- María López Penalva
Airing the 'Clean Girls' dirty laundry
María López Panalva discusses the damaging and othering implications of the recent online 'Clean Girl' trend. By outlining its historical links to classism and Whitewashing, alongside exposing an undercurrent of mental health performativism, the trend starkly resembles a modern day take of the Madonna-whore dichotomy:
Artwork by Innes Clark (IG: @Innesclark).
If you are active on TikTok, which lets be honest, if you clicked on this article you most likely are, you’ve probably seen the ‘clean girl’ aesthetic all over your For You Page. But for those who are lucky enough to not know, who are the so-called ‘clean girls’? and why does it seem like everyone is talking about them?
If you are a ‘clean girl’, your alarm goes off at 5 am and before the rest of the world has even woken up, you will have done yoga, meditated, journaled, carried out a 10 step skincare routine, drank your organic green smoothie, and maybe even gotten a workout in at the gym. Obviously you do all of this while looking flawless in your gymshark set, slicked back bun, and gold hoops. Your go to makeup is extremely natural, as if you were wearing nothing at all. You definitely follow Matilda Djerf on instagram. Oh, and you always carry a claw clip around with you.
Let us start with the name of this aesthetic. ‘Clean’ is certainly an interesting adjective to describe the concept that these girls encapsulate. Their obsession with ‘clean’ eating, with doing just the right amount of exercise necessary to curate the perfect body which they must then dress in a very specific way; a chic style which is both attractive, yet modest and dignified. The idea of being the best, most palatable version of yourself, in order to fit into the very exclusive category of ‘clean’: a pure, idyllic Madonna figure of the perfect woman.
This is not only a look (one which is reserved almost exclusively for the skinny, rich, white girlies), it is a lifestyle. One which in theory champions independence and wellness, but in reality is not only exhausting, but entirely unsustainable.
Someone check up on the clean girls because no amount of journaling and meditation can make me believe that they are emotionally stable, let alone happy.
The ‘Clean Girl’ is the Gen-Z Version of the Girlboss:
The ‘clean girl’ is not new. She might sound familiar to you, as she is almost identical to ‘that girl’; another earlier aesthetic that became viral over lockdown, or maybe it’s because of the fact that these girls are a repackaged gen-z version of the millennial girlboss. These archetypal figures almost emulate machines designed to optimise efficiency and thrive in the capitalist system whilst also epitomising increasingly insidious western beauty standards. Worse, they market their lifestyle as ideal, healthy and most dangerously, attainable.
They sell the idea that you can become better at life, through glow ups and the concept of building your own reality. They present themselves as feminist icons, the image of success as a woman and yet, they are nothing but the female version of finance bros. ‘Clean girls’ are the product of hustle culture, glorifying hyper productivity and yet, the social media aspect adds an explicit layer of performance. Through the clean girl we are able to see how women are “trapped at the intersection between capitalism and patriarchy.”
Why are we actually aiming to wake up at 5am? Why do we wear makeup while we work out? Are we actually doing all of these things for ourselves, or because it is what is expected of us? Is it inevitable that to be considered successful within this capitalist framework, we need to appeal to the male gaze?
And who is even entitled to this image of success?
The ‘clean girl’ aesthetic is inherently classist, sharing the sentiment of Kim K’s “it seems like no one wants to work these days, get the fuck off your ass and work!”, or Molly Mae’s “we all have the same 24 hours in a day.” Only, instead of hustling to be CEOs or successful lawyers, they are “hustling to be the most optimised version of themselves”. In order to become mentally healthy and happy (which will in turn make you more productive) the only thing you need to do is meditate everyday and do your skincare routine and fill in your gratitude journal and on and on it goes.
In this way, self care turns into this one-size-fits-all checklist of chores. But most working class people do not have the time to meditate for an hour, let alone being able to afford the products required for an extensive skincare routine. And, as surprising as it might seem, even if you do everything on this list, it is not guaranteed to cure your depression or grant you emotional stability. Buying the Leuchtturm 1917 or the Rose Inc. Skin Enhance Luminous Skin Tint Serum Foundation (which is 36 GBP!!) may look like a one way ticket to nirvana but… it’s not.
In this way, ‘clean girl’ exemplifies the way in which mental health has been shifting away from a clinical mindset into a performative, consumerist one. The pandemic of mental illness that has become rampant in the 21st century is thus belittled, and seen as an issue that one can buy their way out of, or ‘fake it til you make it’. This mentality only exacerbates the problem and leads to a sense of guilt, after all anyone can do these things, ‘if you wanted to you would’. (For a visual representation of what I’m trying to convey watch Kat’s storyline in 02x02 of Euphoria).
The Clean Girl and Whitewashing:
It is impossible to critique the ‘clean girl’ without talking about the way the aesthetic has appropriated black and brown fashion. Hence, the aim of this part of my article is to amplify the voices of those people of colour that are much more qualified to speak about these issues than I ever could be.
The ‘clean girl’ signature style is made up of subtle, scandinavian-inspired looks, which are elevated by gold hoops and slicked-back hair. However, haven’t those been a key part of black and brown culture since the 90s? As Kaysia Elaine explains, athletic wear, gold hoops and slick buns have been considered undesirable and ‘ghetto’ until co-opted by the overwhelmingly white ‘clean girls’. Yet, this is not the first time something like this has happened.
If we look at the forms of wellness that LA girlies and other followers of this aesthetic venerate; such as yoga or meditation, we will learn that they do not actually belong to white hippies. In fact, yoga can be traced back more than 5000 years to the Indus Sarasvati civilisation in Northern India. On the other hand, meditation as a concept has been present through multiple different cultures but its earliest mention occurs around 1500 BCE in the Vedas (a body of ancient Indian religious texts). It is not until the 20th century and the rise of a fascination (and consequent fetishisation) of Eastern practices that were viewed as ‘exotic’ that these practices have gained traction and have become extremely popular throughout the West.
In her discussion of the ‘clean girl’ aesthetic, Taylor Cassidy talks about how white people have time and time again stolen from different cultures and rebranded it as their own for their benefit (and often profit). She then goes on to say that in order for the look to become a form of appreciation, its creators and pioneers should be credited and celebrated. Hence, a much more diverse view of the ‘clean girl’ should arise, placing the people of colour who made this aesthetic possible at the forefront of its movement.
In conclusion, the ‘clean girl’ is a seemingly benign internet aesthetic, a role model that teaches young women how to be healthy both physically and mentally. However, the undercurrent of the movement is certainly a lot dirtier and requires urgent redressing. Ultimately, they embody the ideal of a white capitalist and patriarchal society, subsequently othering those who do not fit into the mold, and, ultimately categorising them as dirty in a modern take of the madonna-whore dichotomy.