A vindication of egirls

‘Egirl’ is a recent term for women who dress alternatively, often with a cute ‘grunge’ aesthetic, inspired by the remnants of scene or emo culture. Classically, these are the girls you encounter in the dark world of TikTok, rocking exaggerated blush and tiny hearts printed under their eyes. This all appears innocent enough. However, there is a darker side to what ‘egirl’ means and how it is being used. In fact, the term initially didn’t define a cutesy-goth aesthetic at all, but was used to describe (in the loaded terms of one reporter) “internet sluts”.

These ideas of vapid hypersexuality have persistently haunted the term and, on one hand, there is undoubtedly a sexualised element in egirl style and culture. The ‘egirl face’, inspired by Japanese manga depicting the exaggerated female orgasm, is one prominent example which has sparked concern. However, this is not to say we should reduce it to those elements, nor see its sexualisation as entirely within the subculture rather than inflicted upon it. Many girls aligning themselves with the ‘egirl’ aesthetic and lifestyle have reported sexual and misogynistic harassment due to their mere presence online.

Contradictory as it sounds, we must also not assume that these sexualised ‘faces’ are pursuing sexual or even attention-seeking ends. The foremost years of the punk movement is a good comparison. Vivienne Westwood’s electrifying Seditionaries collection abounded with over-sexualised and shocking imagery, including graphic tees featuring two naked cowboys eyeing each other or snow-white engaged in intercourse with multiple dwarfs. Her store, SEX, also sold bondage harnesses which egirls take style cues from to be used in everyday dress.

For Westwood, this sexual imagery did not signify a desire for intercourse and wasn’t purely used for shock value. Rather, these depictions seem to make sex less taboo in their stark presentation of the more matter-of-fact elements of the sexualised body. Sex is presented as strangely mundane, not as something necessarily attractive. In the same way, ‘egirl faces’, with exaggerated tongues and eyes closed leeringly, are far from ‘conventionally attractive’ or immediately pornographic.

My connection of egirls to the punk movement is not to imply that they were seeking the same goals or to say they arose in a similar climate. It is to argue that, in the same way as punk was a movement attempted to make us think about our contemporary standards of sex, politics and beauty, egirls arguably similarly ask us to examine these ideas in a less explicitly political way.

These girls seem to primarily be mocked simply because they are presenting an image online and trying hard to create that image. No one can pretend egirl makeup is simple or can be thrown on quickly. We have to stop ridiculing this self-conscious image-making. Often, unattainable standards of beauty make themselves insidious simply by appearing ‘natural’ – the notion that ‘I just got up like this’ when makeup and editing tools hide in the background. In this, we have to ask whether an ‘artificial image’ – one marked by unnatural hair colours and drawn-on freckles – is a bad thing. It draws to attention to the constructed nature of beauty.

Certainly, Egirls take inspiration from fashion that isn’t conventionally attractive, adoring the sorts of bright colours and individual styles that are often eschewed from the traditional discourse of ‘attractiveness’. “It’s like the antithesis of the glam Insta model” explained one self-identified egirl, Vynique Moon. In presenting themselves against the generic (and often unattainable) icon of the IG model, and owning it, they ask us to question why these limiting standards exist in the first place. This makes Rebecca Jennings description of egirls as merely “hot and online” deeply ironic.

Jennings’ article removes egirls from the sphere of subculture. She argues that they, in fact, only exist in the digital realm. As the term ‘egirl’ implies, the way they present themselves is only an online persona, with no deep personal roots in actuality. Seeking to become TikTok famous, the egirl ‘identity’ as about as deep as the number of likes they can get. This is an incredibly reductive way to view egirl culture. Rather than questioning why egirls present themselves, it simply propagates ideas of their inherent shallowness.

Egirls are often younger women looking for ways to define their identities. Reducing this process to being merely ‘hot and online’ indicates the persistence of the misogynistic ideal that fashion and self-image are merely posing, narcissistic gestures without any real substance. It destroys any sense that fashion can be used positively in political or personal agendas, which the dandies of the late 1800s or the punks of the 1970s would likely raise one eyebrow at. Image is about more than just image, and fashion is about more than just fashion.

This does not apply to just egirls. Mocking of ‘basic’ VSCO girls, supporting a more ‘hipster’ look, similarly abounds. Criticism and general nastiness paints these girls as simply superficial. However, it fails to engage with their style beyond its problematic or generic elements, parodying the most superficial parts of the culture. This ironically is as surface-level as they claim egirls to be.

Fashion does not have to be about undermining beauty standards or creating a visual self, but this does not mean we should mock those who express themselves and their ideas through style. We don’t have a right to reduce outwardly ‘sexual’ signs to mere pandering or attention-seeking, and women (or, for that matter, men) who present themselves in this way as desperately seeking clout online. We need to remove the mist of ‘vacuous’ or ‘empty headiness’ that surrounds questions of fashion and subculture. We need to properly engage with these various different styles and ask what they are trying to achieve, and understand how they question prevailing notions of beauty. If we recognise that each of these fashion cultures has different arguments to articulate and different ways of defining what is sexually attractive, what is beautiful and what is unique or admirable, we may not only be able to banish the overused dichotomy of ‘the hot girl’ VS the ‘not like other girls’, but also deconstruct limiting, homogenous ideas of what ‘beauty’ is.

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