The aesthetics that rule the internet

February 10, 2021

Apps like Pinterest and TikTok have spawned a multifaceted phenomenon among America’s younger population: aesthetics. If you’ve seen people donning narrow glasses and mini handbags, they’re probably fans of the Y2K aesthetic. Striped T-shirts, fishnets, and the token black eyeliner heart drawn below the eye? You’ve probably met an E-girl or an E-boy.


So what exactly is an aesthetic? The word has several definitions as both a noun and adjective, but defines it most pertinently as “a particular individual’s set of ideas about style and taste, along with its expression.” Chiefly, these aesthetics show themselves in the form of style and beauty choices to achieve a certain look, and they can cover a lot of ground.


Aesthetics cycle in and out of popularity, but the concept of aesthetics itself isn’t all that new. Before there were immaculately organized Pinterest boards, there was Tumblr, a blogging site known for its emphasis on displaying a particular “aesthetically pleasing” lifestyle, especially in the 2010s. The original idealized Tumblr user was grunge, skater-like and a little bit on the emo side. So it seems that early Tumblr culture hasn’t disappeared, but merely evolved, separating itself into several different categories.


Below are some of the most popular aesthetics you may see online, or even in public.



Y2K (a shorthand meaning “year 2000”) seeks to mimic the culture and style most popular among Americans in the early 2000s, but with a modern twist, of course. For example, to dress Y2K, you could wear chunky tennis shoes, tank tops and baggy jeans, cropped cardigans, tracksuits, etc. Intrinsic to the Y2K aesthetic are the small sunglasses and microbags, as well.

A typical Y2K look.



Cottagecore received a lot of attention over the past year. This aesthetic focuses on nature and a return to a more simple time, especially a time that echoes Western agricultural life. Long, loose skirts and dresses, floral prints, and wide-brimmed straw hats are the pinnacles of cottagecore. Die-hard cottagecore lovers might also learn to bake bread and garden, and may also spend a lot of time going on picnics (or just taking picnic-themed Instagram photos).

Cottagecore emphasizes a return to a “simpler time.”



TikTok ushered in the era of the E-boy around summer 2019. The E denoting a specific attachment to the internet, E-boys wear black and/or dark shirts and dark, distressed jeans, along with silver chains around their neck and on their belt loops. A middle part and smudged eyeliner is also common for the E-boy. The feminine version, an E-girl echoes much of the same style, but with a girlier twist that may include skater skirts, chains with heart charms on them, fishnets, and platform boots.


Arguably, this aesthetic is an evolution of the grunge aesthetic that began in the ‘80s and ‘90s with bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and was then reborn on Tumblr in the early 2010s. Grunge includes more plaid and denim but still centers on dark, muted colors and large silver jewelry.


Dark or light academia

Both the dark and light academia aesthetics revolve around a love for knowledge and learning, mostly in the arenas of classic literature, history and art. Dark academia tends towards a more mysterious vibe with darker clothes in colors like maroon, deep jade and black, while light academia appreciates romantic literature and art and comprises colors like beige, brown, pink and white. Essential fashion for both include turtlenecks, linen shorts and slacks, leather dress shoes, plaid skirts and blazers, peacoats, trench coats, and sweaters or sweater vests, to name a few.


Vaporwave tends toward glitchy designs and bright, neon colors.

While vaporwave also describes a subgenre of electronic music, the vaporwave aesthetic is a vintage, synth-pop mood defined by bright colors like neon pink and blue, and designs that echo digital culture. Vaporwave includes many aspects that give a sense of ‘70s-’90s nostalgia, including vintage brand names, old computer software, and classic anime and manga like Sailor Moon and Neon Genesis Evangelion.


Soft boy/Soft girl

The soft boy or soft girl aesthetic is more or less what it sounds like: an aesthetic revolving around gentle, soft colors like pastel pinks, blues and yellows, and a more sensitive and artistic disposition. The typical soft girl wears pastel skirts or mom jeans, along with crop tops or oversized sweaters. She is also characterized by a generous amount of blush and bright hair clips.


Rolled jeans and sweaters are typical of the soft boy aesthetic.

The soft boy, another phenomenon for which we can thank TikTok, similarly wears loose-fitting jeans (rolled at the ankles) and oversized tops. Tennis shoes and white ankle socks are also a must.


The hypebeast aesthetic has gained momentum mostly because of Instagram models and pop culture. With an emphasis on streetwear, American hip hop, and typical urban fashion, the hypebeast aesthetic tends toward baggier, brand-name clothes–especially those from the brand Supreme. Expensive sneakers and a bucket hat or beanie are also common. 

In conclusion…

Most of the time, aesthetics are harmless ways for people to express themselves visually and even through their lifestyles. However, it’s fair to say that some of them unfairly favor the fair-skinned and skinny. The most successful models of these aesthetics online are rarely plus-sized or people of color, so some individuals, especially women and girls, might feel discouraged from attempting the look.


Similarly, critiques of the ethereal, naturalistic cottagecore ideal argue that it romanticizes colonial living and glosses over the racial implications of Western agricultural history. The dark and light academia aesthetics have likewise received scrutiny for glorifying Eurocentrism and percolating the idea that only white and/or European artists and writers are esteemed enough.


While it’s good to be mindful of these arguments, in the end, the main goal of aesthetics is to provide unique templates for daily life and style. No one says you have to pick just one, either; they’re just as enjoyable when you mix and match. So whether you’re flouncing through a field in your long sundress or posing on the street in your Supreme hoodie, just have fun with it.


By: Jessi Rich

Images:FourSixtyWe Heart It,  Today, Shoptery, On Point Fresh

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