Why the 'clean girl' aesthetic isn’t as ‘off duty’ as it appears

<span class="caption">The issues with the 'clean girl' aesthetic </span>
The issues with the 'clean girl' aesthetic

If you’re on social media you’ll have noticed there’s a beauty trend that continues to dominate TikTok and Instagram and it goes by the hashtag #cleangirlaesthetic. With over 270 million views and counting, in short, it’s an amalgamation of fresh, dewy skin (no blemishes here, please), brushed up brows, a natural flush in the cheeks and a pillowy pout that’s either glossed or balmed. It’s no make-up make-up at its best. Or is it? Because the more it’s thrust into our algorithms, the more people are speaking up about the undercurrent of hierarchy and class privilege bubbling beneath it.

Beauty reporter, Jessica Defino recently wrote a feature on her Substack platform, The Unpublishable about how ‘the 5-minute face’ became the $5000 face. Calling out many of the influencers imposing the #cleangirlasthetic on their audience, she shone a light on how many had actually had cosmetic procedures and injectables to achieve that flawless finish. Because in reality, skincare and make-up can only do so much. Even the experts agree.

'Skincare is fantastic at preventing external damage to the skin, however even medical grade skincare has its limitations on what can be done,' explains award-winning aesthetician, Dr Ahmed El Muntasar. 'There’s definitely been a shift in why people are getting treatments and after the pandemic, more and more people are coming to the clinic asking for that ‘no make-up look’. Treatments like skin boosters which are essentially injectable skincare and Ellanse which is a great collagen stimulator are growing in popularity.'

The stats speak for themselves, too. The injectables market has previously grown at 10% a year, but now it’s predicted to boom by 14% over the next five*. The hair and beauty booking app, Pamperbook has revealed that by far the biggest proportion of beauty spending each month is on injectables and laser facials which cost in the region of £500 while Save Face – the national register of accredited practitioners who provide nonsurgical cosmetic treatments has seen a rise in young women looking for nonsurgical interventions. More research by data analytics company Kantar, has also divulged that since the pandemic, weekly usage in the UK for cosmetics has gone down nearly 50% over the past five years with 71% of women in Britain preferring to wear less make-up for a more natural look.

How ironic then, that this natural, no-make-up look actually has a lot more to it than meets the eye. In her analysis, Defino calls out how those five minute faces you see staring back at you on social have probably required hours of skin care, cosmetic procedures and plastic surgery to nail the look. 'Minimal makeup, then, is maximal everything else,' she says.

Which also brings up another uncomfortable issue. Not just that what we’re seeing is false, but that beauty has once more fallen prey to privilege. Because while some are touting these treatments as self-care, the reality is that only a small portion of the population can actually afford them. Making this very trend that seems accessible, impossibly out of reach. 'I think 10 years ago a girl could demonstrate having disposable income by having the latest Chanel or Louis Vuitton, but these days cosmetic treatments have become a symbol, even if they do look like they haven’t had any work done,' continues Dr Ahmed.

With the UK the fastest-growing market for facial filler, it’s often the middle and upper class women who have the financial freedom to indulge, however for the younger generations who are also striving to achieve this polished perfection it’s leading to a new beauty class system where the clean girl aesthetic is reserved for those with disposable income. From a safety point of view, when it comes to these treatments you get what you pay for, and the high price tags guarantee treatments performed by medically qualified experts as opposed to back alley treatments. That’s no bad thing. The concern is that those desperate to conform but that don’t have the funds will either end up with a botch job or a heap of debt.

Even the idea of ‘clean girl’ has come under scrutiny. Suggesting that those who can’t buy into the beauty ideal are somehow not worthy or poorly groomed, a recent Italian study found that attractive people are over 20% more likely to be called back for a job interview and are perceived to be more socially skilled, confident and competent. This could go some way in explaining the emergence of the ‘I’m not ugly, I’m just poor’ meme that’s gaining traction across social media alongside the no make-up mantras.

The idea of looking like a version of yourself but better (because of that minimal make-up application) further implies that women aren’t good enough the way they are, and certain flaws need to be blurred out or concealed. Of course, that’s always been the case for why some women wear make-up but the point is this trend is billed as natural, raw and effortless. Which it clearly isn’t.

Something else to consider is that even if one can afford the first treatment, the results often need to be maintained. 'Non-surgical treatments and injectables are becoming normalised to the extent that they are a regular calendar occurrence, just like a trip to the dental hygienist,' admits dermatologist, Dr Derrick Phillips. The rub is that they all require follow-ups. 'None of these treatments are one-offs and there is no quick fix to provide lasting results so you will need multiple visits to the clinic which takes a considerable financial commitment,' admits skincare expert and consultant, Fiona Brackenbury.

Proof yet again that you can’t believe everything you see on screen, there is still room for the ‘no make-up make-up’ look and the beauty of TikTok is that you can see real people aim to achieve the aesthetic from products alone. The pivotal moment, however, will be when those promoting the perfection start being more transparent and honest.

'People are definitely more open about their treatments, although it’s not often you see someone promote skincare and declare the aesthetics treatments that they’ve had and we must work harder to change this,' continues Fiona. The bottom line is that if you want a quick and convenient look in the morning, the five minute face probably isn’t going to be it.

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