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VSCO girls and how teen culture goes viral

Why adults can’t stop hearing about VSCO girls.

YouTuber Hannah Meloche in her “basic VSCO girl transformation” video.
Hannah Meloche/VSCO
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I heard the term “VSCO girl” but I know it was on TikTok, and I was pretty sure that it would be a big deal. That wasn’t because I was particularly familiar with suburban high school fashion trends, but because it was a catchy nickname given to largely white and largely middle-class teenage girls, and those things always go viral.

Months later, here we are in the thick of another meme cycle wherein high school subcultural dynamics are explored and consumed by people a decade or more removed from them. Teenagers, particularly teenage girls, have long been the subject of fascination for adults, and the VSCO girl, whose name comes from the photo-editing app (pronunciation: “visco”) is only the latest iteration of how we express it.

What does feel novel is the feverishness of VSCO-girl-inspired content that has proliferated on the internet in 2019: You can read about what they are everywhere from the Charlotte Sun Herald to NBC News. You can hear teens explain VSCO girls themselves in Slate. You can find out how to transform yourself into a VSCO girl on Seventeen and Elle, and how much all of that costs in Fox Business. You can get really thinky about what it means to be a VSCO girl on the Cut and who the VSCO-girl meme excludes on BuzzFeed.

You can read about how VSCO girls are making one 27-year-old feel old for the first time on Business Insider or how VSCO girls are making the brands associated with them feel in the New York Times. You can read about a concerned parent worried that her daughter is turning into a VSCO girl on CBC, even though you can also read about how maybe the VSCO girl is more than just an aesthetic and how they’re striking for climate change on the Intercept. Or maybe what we’re actually talking about is just lesbian culture rebranded for Gen Z, a convincing theory that you can explore in Vice.

All of the aforementioned pieces were published between late July and early September, a time wherein VSCO girls were a primary target of the internet culture industry, which now moves so quickly that talking about VSCO girls two months after the term first went viral could feel hopelessly out of touch. But the phenomenon of the VSCO girl, while certainly referencing an actual, common style of dress, is far more interesting as a case study in how an entire subculture becomes a viral meme than it is about VSCO girls themselves. There will always be jokes about “basic” teenage girls. What’s new is how they evolve with unprecedented rapidity into something much, much bigger.

The easy part is explaining what a VSCO girl is, which is most succinctly illustrated by the things she consumes. The “starter pack” of a VSCO girl will likely include the following items: A T-shirt so big that it covers the bottom of her shorts, which are maybe from Nike or the junior’s store Brandy Melville where everything comes in just one size (that size is “small”). If she’s not wearing a scrunchie in her hair, she’ll almost certainly keep one (or three) on her wrist, alongside a bracelet by the Costa Rica-founded brand Pura Vida. She’ll carry a backpack by the Sweden-based Fjallraven and a sticker-covered Hydro Flask (cost per water bottle is around $35). The rest of her outfit will be composed of Birkenstock sandals (or any other ugly-trendy shoe, such as Crocs or Fila Disruptors), Burt’s Bees or Carmex lip balm topped with Glossier gloss, and a puka shell choker. The look is at once expensive to achieve and laid-back in practice; a teenager recently described VSCO girls to me as the type to spend 20 minutes making their messy buns look just so.

That’s the aesthetic that permeates the actual app: VSCO, the photo-editing software that launched in 2012, operates like an Instagram draft folder. The app’s high-contrast, temperature-warped filters have the ability to make an average photo of a manicure or a cactus look profound, and though VSCO operates similar to a social network (there are profiles and “liking”), there’s far less pressure to curate a perfect-looking or algorithm-winning VSCO feed, since Instagram continues to operate as the public-facing social media self. But ultimately, VSCO is a place to make your photos look good, and the stereotype goes that nobody cares more about making their photos look good than teenage girls.

VSCO girls were always sort of a joke. Way back in January, YouTuber Greer Jones delivered a deadpan introduction to a video called “becoming the ultimate VSCO girl”: “Today I’m going to be trying to become a VSCO girl, because that’s my life goal, you know, I’m not focusing on college, not focusing on my grades, because that’s irrelevant,” she says sarcastically. “I really look up to the girls on VSCO.”

Back then, becoming a “VSCO girl” basically just meant making your VSCO feed look cool; In the video, Greer tries to achieve the retro-flecked, trying-to-look-like-you’re-not-trying aesthetic popular on the app — she takes photos of white sneakers next to succulents and says dryly, “I think my shoes and the plant, it just really shows who I am as a person and, I don’t know, it’s pretty deep.”

She’s making fun of them, of course, but Greer shares the same signifiers as the VSCO girls she’s parodying. In a video posted in August of her getting ready for the first day of sophomore year, she wears a basic T-shirt tucked into jean shorts, a choker, and messy bun tied up with a scrunchie, the sartorial underpinnings of VSCO girlhood.

Since then, the most viral parodies of VSCO girls have been by teenagers who could qualify as VSCO girls themselves, making it more of an exercise in self-deprecation than blatant misogyny (although there is plenty of that going on in other portrayals, too).

But what really turned the VSCO girl into a category of person worth explaining is TikTok, the short-form video app, which has become the defining social media network of Gen Z in the year since its US launch. It’s known for its bizarre comedy and outlandish pranks. It’s also known for POV, or point-of-view videos, where teens film themselves acting as a character speaking to you, the watcher.

It was early this summer that users began to make VSCO girl POVs, often in which the viewer played the passive role of the new student who had the misfortune of sitting next to a VSCO girl. She’d suddenly start telling you about her Hydro Flask, aggressively loaning you scrunchies, and quoting dated memes borrowed from black, LGBTQ, and stan culture slang (“and I — oop” and “sksksk”). The joke is that she’s perky and annoying while espousing the virtues of eco-consciousness via conspicuous consumption (metal straws, fancy water bottles, Birkenstock sandals, etc.). It’s not a particularly new kind of high school stereotype, but it’s one that feels pertinent to the era of “save the turtles” and social media posturing.

Whereas teenage girls carrying Fjallraven backpacks and oversized tie-dye shirts would hardly have been notable before, POV parodies turned the look into a costume, something for teenagers to call each other despite the fact that they themselves might share the same signifiers. Like “hipster,” “emo,” or “basic,” the term is both insult and apologia, something to use in reference to others or sheepishly about oneself. Said one 16-year-old to NBC News, “I’ve never really labeled myself as a ‘VSCO girl’ until it really became a trend, and I thought, ‘Oh, I guess I’m a ‘VSCO girl’ now!’”

It’s been a similar surprise to the brands implicated by the VSCO-girl meme. Since the term went viral, I’ve received PR emails from scrunchie emporium Claire’s and Pura Vida incorporating VSCO girls into the subject heading. None of the brands I spoke to, however, had seen a meaningful sales bump due to the meme; Pura Vida said that its growth had been steady over the past year, and Hydro Flask could not comment on sales figures (but did say that its parent company “continues to thrive” and grew at a rate of 23.6 percent in Q1).

For the VSCO girl’s namesake app, the story is similar. In a recent meeting with CEO Joel Flory, he told me that while the trend hadn’t contributed to an uptick in users, he was happy to use the media’s sudden interest in VSCO as a chance to sell its mission: It wants to be the chiller, more creative counterpart to Instagram, free of bullying or anxiety or “compare culture.” Having recently conducted a survey on young people and mental health, VSCO wants to be the place where kids can post photos and videos without worrying what their friends will think about them.

On VSCO, where 75 percent of its 20 million weekly users are under 25, he says “VSCO girls are nothing new.” He does, however, want people to know that people who use the hashtag #VSCOgirl on the actual app will reveal a culture that’s more diverse than what the meme has come to signify. “It’s not new for people to reference [VSCO] as a part of their identity,” he says. The company isn’t planning on changing its marketing efforts to capitalize on VSCO girls. But he referenced the fact that the only reason he was sitting inside the Vox offices for an interview at all was because suddenly dozens of journalists were writing stories about VSCO girls.

“We’re here,” he says. “[There are] doors that have been opened for conversations to take place.” In a winking gesture, he and the VSCO publicist presented me with my very own Hydro Flask.

Like most videos, the best ones about VSCO girls are the ones that go all wrong. When TikToker Charlotte Woods and her friends tried to build a perfectly VSCO-esque outdoor sleepover fort complete with fairy lights and printed sheets, they hadn’t prepared for the sprinklers to go off at 6 a.m., leaving their camera-ready hangout drenched and uninhabitable.

Even if the VSCO girl is more useful as a joke than it is an accurate descriptor of millions of teenage girls, she’s now a part of the culture’s understanding of Gen Z, a new type of teen to both worship and mock, just as we did 10 years ago with girls who wore similarly outdoorsy clothing, clunky shoes, fancy water bottles, and hair accessories (although back then it was North Face fleeces, Uggs, Nalgenes, and headbands).

Though in both cases, these items can be considered expensive and aspirational, when packaged together to create a label for those who wear them, it isn’t a compliment. “Usually, we point [VSCO girls] out to each other when we see them, and we might laugh at them a little bit, just because they’re so conformist,” one 15-year-old told Slate. Another described them as “They’re just kind of basic and not that interesting as people.” This, essentially, is the effect of labeling people at all; any high school dramedy will tell you as much. Like the “basic” girls of the mid to early 2010s, the VSCO girl label slaps any teenager with an oversized T-shirt and a scrunchie with a dozen other signifiers that may or may not apply to her: That she’s vapid and boring, that she’s too concerned with how her pictures look even though they look just like everybody else’s, and that in trying so hard to not look like she’s trying, she becomes the biggest try-hard of all. And like most stereotypes about women, you can’t really win.

It also isn’t a coincidence that both VSCO girls and the “basic” teens who came before them are often white and wealthy enough to afford their respective uniforms. Mainstream society has long had an outsized interest in what white, wealthy people are doing and buying, and generational stereotypes are, in fact, often based around them: The two most pernicious signifiers of millennials, for instance, are avocado toast and being entitled, despite the fact that it’s the first generation in modern history to end up worse off financially than their parents. Rather than facing the realities of what life is actually like for the majority of millennials who are in debt, it’s far easier to pay attention to the ones making millions by turning their lives into content.

VSCO girls aren’t the first high school stereotype to go viral — e-boys, horse girls, and scene kids have all had their day in the sun — but they’re perhaps the ones to achieve that virality the fastest and with the most eager media participation. Even the writer behind the first VSCO girl explainer is shocked by how fast the term caught on. On July 26, Roisin Lanigan published “A Guide to VSCO Girls: The Tumblr Girls of 2019” on i-D UK, the website owned by Vice, after hearing about the meme by teenagers she was speaking to for a different story. Despite her editor having zero clue what VSCO girls were, the piece ended up being one of the site’s most popular of the summer.

Now, Lanigan says, the media’s thirst for VSCO content has veered toward the cringey. “I always just roll my eyes at the pieces now,” she told me over Twitter DM. “It seems like for some websites it’s just a way to try to write about Gen Z without really understanding or talking to or identifying as Gen Z. It also kind of betrays that you’re kind of writing about them as though they’re this strange species you clearly don’t understand.”

The VSCO girl as meme will fizzle out; it already is doing so, at least according to Google search trends. But the mechanisms by which it originated are only going to get faster and more powerful. Whether we want to continue the national pastime of elevating the same sliver of teenage girls for the sport of mocking them is perhaps worth considering.

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