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  • Ellie Valentine

The ‘Rotting Girl’ Aesthetic: Madeline Argy and Pretty Privilege


Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq


‘Clean Girl Aesthetic’ seems to have taken the Western world by storm. Everywhere I turn there’s a girl with a slick back ponytail, glowing skin, Ugg’s on and an iced coffee in hand. In many ways, I aspire to be said Clean Girl — I’ve recently taken up running; I've invested (probably too much) money into skincare and ‘no-makeup’ makeup products; I’ve even cooked the Emily Mariko salmon bowl a few times. The rebirth of ‘That Girl’, the #Girlboss who ostensibly has her life together, is in many ways very inspiring, as she encourages young girls to take care of themselves and make an effort. The presentation of a girl who looks glamorous at all times with plans and motivations at our age rather than in ten or twenty years sets a precedent that ‘having it all’ is possible… And why isn’t it? 


Except, for the vast majority, ‘having it all’ just isn’t feasible, no matter how hard we try. Nearly one-third of young people aged 16-24 reported having mental health issues in 2018, and this has only worsened since the pandemic. Is it really possible to embody this ‘Clean Girl’ when the realities of life must be acknowledged? What if it feels impossible to get out of bed in the morning, or we lack motivation? How can we be expected to look put together, toned, and healthy, at all times, when this is not the case? The pressures of these expectations can be overwhelming for young people, particularly when social media platforms such as TikTok have specifically tailored algorithms which make sure that every second video you see is of a conventionally attractive, white, middle-class girl who is everything that the ‘Clean Girl’ aesthetic represents. It feels impossible to be a ‘Clean Girl’ when the criteria necessarily constitutes a range of monetary and social resources that, for most people, are entirely inaccessible. A daily yoga class can feel a world away for a girl who works two jobs in order to afford rent. Not only is the ‘Clean Girl Aesthetic’ idealistic and inauthentic, but it is also content created by a group of privileged women, and often this goes unrecognised. 


Thus, ‘the Rotten Girl’ is born. Portrayed crawling out of her depression pit at 2am with puffy eyes and trackies in search of junk food, this girl is someone who unarguably resonates with a much larger percentage of viewers. We see her in all types of media, with her tiredness at life and her self-destructive tendencies — think Phoebe Waller Bridge’s Fleabag and Otessa Moshfegh’s unnamed protagonist in My Year Of Rest and Relaxation, or Effy Stonem in Skins and Rue in HBO’s Euphoria. This Sad Girl archetype is embodied by viral successes such as Emma Chamberlain and Madeline Argy, who speak openly and vulnerably about their struggles with mental illness. When searching “Emma Chamberlain”, one of the first auto-fill suggestions that appears is “depressed”. Their inherent ‘relatability’ announces that they, just like their viewers, are just girls figuring out life. Sometimes they too have bad days — they cry, have issues with self-worth, have poor hygiene, hate themselves, starve themselves, just like us. 


Or at least that’s the mindset that their brand attempts to encapsulate. Alongside these Instagram posts of messy rooms and sunken eyes, there are pictures of brand deals, photoshoots with Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton, holidays and events, expensive foods and lavish restaurants entirely paid for by someone else. All of this to say, “Go them”, “I am very jealous of you”, but also — “What?!”, “How?!?”. 


I want to make it very clear that there is nothing wrong with the ‘Rotten Girl’ herself — we all go through times in life when our mental health is not at its best, and it is important that we continue to see representation of this in the media (though perhaps in less self-destructive ways than the aforementioned Rue, Fleabag, Effy Stonem etc.). But what I struggle with is that now these influencers have gained such traction online, they are losing their authenticity, and many young viewers are not aware of this. In a recent video with Dazed, Argy admits that they added “filth props” to her car, to make it appear like “I’m some sort of gremlin”, therefore imitating this ‘Rotten Girl Aesthetic’ whilst not actually embodying it. One viewer of this TikTok commented “why do rich people do this?”. Whilst another lamented that Argy would do “anything for the council estate aesthetic”. What I tend to forget when I watch these videos is that influencers like Argy are now profiting off these ‘real’ depictions of mental health — she is getting paid from our engagement, so we have to remember that we are not the same as she is, even if that is how it is presented. Her presentation of “council estate aesthetic” is at odds with the profit that just one of those videos will earn. One TikTok user even remarked that Argy could “tell the most vile, disgusting story, full of shame — sometimes even just poor hygiene — and we will smash that like button so fast [...] simply because she is unbelievably beautiful”. Ironically, a similar problem to the ‘Clean Girl Aesthetic’ arises, in the sense that most of these ‘Rotten Girls’ we see are again conventionally attractive, white, and privileged. Are we holding the people around us to the same standards as those online? If a peer begins to struggle with personal hygiene, would we treat them with the same attitude? It leads to a bigger question: how much does ‘pretty privilege’ play into our own unconscious biases? 


It seems that both ‘Clean Girl Aesthetic’ and ‘Rotten Girl Aesthetic’ — though diametrically opposed —encounter similar problems when studied more closely. These videos, which on the surface were made to be inspiring and encouraging, relatable and vulnerable, have damaging side effects when consumed on a mass level. It may come as a surprise, but I do enjoy watching these videos — as a young woman, they make me feel seen and motivate me to take care of myself, and on the flipside, to take a day off every once and a while when I need to. But I’m aware now that these videos must also be taken with a pinch of salt. Not everyone is afforded the privilege to care about the newest ‘life-changing’ hair dryer or buy £100 shoes just because. Alternately, not everyone is afforded the privilege to suffer from mental health issues with an absence of judgement. The romanticisation of inner struggles online sometimes does not translate to real life, and we must begin to hold everyone to the same standards — regardless of social standing. All of this is not to say that we must immediately boycott Emma Chamberlain, or scoff at the mention of Madeline Argy. What they represent is in many ways a refreshingly positive and uniquely real use of social media, but their lack of authenticity must be recognised. The Rotten Girl Aesthetic may live on, but its unconscious biases must not. 


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