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What is the ‘Clean Girl Aesthetic’ and how can we ever live up to it?

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Bristol chapter.

THe current standard of perfection we are all trying to attain

Every university-aged woman has their own concept of what ‘clean girl’ means; we see her, we know her, we live with her and, more often than not, we want to be her. Though everyone will have differing images of her, depending on the qualities we aspire most to perfect, there is certainly a common theme; the idea of a put-together, vibrant young woman in her preppy prime, smashing all her daily and life goals in an effortless fashion. This ‘clean girl aesthetic’ has swept the women in universities like Bristol up in a storm of self-improvement and minimalist style. It’s become more than just a certain look, however. The ‘clean girl aesthetic’ is becoming problematic as it applies even more pressure onto young women, to meet expectations of perfection.

Let’s talk more about what this “model off-duty” look, as The Tab calls it, is and how you can embody it. The aesthetic is an effortless, polished look and lifestyle. For me, the ‘clean girl’ university student my mind conjures wakes up at 7:30am and, following a refreshing shower, looks gorgeously ready-to-go. With perfectly styled hair and glowing, natural makeup applied, she makes her way to the gym where she has an invigorating workout, setting her up for a day of maximal productivity in a manicured but simple outfit. She shapes her day and lifestyle around wellness, naturalness, and self-care; sure, she’ll have a couple of glasses of wine with the girls in the evening, but wants to be back in her spotless, minimalist room before late to ensure a good night of beauty sleep. I honestly wonder whether anyone knows any women who can successfully stick to this routine, with no space for complacency or failure, everyday. I certainly don’t. 

“The ‘clean girl aesthetic’, enviable though it is, isn’t a model we should be encouraging young women to achieve”

In fact, in reality the ‘clean girl aesthetic’, like so much of what we see trending on social media platforms, is an unattainable fallacy due to its necessity for constant togetherness, day in and day out. No matter how hard one tries, we are all going to have sad days, hungover days, tired days and times we just aren’t feeling 100% in control of our lives. The same young women you enviously watch gliding down Woodland Road with effortlessly chic outfits and flawless hairstyles, as you traipse to your 11am seminar in last night’s makeup and unwashed sweats, will have been in your exact position recently, guaranteed. I have spent a lot of my university career attempting to embody this ‘clean girl’ persona, trying to keep my academics, social life and health in perfect condition and harmony, yet still feel that I’m falling short in my third year of study. The myth of the ‘clean girl aesthetic’, a standard of beauty and composure, guilts young women into sacrificing their down time (and their wild time) in bids for constant self-improvement.

Yesterday, as I rotted on the sofa having gone to bed far too late the night before, my housemate bounded into the living room embodying this flawless, elegant aesthetic, almost as if to make me feel worse. Her slick bun, her Beats headphones, Sweaty Betty gymwear and her simple makeup and matching jewellery made her the vision of a girl with her life together, on the way to the gym. I congratulated her on her sleek appearance, but could no longer enjoy my well-deserved day off, comparing myself to my better-rested friend. I had to drill into myself that this was the first day I hadn’t worked or gone to the gym in a week, and that a rest day so early in term is vital for endurance. The ‘clean girl aesthetic’, this lovely ideal which requires total dedication to self-care, is unachievable to most of us, particularly those at university with healthy social lives. Instead of striving towards constant effortless perfection, women must continue to take pride in whatever they feel capable of that day, whether it be embodying the ‘clean girl’ look and lifestyle or simply getting out of bed for a walk. 

This model of flawlessness can be a useful aspiration on those days where you genuinely do feel up to being an ‘it’ girl, but in order to ‘achieve’ the aesthetic on a permanent basis you had better be ready to sacrifice your sillier side. For me, the early nights, cleansing diets and constant striving for perfection are not things I’m ready to do religiously. Therefore, the ‘clean girl aesthetic’, enviable though it is, isn’t a model we should be encouraging young women to achieve. In an age where too much is already expected of young people, women do not need this additional beauty standard to compete with. 

I am a third year History student here at the University of Bristol, with particular interest in colonial history/histories of enslavement as well as sexual history. I've taken a keen interest in getting involved with student papers this year with the aspiration to become a journalist after getting my degree. I particularly enjoy writing about issues and obstacles that young women in particular face and how these can be combatted. I grew up in Oxford and have always had close ties to Bristol, with my mother and sister also going to the University of Bristol and living here for several years. I love the food and drink scene here, which keeps me very busy. I also love travelling and am constantly saving for the next big backpacking trip.