yes you, at the front.
Miss Clean Girl, please stand up.
The "clean" girl - a trend that we know all too well, and one that has existed long before we actually had a name for it. She is found on the faces of supermodels, in the idealistic lives of socialites and on the profiles of countless influencers and TikTokers.
Her hair is always perfectly parted down the middle and slicked to perfection into a bun or claw clip (no not the kind you would purchase at dollarama). She layers on gold jewellery effortlessly, onto supremely moisturized, scarless skin. Her nails are always done (professionally and tastefully - never with bright or shocking colours - think taupe people). Her outfits are always coordinated. Most importantly, the clean girl is most definitely thin.
Although, "the 'clean girl' is more than just a look, though. She’s got her life together – the aesthetic also involves having a tidy living space, staying active and eating healthily" (Emilie Eisenberg, The Tab). On TikTok, you can scroll for hours, through countless videos of women performing effortless, off-duty model like archetypes.
The clean girl is an abandonment of anything that is "bad" for you. No more greasy hair, or skin. No more cracked lips or blemishes. The trend (on Tiktok) began with Eva Rankin who posted a "clean" makeup tutorial that now sits at well over 10 million views. Although, this trend does not begin and end with outfits and makeup. Similarly to many other (let's call them) "femme-subcultures" the clean girl is a lifestyle.
Beyond the (most of the time devastatingly expensive and complicated) hair, skincare and makeup routines, the clean girl preaches living a life that reminiscent of the girlboss or hustle culture. Up at the crack of dawn for a pilates class before heading to work at a corporate office or creative studio, while also making an organic and clean lunch somewhere in between and coming home at the end of the day to an impeccably minimalist and organized home.
Is anyone else feeling dizzy or stressed?
Should I pour another coffee?
You might be wondering, what the hell is the problem with this? Alisha, come on, leave it alone.
I can't leave anything alone. We know this.
The clean girl, just like the dissociative feminist and the bimbo feminist trend, is problematic. I would love to sit all three of them in a room and see what happens. (We all know the dissociative feminist would probably hate the clean girl).
"The clean look is now stationed at the pristine white apartments of Hailey Bieber, Bella Hadid, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Laura Harrier and Zendaya. All queens, not gonna lie. But there’s a fine line between minimalism and perfection—the blurring of which fosters a breeding ground for more toxic ideals to come" Emilie Eisenberg, The Tab
Personally, I see the Clean Girl as a repeat of the Girlboss trend and so many other feminine trends that have come before it (looking at you early 2000s bleach blonde, tan and impossibly thin girl). It is another way for us (humans) to fetishize the perfect, the unobtainable, and wealthy lifestyles that are jammed down our throats. We think we need the matching workout gear, the curtain bangs, and a blowdryer that costs 500 dollars (which I'm not gonna lie, is a beautiful blowdryer). The Clean Girl is about purchasing the best in order to look the best. It's about fashioning oneself after Matilda Djerf and buying a blazer for 200 dollars. It's about being fulfilled with having clear skin, being thin and being perfect.
The Clean Girl trend brings out the fears of a little girl who is built like so many other Maltese women. A little girl who is now a woman in her mid-twenties who still can't have a thigh gap, no matter how many pilates classes she tries to attend. A woman who is sick of being told that they don't carry her size in stores that so obviously cater to the thin Clean Girl (here's looking at you Aritzia) as they did the mid-2000s mean girls before them.
The Clean Girl is a "symptom of the same problem - which is society's unrealistic expectations on women - that women can have it all and should have it all" (Renegade Podcast, The Problem with TikTok's 'Clean Girl' Aesthetic). This trend, fundamentally, serves as another reminder that Pretty™ and Clean™ don't have a space in queer spaces, in BIPOC spaces (aside from a few key creators on TikTok - lemme know if you want their info), in body inclusive spaces, in low-income spaces, in disabled spaces and in trans spaces.
The Clean Girl is at her core, white, privileged and thin.
And fuck, she looks great in beige.
Because, after all, the ability to chase what you want, to "have it all" is only available to a very specific group of people. These people don't necessarily have to bust their ass at four different jobs, pay off student loans or figure out the complicated nature of CERB, or even scrape by to afford a home one day (let's face it one day is in a million years).
"Having it all means that you basically have the time, the money, the energy, the health and the ambition and the opportunity to do things like getting educated, building a successful career, meeting a partner, starting a family, staying in shape, eating well, getting enough sleep, spending time with your friends all while putting on a full face of makeup" (Renegade Podcast, The Problem with TikTok's 'Clean Girl' Aesthetic).
Who the hell has time for all of that? How do you fit all of that into one day, one month or one life? I'm not asking to be an ass, I genuinely want to know how you do this without burning yourself out in a heap of linen and freshly pressed trousers.
Aside from the expectations that hang over the head of every Clean Girl, the name of the trend itself is perhaps, the most harmful. Associating the aesthetics of privilege, of being thin and predominantly white or white-passing, directly implies that anything that does not fall into those categories is dirty. Meaning, that those who exist outside of this performance of toxic femininity are dirty, wrong, or have less value than those who are viewed as clean, and perfect. Boundaries are ultimately created through this duality - a wall that is put up between those women that are deemed to be clean and those who are dirty or perhaps even cheap.
This division is one that is as old as Colonialism and Misogyny. That, a woman's value and place in the world are determined by how she performs and adheres to set standards of whiteness and femininity (as prescribed by white men of power) - two things that are inexplicably linked.
To be seen as soft and clean is to (whether we admit it or not) aspire to whiteness.
And if you're dirty? Well then. The Clean Girl shows you the door.