Aesthetics & Racism: A Deep Dive Into #Naarmcore and #CleanGirl


Originally Published in Farrago Edition Six (2022). 

Content Warning: references to racism, colonialism, colourism

You might've seen them around. Trudging down Smith Street in cargo pants and Salomons, these oat-latte-drinking and streetwear-repping white settler folk are the archetypal 86 tram line commuters. And you might've even heard that they've come up with a typically virtue-signalling name for their carefully cultivated aesthetic: #Naarmcore.

#Naarmcore is a TikTok aesthetic at the centre of critique from Indigenous communities, particularly those of the Kulin Nation. Naarm, also spelt Nairm or Narrm, is a traditional place name used by the Woiwurrung and Boonwurrung language groups to describe the Melbourne CBD or Port Phillip Bay area, respectively. In a recent statement, Victorian Aboriginal-led fashion label Clothing The Gaps said, "Using Aboriginal language to fit a trending aesthetic dismisses the 65,000 years history and depth of Aboriginal cultures, languages and practices." #Naarmcore appropriates Indigenous language as a virtue signal that centres white people. Z Du Ressac, a University of Melbourne student from Wakka Wakka Country, says it exemplifies how Indigenous language is "just taken away by white people, who frolic about with our titles". Being a white settler, the impact of #Naarmcore travels beyond my lived experience, vet the discussion around it has made me reflect on how careless virtue-signalling can cause harm #Naarmcore has now morphed into a meme used by settler folk online as a form of self-irony, but also to make fun of participants of the aesthetic. When settler folk make #Naarmcore jokes, it represents an established pattern of using Aboriginal culture as a punchline. Z says, "I refused to identify as Aboriginal for a large part of my life, because I was embarrassed. Because people make fun of us, all the time I was embarrassed to dance, I was embarrassed to practise culture, and it's the same thing."

#Naarmcore also reflects a global trend of gentrifying a historically affordable streetwear style. Originally a counter-cultural fashion phenomenon of the 1980s and '90s, this style of dark colours and baggy silhouettes have become a global industry worth around $185 billion. The increasingly high price tag to participate in a style important to and popularised amongst Indigenous communities "turn[s] something that was their culture, or something they embraced, into something completely unattainable ... I don't think that people who are creating or leaning into the "Naarmcore" aesthetic are aware of it," Z says.

#Naarmcore is disrespectful, colonial and harmful. But it's nothing new. At the heart of #Naarmcore is a notion that anything is up for grabs for white people. #Naarmcore isn't just a local and isolated manifestation of this idea, either. The global rise of #CleanGirl on TikTok also exemplifies whiteness's obsessive drive for possession and exploitation.

The Clean Girl aesthetic generally includes gold hoop earrings, neutral colours, slicked-back low bun or ponytail, and items from brands like Swedish ready-to-wear company Dierf Avenue. Bella Hadid and Hailey Bieber are lauded as icons of this trend. But the #CleanGirls rise has been followed by an eruption of online discourse critiquing the trend's inherent racism.

Critics of the Clean Girl target how it takes styles popularised amongst Black, Brown and Latinx communities and fashions them onto those bodies that are deemed by white supremacy to be most attractive. White women are validated for using these styles in these online spaces in ways that WoC have never been. Tandie Banana, a third-year philosophy student at the University of Melbourne with an interest in aesthetics and beauty politics, says, "the slicked back edges-sis-Black girls have been doing that for years. But nobody called them clean girls".

The celebration of white women as Clean Girls also suggests that out there exists a group of UnClean Girls. In this way, the Clean Girl aesthetic links whiteness and cleanliness. As Tandie describes, "#CleanGirl associates cleanliness with beauty and purity. It's a little loaded, and a little racially charged."

Narratives of uncleanliness have been loaded onto communities of colour for centuries. Z reflects that within the Indigenous community, "Skin bleaching is seen as a cleaning process. I have done it before. I'm not brown, I just have tanner skin, but for so long, I thought that I was inherently dirty, because my skin was just one shade different. The idea that whiteness is cleanliness means that people who aren't white feel inherently unclean."

However, a scroll through #CleanGirl on TikTok is populated not only by white girls, but also by BIPoC participating in the trend. While agreeing it's great to see that people are trying to diversify the trend, Tandie says "it's so backwards to think we have to move from the outside in to try and diversify the aesthetic when the aesthetic itself is already taking bits and pieces from Latinx, Black and Brown culture that's existed for years."

Both the #Naarmcore and the #CleanGirl trends indicate that what is popularised as beautiful in the online aesthetic space is overwhelmingly constructed by and for a white audience. This goes beyond these two trends. The Dark Academia aesthetic romanticises colonial Eurocentric education only accessible to the white, male elite. The #CottageCore trend has been criticised for idolising colonialism. The #ThatGirl trend has been condemned for promoting capitalistic white feminism

But at this point, these discussions have become repetitive thinking loops mistaken for critical thinking. White people on social media continue to superficially acknowledge the criticisms of BIPOC who laboriously explain why these aesthetics are problematic without genuinely engaging with these issues. Ideologies of racism and colonialism continue to influence online trends, and nothing has changed.

TikTok requires rapid content creation and rapid opinion creation, all the time. Tandie says, "Because TikTok is so fast-paced, you're not taking the time to unpack your prejudices and biases."

These trends were born from carelessness, most likely without the intention to hurt the communities they have impacted. However, this carelessness originates from a lack of thought which is a specific privilege afforded only to white able-bodied, straight, cis-gendered folks.

These trends and hashtags are entangled in a gnarly etymology, produced by the many. Tandie says, "The Clean Girl kind of just emerged. What does that say about us? [It] reflects our collective subconscious ideas about beauty, with racial cleanliness narratives sneaking their way in." The collective creation of these trends indicates that white people online have a shared responsibility to reflect on what they mean, how they came to be, and how to stop the repetition of the histories and narratives they represent.

Yet, within circles on TikTok where these critical debates on trending aesthetics are occurring, it seems like the same conversations are being repeated, yet nothing is changing. Z who deleted TikTok due to its repetitiveness resonates with this. They point out that "as much as we think we are fighting for something when we get into those critical discussions, like 'Here's the next issue that we need to take on,' it's the same thing in a different font, every time, and it's sickening".

TikTok can make critical thinking accessible to a wider audience. But, Z says, "People are just declaring things ... it's always an announcement and never a discussion." Z points out that this self-righteous declaration of moral opinions is akin to Christian preaching. A convincing preacher accumulates followers. Similarly, we begin to lean on certain creators to do our critical thinking for us. Z says, "Not a lot of people reflect on what they've seen on TikTok. They don't think about it or practise it in their own personal life. All that's said is 'Oh so true' and that's all that's done about it."

Until white people begin listening to BIPoC critics in ways that create material change, the online space of aesthetics will continue to perpetuate white ideals of beauty, and the discourses around how each trend is uniquely problematic will continue to repeat. Z says, "White people need to realise their role in the situation, where they need to educate themselves, and educate other white people and have these conversations.

Z urges that "it's really important to be aware of the language that you use, and the attitudes you have. People are suffering, all the time. It's really shitty for things to turn into a joke, or into a trend, when people are suffering.

Repetitive critical thinking loops about aesthetics, as exemplified by #Naarmcore and #CleanGirl, do nothing to give land back to Traditional Custodians of this land, or to support communities of colour. Something needs to change. 

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