Written by Madeleine Minks
Art by Greta Scheff
I’ve earned a title here at Champlain: the strawberry girl. If you’re here often, you might have seen me walking around campus in various combinations of pink, red and white, usually sporting some sort of strawberry-themed accessories: strawberry-patterned clothes, strawberry lanyard, strawberry glasses chains, strawberry earrings, and what I have been told is my “signature piece”: my crochet strawberry hat.
I’m not upset about this label. If anything, it’s given me a big head. People are paying attention to my outfits! People are noticing them! They think my outfits are cool, which means by extension, they think I’m cool! See? Big head.
This identification started in the fall of 2021, at the beginning of my sophomore year. I was on campus the previous year, but barely anyone else was: the pandemic had kept all but about half of the freshman class in their homes off campus, so there were less people out and about. I still dressed up, even if it was only to go to class, but I didn’t start receiving tons of compliments (it’s not my big head, I swear!) until the following year, when everyone came back on campus. Two years later, and it happens so often that my friends frequently joke that I should keep a counter.
Over the summer, however, something changed: I stopped wearing so much pink and red. And, when I did, I wasn’t very satisfied with my outfits. Then, I stopped feeling satisfied with any of my outfits. No matter what I put on, nothing felt…right?
This crisis started with, as stereotypical as it may be, dyeing my hair. I’d had pink hair for almost a year at that point, and it was time for a change. A big change–I wanted to go ginger. My first time going for a natural hair color since I started dyeing my hair. I’d been feeling the cottagecore vibes lately, and I figured ginger would do the trick.
Some part of my brain was kicking and screaming, begging me to keep my pink hair and rainbow bangs. I loved my hair! Why would I change it? It fit with this whole cute, Strawberry Shortcake, rainbows-and-glitter thing I had going on! And I loved it! But I loved the cottagecore aesthetic, too. And I loved the idea of being a ginger. Always had. Life is short; time to try something new.
These two voices, echoed by a chorus of several others, warred constantly in my head: Try periwinkle and go for that cool girl space vibe! Try lime green; it’d be so camp if you went for the monster energy girl look. What if you just say fuck it and go brown and white–you know, dark academia for the fall?
I ignored them all. I dyed my hair ginger. It came out pretty orange, but it was fine. I wanted to do pretty much every color at this point, which was great. It meant I won, no matter what happened, right?
Of course not. Being a girl is never that simple.
People my age, particularly those who identify as female, struggling with “their aesthetic” is nothing new. Discussions about society’s (particularly internet culture’s) obsessions with aesthetics, how people feel like they have to fit under a pretty label like cottagecore, grunge or soft girl or otherwise make an aesthetic out of whatever they do, are commonplace, at least in the circles I frequent. I’ve watched video essays about it, read articles about it, talked to friends about it–the world is obsessed with aesthetics, and it’s not always healthy.
These essays and articles I’ve encountered usually spend time exploring what an aesthetic in these terms means (usually some sort of fashion style and/or lifestyle), how it perpetuates consumption under capitalism at an alarming rate, and why sticking to an aesthetic is unrealistic. But what I don’t see being discussed is what happens after. What happens when you know all that, and the feeling doesn’t go away? What happens when you know you don’t need that pretty label, but you want it anyways?
I’m someone who likes just about every style I see. I’m enamored by the whimsy of cottagecore, the boldness of decora, and the novelty of grunge. Even if I haven’t tried a style before, I want to. I think if I just give it a chance, it might be perfect for me. This has resulted in an amalgamation of closets; bright pink slip dresses next to crochet leg warmers next to flowery pants (ok, when I write it out like that, it kind of sounds like a look, but it’s not, trust me). Part of me loves this. I love treating fashion as play, as something to explore and discover and constantly reinvent by rearranging what top goes with what skirt. I love being everything and nothing at once.
At the same time, I can’t stand it. I want to have a brand, a specific look, a recognizable style. Not even for social media–the only thing I have is Instagram, and I hardly post there. Not for other people–the compliments I receive are nice, but when I get home, that outfit usually stays on longer than necessary, simply because I feel good wearing it. No, I want that brand for me.
What happened this summer was a revolt, essentially. Because I had a brand–the strawberry girl! That was me! But some little gremlin in the corner of my brain wouldn’t stop muttering about cottagecore, and eventually, that little gremlin started to win over. I was going to be a cottagecore girlie, a real prairie girl. In the fashion sense, of course. But the strawberry part of my brain didn’t like this. She fought back. All this happened while I stood in front of my closet, just trying to get ready for work.
It’s not a particularly deep or even difficult problem to have, but it’s always there. I’m a senior in college; I have much more pressing matters to worry about. So why is this still haunting me? Something as trivial as what to wear in the morning?
I’m not certain, but I think having other things to worry about might be exactly why. I think our obsession with aesthetics, specifically some peoples’ inability to either commit to a specific aesthetic or some combination, is a method of distraction. While our uncertain futures loom ever closer, we turn to an aspect of identity that is less stressful than our careers or where we’ll live in five years: fashion! What’s a girl to wear?
I will say, picking an outfit is not always trivial. What I wear is usually very important to me. I want to feel good in whatever I wear, and I think most people can relate. In fact, there’s scientific research to support the theory that clothes affect our mood. According to psychologist Michelle Pal, fashion psychology researchers refer to this phenomenon as ‘enclothed cognition’. Several aspects of our clothes contribute to enclothed cognition, including color, fabric, and of course, style. In theory, it’s pretty simple to wrap your head around–wearing a suit to an interview can make you feel smart and professional, wearing sweatpants on a rainy day off can help you feel cozy and relaxed, and wearing something bright and colorful to class can help you feel motivated to take on the day.
But what happens when multiple outfits make you feel good? Or you aren’t sure how you want to feel? Perhaps the issue of not knowing what to wear is less about style and more about identity.
While issues of appearance and identity aren’t exclusive to girls, it’s what I can attest to best, on account of being one. So why are so many girls drawn to specific aesthetics; more aptly put, why do so many of us feel the need to box ourselves in? According to Rebecca Jennings in her article, “‘Girl’ Trends and the Repackaging of Womanhood,” it’s about reframing ourselves into something new.
It’s becoming more and more common to “aestheticize” girl identities: girl dinner, girl math, girl….well, you get it. Take “girl dinners” for example. I was surprised to learn that girl dinner was not a trend started by a teenager or college student eating cheetos and a Pop-tart off of a paper plate, but rather started by 28-year-old showrunner’s assistant Olivia Maher, featuring a meal that included bread, cheese, pickles and wine. Pretty fancy, if you ask me. And yet, people all over TikTok started showing off their leftovers/snacks/whatever and dubbing them “girl dinner.” It’s not just about being funny–or at least, not for everyone. It’s about marketing; it’s about how you present yourself to the world–even if that world is just a few followers online, your best friend, or even just yourself. It’s a way to romanticize what’s already there.
I don’t think this romanticization is inherently bad. I think it becomes harmful when we struggle to like ourselves without that “repackaging,” as Jennings so aptly dubbed it. There are exponentially more things available to the modern consumer, things including fashion styles, hair colors, identity labels, tv shows, brands of chips– “Girls are more available for consumption, and girls have more available to them” (Jennings). With all of these options, plus the additional pressure to paint oneself as something palatable, it’s no wonder people, girls in particular (and by girls I mean me), are constantly torn on how to present themselves.
Or maybe I’m overthinking it, and I should go back to my strawberries.