Is TikTok’s obsession with the ‘clean look’ yet another toxic beauty ideal in disguise? – Screen Shot
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Is TikTok’s obsession with the ‘clean look’ yet another toxic beauty ideal in disguise?

If you’ve ever fallen down the ‘styling advice’ rabbit hole of TikTok and YouTube, you would’ve spotted recurring themes—the most popular one being videos on how to look expensive. With tutorials captioned along the lines of 21 broke girl secrets to look like a rich girl and How to look Rich Rich from your Rich Mom, users are seen channelling the power of monochrome blazers, oversized sunglasses and bold gold jewellery to look bougie on a budget. “These make you look very polished, put together and—in other words—rich,” the influencers typically sum up, advising their audience to iron everything down and expel prints from their wardrobe altogether.

On TikTok, this coveted theme seems to have moved up north with the rise of a new hashtag—currently at 266.2 million views and counting. Enter the au naturel world of the ‘clean look’, a makeup trend all about oozing effortless, off-duty model vibes with seemingly low-maintenance beauty routines.

What is the clean look all about?

Think glowing but not greasy skin and gelled but not oily hair—coupled with glossy lips, feathery brows and timeless jewellery. The premise of TikTok’s clean look involves pulling off makeup with a barely-there sheen, spread generously throughout your hair and accessories. The topic and its hashtag started trending when TikTok influencer Eva Rankin uploaded a tutorial captioned How to achieve the ✨clean✨ look. Currently at 9.8 million views, the video was posted as a reply to a comment on another one of her videos which read “you look so clean.” A questionable remark or flattering compliment? I’ll let you decide.


Reply to @yoodaddydre how to achieve the ✨clean✨ look ib: @millieleer #cleanmakeup

♬ Manhattan - Ella Fitzgerald

Nevertheless, shortly after Rankin dropped her routine, a storm followed. While users keenly demonstrated their own spin-offs of the look (all set to the same TikTok audio of Manhattan by Ella Fitzgerald), publications scrambled to list products one could purchase to achieve filter-free flawlessness with dewy skin and minimal makeup—topped with a hint of colour. The Easiest Way To Look Expensive AF: TikTok’s Clean Look, read a blog post on Huda Beauty earlier this month, dividing the entire look into a total of five steps with products costing up to $68. However, a quick scroll through other tutorials essentially helps one boil the beauty routine down to a single set of principles.

For starters, the key here is to exfoliate and hydrate the heck out of your skin as a base. The general advice issued, in this regard, is the consistent use of tinted moisturisers, liquid foundations, glow-boosting sunscreens and serums containing humectants. A faint touch of concealer and highlighter to the high points of your face will also help you exude luxe all day long. Bronzer then goes around the nose, cheekbones, hairline and jawline with cream blush on the cheeks—all blended upwards.

The arguable aesthetic is also about having feathery, natural arches and making brow gel your best friend. Nude gloss and lip oil are further cheat codes for a plump and hydrated pout, promising to channel your inner ‘main character energy’. Flatten stray hairs with all the determination you can muster, accessorise with some dainty gold jewellery, choose a delicate scent to end things on a good note and voilà! You are what TikTok deems ‘clean’. On the outside, anyways.


this also happens to be my everyday routine 🥲 #skincare #cleanlook #clearskin

♬ Manhattan - Ella Fitzgerald

Now, if you think about it, the clean look isn’t anything new. Nor is it revolutionary by preaching the use of actual clean ingredients in beauty products. Instead, all that unattainable perfection literally seems like a repackaged version of the ‘no makeup’ makeup look that has been going on forever. Donut skin, dolphin skin, cloud skin, yoga skin—call it whatever you want, but we’ve been there and done that a dozen times over. And this is exactly where the problem lies. 2022’s clean look trend just goes on to prove that we still associate financial statuses to making our faces as luminous and glossy—eventually natural and healthy—as humanly possible.

“Always have nails and toe nails polished (white looks really good),” a green screen video on TikTok goes on to note. The list also includes good posture and a proper skincare routine as necessities. If you ask me, the first step of achieving the clean look could be summed up as having what conventionally counts as a ‘clean’ skin. So, I’m afraid the trend has already lost me as a potential candidate. And if you retrospect hard enough, you can track the timeline of the clean look to earlier this year—when several TikTokers began asking others if they looked “musty or clean.”

Backed with a hashtag currently at 1.6 million views, the controversial trend highlighted age-old ideals that we still shockingly abide by. “Sorry but I’m so tired of this whole ‘do I look musky or clean’ and ‘what do I smell like’ because it’s always people with yellower skin tones or acne and dark circles, or skin and hair textures getting told they look musty and smell,” TikTok user @mooniemilk_ noted in response. The comments section of the video is more than enough to make one question if we can still deem ourselves ‘progressive’ in 2022.

Though the clean look is yet another reinterpretation of a toxic ideal, the icons backing the look seems to have changed—thereby reinforcing an entirely new standard to look and live up to. The moodboard of the clean look is now stationed at the pristine white apartments of Hailey Bieber, Bella Hadid, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Laura Harrier and Zendaya. All queens, not gonna lie. But there’s a fine line between minimalism and perfection—the blurring of which fosters a breeding ground for more toxic ideals to come. And given how our generation is presently obsessed with reviving previous ones like bikini bridges and thigh gaps, it wouldn’t be long before the clean look goes down in history—only to be dug up again in the future by generations to come.


How to get the ✨clean look✨ @gwmakeup #fyp #foryou #foryoupage #makeuplook #cleanmakeup #cleanlook #makeupinspo

♬ original sound - makeup

Out with the ‘core’, in with the ‘sleaze’: the psychology behind the resurgence of indie sleaze

It’s out with the ‘core’ and in with the ‘sleaze’. We’re witnessing a TikTok tidal wave, where explosive fashion trends such clowncore and princesscore are already fading into the abyss, overshadowed by a much punkier, and shall we say, cool but effortless look: indie sleaze. Characterised by its participants as grunge aesthetic meets naughties glam, this new subculture is dominating netizens’ screens, and we’re here for it.

What is indie sleaze?

SCREENSHOT sat down with fashion and beauty aficionado Carol Carlovich to chat about curating an indie sleaze starter pack. According to the blogger, you’ll need “an indie band T-shirt, a plaid flannel shirt, knit beanie, pair of Dr. Martens, a vintage denim jacket, thick reading glasses, and a handful of polaroids.” Beauty-wise, she recommends a “smudged black eye, strong, well-drawn eyebrows, cat-eye black eyeliner, strong and cool-toned face contour, dark matte lips (MAC’s matte lipstick on the colour ‘Diva’, for example).”


As Kesha would say: get sleazy! #indiesleaze #greenscreen


Carlovich perceives this reemerging subculture as “controlled rebellion” and describes it as “meticulously degraded and cool in just the right measure.” Like so many of our favourite fashion trends, indie sleaze was born in the late noughties.

Going into further detail, she explained: “It was an aesthetic popularised mostly around the 2010s by millennials and brings together the main elements of hipster culture like indie bands, lots of grunge and punk references mixed with glam, bubble gum pop. The party candids, the American Apparel ad photography, the adoration of anything vintage, the underground, and so on.”


#indiesleaze #indiesleazeaesthetic #indiesleazeinspo 😝🖤🫶✨💋

♬ i bet you look good on the dancefloor part 3 - carla

“Aesthetically, a lot of people see indie sleaze as a response to the 2009 recession, much guided by the deterioration of capitalism as viewed by the millennial teenagers who strived to have the purchasing power to identify with advertisements, but at the same time did not have any capital to do so,” she continued.

Ultimately, indie sleaze represents a rejection of hyper-femininity and instead opts for something that, while it may appear effortless, is, in reality, a detailed recreation of what we’d imagine a young millennial would wear to The 1975’s concert in 2014.

Of course, there are a number of variations of this aesthetic to play around with. For starters, there’s mermaid sleaze—a seaweed-entangled fantasy, most likely taking inspiration from the likes of Ursula and The Little Mermaid Disney film due to hit screens in 2023.

Oh, and don’t forget about ballet sleaze, a fashion aesthetic that resembles the chaos and calamity of Natalie Portman’s character in Black Swan. Imagine a room full of ballerinas wearing shredded leg warmers, distorted lace, and pink fingerless gloves.


2022 insights - Parisian ballet #fashiontiktok #ballet #twee #fashiontrends2022 #tulle #indiesleaze

♬ Mozart Eine Kleine Nachtmusik - Violin

However, if you are ever confused about how to nail this fashion statement in question, look no further than the iconic Instagram account, @indiesleaze. From grunge dudes to seemingly nonchalant chicks, this page exemplifies everything the aesthetic stands for. Naturally, Alexa Chung is the primary inspiration, leader, saviour and godmother.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Indie Sleaze (@indiesleaze)

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Indie Sleaze (@indiesleaze)

Why has ‘sleaze’ taken over ‘core’ aesthetics?

There has been an obvious shift among popular fashion TikTokers who are often now choosing to pick elements from the slightly more laid-back and effortlessly cool energy of sleaze, over the inherently preppy and potentially-rigid aspects of a number of core aesthetics.

On 14 October, the Digital Fairy—resident trend forecasters and marketing agency—posted a video letting netizens know that the masses were ditching their tutus for ripped tights and oversized tees.


chic ➡️ core ➡️ sleaze ➡️ ? #indiesleaze #microtrends #trendcycle #balletsleaze #ballerinasleaze #balletcore #cottagecore #fairycore #gorpcore #blokecore #fashiontok #fashiontiktok #trendforecasting #2023trends #wintertrends #cabinsleaze #fyp #foryoupage #MakeNightsEpic

♬ fashion show(256764) - TimTaj

Eager to learn more about the growing popularity, SCREENSHOT reached out to the Digi Fairy to gain some more insider perspective into why it believes this naughties revival is upon us. Culture specialist Rukiat Ashawe explained: “The trend cycle is impacted by cultural shifts in conjunction with the fast-paced nature of the internet.”

“Trends are circulating faster and wider as a result of fashion’s quickened dispersion via social media. Back in the day, it could take a trend that started in New York one year or more to reach the UK, but now a viral trend can cause an aesthetic to show up across different places across the world simultaneously,” she continued.

Confusingly enough, creative agencies and trend experts alike are slightly unsure as to why we’ve reached the naughties renaissance quite so quickly. Carlovich considered this in our chat and stipulated that indie sleaze is crawling its way back into our lives much earlier than initially predicted by fashion analysts.

“In fashion and beauty, there’s always a resurgence of past trends, usually recurring every 20 years or so. After we’ve seen the 90s and Y2K come back, it was evident that eventually, the 2010s aesthetic would follow right after. What’s interesting, though, is that we seem to be ten years too early, considering we’re only in 2022. Some people are arguing the reason for that is the fast-paced trend cycle induced by heavy social media usage added to, of course, TikTok’s impact on the music industry,” the creator noted.

Maybe another contributing factor to its online popularity is the fact that sleaze aesthetics inherently have a way of taking us down memory lane. Unlike many of the core looks which spawn online and come from in-the-moment, fresh ideas, sleaze has direct roots in nostalgia—it reminds us of all things Tumblr, alternative, darker, and moody. It harks back to a time when Meta didn’t exist, and the only AI we knew of came out of a Will Smith movie.

We all know the rapid speed in which trends appear and purge online. One minute, Elon Musk is getting slated for his perpetual pettiness, and the next, Jimmy Fallon has passed—it’s all very difficult to keep track of. Nevertheless, sleaze seems as though it’s here to stay.

Gen Zers are at the helm of sleaze aesthetics

From what we can see, gen Z is running the show when it comes to these burgeoning subcultures. Ashawe delved into why this might be: “Gen Z is looking at the hipster movement, Tumblr culture, and all those behaviours and aesthetics and is identifying with the feeling those millennial teenagers shared before them—of wanting to let go and create an effortlessly cool and unique image for themselves; of wanting to find an identity in their likings—a band, a show, their own personal style—of wanting to belong, in spite of what’s going on in the world.”

It’s true, while generation Alpha may reflect the future, gen Z reminds us of the recent past and the subsequent geopolitical, humanitarian, and climate crises we’ve faced over the past two decades. Young people often turn to creative expressions such as fashion to find comfort when they feel overwhelmed or distressed by the environment surrounding them.

Will indie sleaze stay relevant?

At the end of 2021, trend forecaster and analyst Mandy Lee, known online as @oldloserinbrooklyn, posted a TikTok declaring indie sleaze as the aesthetic of 2022. Her reasoning? The fact that, after the COVID-19 pandemic, people were craving creative expression and community.

The creator stated: “I feel like with the indie sleaze subculture, 15 years ago, community, art, and music were so powerful—that’s what brought people together. I think that specific elements, more so than the fashion, will become prevalent, as well as the style of photography, of course.”


Trend forecast: indie sleaze revival #trendcycle #nostalgia #tumblrfashion #indiekid

♬ Sex and the City (Main Theme) - TV Sounds Unlimited

What we want to avoid however, is indie sleaze becoming subverted online alongside the recent resurgence of heroin chic—a highly toxic trend which, during the 90s and early 2000s, celebrated extreme weight loss and fetishised eating disorders. With this current topic of conversation circulating online, concerns have begun to grow that soon, we’ll once again be fed videos and images on our social media pages promising ‘thinspiration’, while fashion brands reject body inclusivity in favour of what they consider to be a ‘model’ size.

Speaking with VICE about the rise of sleaze trends, Lee went on to clarify that these cyclical fashion aesthetics aren’t always an exact science. “It’s also worth mentioning that a prediction is just that: a prediction. You wait to see how and when and if it manifests. I think it’s ridiculous to think that a trend will copy and paste itself exactly,” she shared.

So, there we have it. Unlike Y2K which evokes a far more colourful, happier, and brighter emotion, indie sleaze is repping it for all of those who might be yearning to unleash their inner rebel—and with the current state of the world, we don’t really blame them.