“Aspirational realness,” the Instagram cool-girl look, disguises advertising as authenticity

Instagram influencers: They’re just like us?
Instagram influencers: They’re just like us?
Image: AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda
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Fashion and beauty brands typically emphasize perfection. The embodiment of this perfection may change over time, going from Heidi Klum’s blonde hair and long limbs to Kim Kardashian’s curves and contoured makeup. Still, the idea that women should conform to a certain idealized standard in order to be seen as attractive persists.

But these days, a number of companies catering largely to wealthy millennial and Gen Z women claim to embrace the idea of difference and imperfection, with marketing that emphasizes diversity, a range of body shapes, skin blemishes, and barely-there makeup.

This is what Rosie Findlay, a researcher at the London College of Fashion, calls “aspirational realness.” As she writes in an article (pdf) published in the journal Communication, Culture and Critique, brands like makeup and skincare line Glossier, clothing company Reformation, and fashion boutique Maryam Nassir Zadeh (MNZ) all embrace marketing that mimics everyday life. MNZ’s website, for example, features blurry, close-cropped images of a model shot from below, or a woman posing in a striped dress in front of a car parked on the street, construction visible in the background. These kinds of imperfect images, she writes, encourage “an imagining of the self using the advertised products, or looking with desire or curiosity at the possessions of another.”

It’s simple: the typical consumer can’t relate to the polished fantasy world of celebrity hair spray commercials. It’s much easier to imagine yourself wearing lip gloss worn by someone whose freckles and chipped nail polish makes them look more like a “regular person” than a supermodel, or wearing ankle boots while stomping around the park rather than the runway.

Findlay says that aspirational realness resurfaces every once in a while as a trend, as with the 1990s fashion photography that was inspired by street style. But there’s one factor today that makes the trope more powerful than ever: Instagram.

The appeal of the real

Aspirational realness is inextricably tied to the photo-sharing app and its obsession with authenticity. Glossier has perfected marketing on Instagram, not only by using models who seem “relatable,” but by reposting content made by regular customers wearing its products, who willingly associate themselves with the brand.

Athleisure brand Outdoor Voices excels at this as well. In contrast to brands like Nike or Under Armour, which emphasize sleekness and performance, Outdoor Voices is about fun. Its Instagram features one woman chowing down on elote while sprawled on the grass; another gazing happily at a cluster of radishes from the farmer’s market; yet another posing beside paintings that match her sherbet-colored cotton tee and drawstring skirt. At least one of these women is a professional model, according to her Instagram bio; at least one isn’t. But they’re all made equivalent, not just by their positioning on the brand’s Instagram page, but by the way in which they’re shot and styled. They look casual and happy, going about fun but not necessarily glamorous lives; the angles and lighting suggest a friend could have taken the photo, even if a professional photographer actually did.

In this, Outdoor Voices is aligned with a burgeoning cultural backlash against the artificial Instagram beautification of everyday life, in which influencers appear to spend all their days lying on sun-dappled fields or sipping artfully decorated lattes against pink walls, with nary a zit, negative thought, or job demand in sight. Taylor Lorenz recently argued in The Atlantic that social-media users in their teens and 20s increasingly post messy, candid, or unfiltered photos in an effort to reject the confines of social media make-believe and represent themselves more authentically. “It’s not cool anymore to be manufactured,” one teen told Lorenz.

Glossier is cited in The Atlantic piece as a brand that’s been doing a great job of jumping on the authenticity trend, sharing “a mix of memesnatural-looking close-ups, and recently, a cute video of a sloth ‘just because.’” Its ability to mimic the style of social media posts that its target demographic prefers makes advertising seamless—and insidious. Scrolling through an Instagram feed, it becomes harder to tell what is an ad, and what isn’t.

Joining the cool-girl club

Aspirational realness, Findlay explains, “deliberately suggests to a brand’s target demographic that they can be one of their coterie of ‘cool girls,’ and that all it would take to embody the idealized state of one of their models—literally, for some consumers, who are chosen to feature on the brand’s Instagram feed—would be the purchase of their products, collapsing the distance between image and consumer.”

But joining the coterie of cool girls isn’t so straightforward in practice. For one thing, the products in question are not luxury goods, but they aren’t cheap, either. Outdoor Voices peddles $85 leggings to sweat in; a typical Reformation dress costs around $200, and the brand styles its models in Chanel shoes. And while the brands use a mix of professional and non-professional models, the women they choose to feature are still typically young, able-bodied, and conventionally attractive. As Findlay notes, the “‘no make-up’ look popularized by Glossier requires unblemished, unlined skin to be achieved, and only women who wear US size 12 or less can wear most of Reformation’s clothes.” (Reformation has a limited collection of clothing in plus sizes.)

Yet because both the appearance of the women and the price point of the products can seem just within reach of the audience, the marketing can be more effective. I can’t afford a $3,000 purse and look like this 6-foot-tall, 14-year-old model, one might think, but I could put a $300 one on my credit card and lose 20 pounds to look like this Instagram influencer.

This is a natural extension of what advertising has always done: Attempt to sell things without appearing to do so, by being as relatable as possible. The apron-bedecked housewives in the ads of yesteryear were also trying to pretend to be your friend when they told you that a certain cleaning product worked for their dirty kitchen, so it would naturally work for yours! But witnessing the housewife in a sparkly kitchen on a TV screen still seemed somewhat artificial. On your phone screen, gazing at Glossier’s new lip gloss as worn by an influencer who also shares her hectic life in daily “story” updates on her personal page, it’s easier than ever to get confused about what’s real, and what’s just good marketing.

The myth of effortless beauty 

It’s true that brands like Glossier and Reformation rely on images of “ordinary” women who are often anything but. Findlay points, for example, to a June 2018 Reformation newsletter in which six real-life customers were pictured in the brand’s clothes while going about their daily lives. But, Findlay points out, one of the real-life customers was supermodel Karlie Kloss. In fact, “five of the six women featured were models (each had between 85k and 7.4 million followers) and the sixth was influencer Danielle Bernstein, with 1.8 million followers.” As Findlay goes on to explain, “By inferring that the images are of ‘you guys,’ Reformation presents their ideal customer, who has the looks and physique of a professional model, while also directly stating that this is ‘us.’”

It’s a muddled message: Kloss, for example, is also a spokesmodel for Estée Lauder, a brand that typically peddles aspiration without the realness; a luxury lifestyle rather than a supposedly middle-class one. The ideal Reformation customer, it seems, is Kloss when she’s not working—an off-duty model, the human equivalent of a messy bun. The goal of aspirational realness is to come across as stylish and beautiful while simultaneously giving the impression of effortlessness.

And so the idea that there is something revolutionary about the branding of real-girl beauty quickly falls apart. To the extent that companies like Reformation are comfortable deviating from traditional beauty standards, Findlay says, it’s to “signal relatability rather than disrupting the aspirational subjectivity being modeled.” Yet it’s also true that while the cult of aspirational realness largely adheres to conventional beauty standards, it does move the needle slightly.

Glossier’s Instagram page, for example, consistently features women who are diverse in race and ethnicity, and are occasionally diverse in age, body type, and other ways as well. Men show up in the grid wearing highlighter (“Haloscope”) or blush (“Cloud Paint”). A woman appears in a hijab; a mom takes a selfie to show off her highlighter while on a walk with her sleeping baby.

There’s no denying that it’s meaningful to see ads that feature men wearing makeup and women who are Asian or black or mixed race, even if the people in question do mostly look like models and, in some cases, actually are. In this, Glossier is in step with the broader fashion industry, which is featuring increasingly diverse models in response to growing public pressure. In spring 2019, for example, racially diverse and plus-size casting at New York Fashion Weeks hit an all-time high.

It would be unfair to say, then, that Glossier isn’t attempting to diversifying beauty ideals at all. But it would be overstating things to suggest that it, or other aspirational realness brands, are truly unique or radical in the images of beauty that they offer.

Does inclusivity sell?

In attempting to make everyone feel included, whether or not they really are, aspirational realness parallels another concept, one that also tidily sums up a whole stratum of our commercialized world in a single phrase. “Premium mediocre” is a term coined by the blogger Venkatesh Rao in 2017. According to Rao’s post, it applies to anything “creating an aura of exclusivity without actually excluding anyone.” That might be the Italianate names of Starbucks’ coffee sizes, or Starbucks coffee itself. It’s artisanal pizza and the whole experience of cruise ships. The “‘democratization’ of anything previously considered actually premium” is premium mediocre, Rao explained.

Perhaps not by coincidence, premium mediocre is also prevalent in fashion and beauty, the natural domain of aspirational realness. Fashion thrives on exclusivity, but to make money, it still needs lots of people shopping. Brands across the price spectrum have been finding ways around the challenge for decades. “Take a look around, and it won’t be hard for you to spot premium mediocre fashion virtually everywhere—from Uniqlo cashmere (that doesn’t feel like cashmere at all) to Balenciaga baseball hats and Gucci headbands, from logoed Burberry keychains to pretty much anything at the fragrance counter in Bloomingdale’s,” Eugene Rabkin, the editor of StyleZeitgeist Magazine, wrote last year.

Premium mediocre and aspirational realness are closely related in the sense that they both stretch the boundaries of one category (“luxury” or “real women”) to include a broader audience. In the case of premium mediocrity, shoppers get to participate in the world of a luxury brand by buying a hat or t-shirt with the brand logo. Except they’re not really included. True luxury remains walled off by price. “Democratization of fashion is trendy, and provides us all with a therapeutic illusion that we are somehow more equal,” Rabkin writes. “Of course it’s only an illusion—all you need to do is stroll on Madison Avenue in New York or through Mayfair in London to feel the difference between real luxury and premium mediocre.”

In the case of aspirational realness, mixing professional and non-professional models and throwing in signifiers of “reality” lets brands look like they are inviting everyone to join the cool-girl clique while continuing to police its borders. “Pretend you’ve got your act together in stuff that makes you look sophisticated,” a caption on Reformation’s Instagram page reads, alongside the image of a model who, sitting on a wood floor, looks decidedly chic. Under the terms of aspirational realness, it’s fine to admit to internal havoc so long as you look composed, or to show off your curves so long as there’s no cellulite in sight. Aspirational realness allows for a little reality, but not too much.

And so the brands’ appeal ultimately relies upon their ability to seem welcoming while maintaining a certain level of exclusivity, like the popular girl who issues a vague general invitation for everyone to come to her house party, but only gives her friends the actual address. Just as premium mediocre goods ultimately work to reinforce the true boundaries of luxury, so too does aspirational realness prop up the conventional ideas about how women ought to be—all while using language and imagery meant to convince women that they’re free, at last, to be their true selves.