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white women want their power back
on bbls and balletcore, and the entropy of aesthetic
No other factor could shake this all-encompassing truth — it didn’t matter if it was below freezing in the Midwest, or the ground was coated in snow. Cardi B had spoken, and she wanted us outside in a miniskirt and baby bralette.
I came of age under America’s cultural wave of Looting From Black Women. At the start of high school, Miley Cyrus was in the club, high off perc with her shades on. Ariana Grande decided she was going to shapeshift into the same shade as Beyoncé. Kim Kardashian was getting built to become a curvaceous white woman fever dream. It was the era of King Kylie and its more blatant precursor, squat trends that promised to make you thicker than a bowl of oatmeal, and viral mottos like “the bigger the hoop, the bigger the hoe.”
Many did point out the vileness of it at the time. On trendy new sites like Tumblr and Buzzfeed (lmfao), people lambasted the Kardashians for profiting off of appropriating Black culture. Amandla Stenberg published “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows,” and Nicki Minaj openly beefed with Miley Cyrus on Twitter over her Bangerz-era appropriation that culminated in the forever iconic one-liner, “Miley, what’s good?”
Sidenote: Remember when Nicki Minaj brought that up years later, saying, “You sucked all that dick only to come out looking like a Perdue fucking chicken on stage, and then got mad and went back to country music, sit your stupid ass down,” that shit was hilarious.
Since then, many of the remnants of this era have fallen out of vogue. Super out of vogue. People are declaring that it’s the end of the BBL era. The Kardashians got their butts reversed and Ariana Knowles-Carter morphed into Ariana Kim. We are being surrounded by content about weight loss cardio workouts like reformer pilates and hot girl walks. Ballet has seen a massive renaissance in the cultural eye. And everywhere you look, there is a new aesthetic to aspire to: clean girl, coastal grandmother, old money, beige mom, vanilla girl, frazzled 2000s Englishwoman, hard boiled egg girls, that all fixate on one thing — whiteness.
Perhaps it’s that the colors themselves are closer to literal whiteness (vanilla, beige, eggshell). Perhaps it’s that they are literally based on white women (British women in 2000s movies, Martha’s Vineyard-esque divorcées). Or it’s something a layer deeper, rooted in a connotation that has usually been politically reserved for white women: thinness, which also bleeds into Eurocentrism; ballet, a sport that’s been hugely discriminative throughout history; purity and cleanliness, terms which have been lauded upon white women and weaponized against people of color.
It’s not exactly a secret that white women have long held a cultural currency in playing victim. Whether it’s BBQ Becky, or true crime, or being the face in a superhero’s locket, white women have enjoyed a place in the cultural imagination as the perfect victim, that they have then exerted as a tool to oppress others. It’s not without its unique challenges; years of literature have shown that the true perfect victim is helpless, silent, or dead, and that applies to white women, too. However, even though violent crime is far more likely to happen to women of color, the image of someone worth saving in America is ultimately tied to the white woman.
But white girls have been losing stock value in the public eye since Cardi B first uttered those sacred words, “a hoe never gets cold.” Between then and now, we watched a major political shift happen in this country that forced people to see what people of color have always known: white women are oppressors, too. In the 2016 election, we learned that white women voted largely in favor of a candidate that openly admitted to harassing women and promised to make life incredibly dangerous for people of color. The years that followed — viral videos of “Karens” having public meltdowns and calling the police on people of color for doing normal things like parking or speaking Spanish or doing their job — proved white girlies can be just as violent as white men.
Then they started to face real repercussions for their shenanigans. Amy Cooper lost her job for calling the police on a Black man who was bird-watching. Indigenous professor Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond was fired after being outed as a white lady. In the years of Black Lives Matter and #StopAAPIHate, companies like Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie, once historically focused on exclusion, were forced to provide crumbs of diversity or risk losing public favor (translation: money).
Combine that with increasingly globalized media, as well as a wider articulation of how white women steal culture for their own gain, and it becomes hard to maintain their spotless image of victimhood.
At this point, you may be wondering if a TikTok about putting on blush can really get as deep as murder. TLDR — yes.
We know soft power is crucial. It’s why Japan continues to export mass amounts of anime and video games all over the world, in order to reposition themselves as a harmless and appealing country after committing war crimes for decades and supporting shit like, you know, the Nazis. It’s why BTS alone brings in one entire percent of South Korea’s GDP after the country was ravaged by famine and war. And it’s why the American military continues to fund franchises like Marvel movies in order to attract a sense of panache to their heinous organization. Soft power can have very real geopolitical and economic impacts, and provide a blanket of amnesia to how things really are.
The white girl’s soft power is in victimhood. And without it, they are unable to afford the luxuries of committing violence under the guise of it, as they have done for decades.
“The reality is that there was once a lot of social capital in cosplaying as ethnically ambiguous,” said my friend, journalist Ade Onibada, when I brought all this up to her. “Aggressively tanning and styling yourself enough so that people assume that at least one of your grandparents is from a minority group, and you don’t plan on correcting them. That social capital is now drying up as white women reassert the new standard, which is defined by exclusivity.”
So why are there so many aesthetics on social media? Why not just have one overarching aesthetic, the Hard Boiled Ballerina Girl or some shit, and have that one brand fight it out for white woman’s place? Consider the principle of entropy, the dissolution of compact energy into disorder. White women have run a tightly-managed PR machine for ages. A shift in our political periphery has fractured that compact energy. Without a sense of collective dominance, white women’s efforts have converted into a disarray of aesthetics that attempt to re-clinch their previous status of coolness. But you can’t try and rebrand exclusion towards people who don’t buy into it anymore. So you fumble and try and make more.
Thus, the entropy of the white girl’s soft power.
“I wonder whether white girls are cool again, or more that there is a degree of security and exclusivity with the reclaiming of whiteness and being perceived as the apex of femininity,” Ade mused.
Amidst this cultural battle, there are a few key things to point out. First is the role of women of color in white girl soft power. It’s not to say no nonwhite person can participate in being a clean girl or a coastal grandmother. There are many influencers of color who post their lily-white apartments and share their claw clip tips, like #BlackGirlLuxury or anything out of Michelle Choi’s Instagram. But there’s a reason you don’t see a lot of natural hair in #BlackGirlLuxury. Influencers of color, particularly fat or dark skinned women, often receive overwhelming hate for their participation at all.
“For women of color, Black women in particular, beauty and fashion trends that don’t originate from us often feel like they’ve been constructed in part to create a clear divide,” said Ade. “The reality is that not every aesthetic trend is within reaching distance, especially if at the center of it is thin, ultra-feminine, white womanhood. This is why trends like the clean girl, vanilla girl, or whatever the cult of Matilda Djerf is subscribing to this month are trends that most of us just opt out of from the start.”
Similarly, not everyone is equally influenced by white girl soft power. Grunge has seen a rise in recent years, and creators like Aliyah’s Interlude continue to make a massive impact in the alt-girl space. But we’re also living in a world where the formations of culture and subculture are not the same as it once was.
“Sure, if you are a super thin, lighter-complexioned woman of color with cooperative straight hair, you may be able to dabble in such trends, but for the rest of us — participating (if we wanted to) isn’t really an option,” Ade added. “This type of aesthetic alienation has partially forced Black women and women of color to be as innovative as we are in our style choices and extra thoughtful about our aesthetic.”
American culture has always, and will continue to be, wholly built by and stolen from Black and Indigenous people, from Black women, and from queer folks of color. But the arbiters of top–down culture (magazine boards, tech giants, fashion investors) largely remain white men.
“It isn’t all roses for white women either; if it were as simple as just being a white woman, then there wouldn’t be billion-dollar industries thriving on the amount of aesthetic labor that even white women do to look the way they are. There are a few winners in this race but mainly a lot of losers,” Ade said.
So yes, I believe there is space for joy, but I don’t believe there is space for joy free of politics. I think it’s a little callow to think you can enjoy a trend without considering its context. You can have fun engaging, while also recognizing that oftentimes, women of colors’ bodies are politicized by virtue of being contextually set by white people.
“White women certainly don’t own a monopoly on claw clips and pilates, but enough anecdotes of Black women going to pilates studios and being the only minority in the room lets you know what spaces are and aren’t for everybody,” Ade said. “Politically, white women have shown time and time again that they will spite themselves before there is any gender solidarity with women of color.”
On that note, we also need to talk the rise of Korean culture and the Hallyu wave in the West. This is in part due to the South Korean soft power government machine, but I think it fits so well with the rise of white girl soft power because it’s East Asian. The beauty standards in Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and China are also nothing more than aping attempts at assimilating to whiteness. Double eyelid surgery that makes your eyes appear more “Western.” Skin lightening treatments. Rampant anorexia. As such, East Asian women are conceptualized as heterosexual, light-skinned, and skinny in both hemispheres of media. It’s easy to fit into a white lifestyle and become the vessel for supposed diversity if your goal was to get as close to whiteness as possible anyway. We shouldn’t have to choose between blatant appropriation and subtle racism, but those are the guidelines that have been set up for us.
The reality of all of this is that I will still look up striped trousers and little white shrugs on Depop. I will go on hot girl walks and clean my fridge while pretending that I’m filming a kitchen restocking TikTok for my millions of imaginary followers. I’m going to do my stupid little Pilates exercises, even though eight years ago all I cared about was doing as many squats as possible and getting thick with three q’s. I also enjoy the little habits I’ve picked up from social media. That’s okay, too. However it’s naive to think that this is happening in a vacuum. Because just as sure as we will continue to wear very little in the club, Western culture will remain a battleground for hegemony. I don’t know if we can ever forget the things that we’ve learned in recent years. But I do know white girls will do their damndest to try.