Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

What Do Teens Mean When They Talk About an Aesthetic

The Teen wants you to know that she is not into Cottagecore, but she did take this recent senior photo and I needed a photo for this post and she said it “kinda works”

Like many people, I spent a great portion of the mid-pandemic listening to the new Taylor Swift album, Folklore, on repeat. It was haunting and melancholy and fit my mood. Last week I saw a post about how the album was “Cottagecore” and about the “Cottagecore Aesthetic” and I fell down a rabbit hole trying to figure out what that meant. I have always believed in trying to understand that current things my tweens and teens are talking about.

Don’t get me wrong, I was vaguely aware of the idea of a social media aesthetic for a long time, I just hadn’t given it a lot of thought. And when I looked at Cottagecore I figured it was mostly an adult thing, turns out I am wrong. It is not the first time I have been wrong, and it won’t be the last.

Having been married to an art major for some 25 years now, I am familiar with the term aesthetic. But I wanted to know more about what it means to teens specifically and to social media. Here’s what I’ve learned.

In the most basic definition, aesthetic means: concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty (that’s the dictionary definition). When applied to teens and social media, it means:

Image result for social media aesthetic definition

“In reference to social media, the term “aesthetic” is usually used to refer to the overall visual theme and mood of an account. Most often associated with Instagram.” (source: https://stayhipp.com/glossary/social-media-aesthetic/) This definition mentions Instagram, but it also applies to Tik Tok, Snapchat, etc.

As I mentioned above, Cottagecore is one of the currently popular aesthetics which is highlighted by the newest Taylor Swift album. Cottagecore is an aesthetic that is pastoral leaning. You’ll see lots of pictures of nature and picnic baskets and girls in long, flowing prairie dresses. Cottagecore is vintage and antiques in outdoor spaces with pastel flowers and sheets hanging on outdoors drying lines. The Teen says it’s has bright, soft lighting. You can find out more about Cottagecore here: https://foryouaesthetics.com/blogs/news/cottagecore-aesthetic. I also want to make sure we really look at and examine the various aesthetics and stumbled across this article about Cottagecore and the Far Right: https://honisoit.com/2020/09/cottagecore-colonialism-and-the-far-right/.

Corragecore is not, however, the only popular aesthetic. Last year I was asked to buy Thing 2 hair scrunchies and Hydroflask water bottles because of the VSCO aesthetic. You can even find articles and ideas about VSCO girl starter packs on popular teen sites like Teen Vogue: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/vsco-girl-starter-pack. (I bought her scrunchies but made her save up her own money for the Hydroflask because those are super expensive.)

There are other aesthetics popular with teens: soft girls and dark academia and afrofuturism. The list over at aesthetics.fandom.com of aesthetic types is actually quite long: https://aesthetics.fandom.com/wiki/List_of_Aesthetics. And YPulse has a really good look at the influence of, well, social media influencers and aesthetics here: https://www.ypulse.com/article/2019/07/31/e-girls-instagram-baddies-and-vsco-girls-the-social-media-styles-influencing-gen-z/. Buro247 has a list of popular 2020 aesthetics here: https://www.buro247.my/culture/buro-loves/from-vsco-girl-to-e-boy-these-are-the-aesthetics-o.html.

Aesthetics is about branding. Branding oneself. But also, brands have latched onto the idea of aesthetics to market to Gen Z as well. I even used this concept recently, without really knowing I was doing so, when I created an RA list of readalikes for Billie Eilish fans and one for Taylor Swift fans. I was applying the concept of the aesthetic with book recommendations.

When reading about aesthetics you will quickly find that a lot of the aesthetics being talked about in the media are very white centered, as unfortunately a lot of the media always has. As teen librarians, a field dominated by white women, we need to be really careful when reading about and thinking about using the idea of aesthetics as promotional tools not to become too white focused and exclusionary. So engage in research and promotion with intention and an eye to inclusion, as you should all things.

This is a screenshot of a recent RA tool I made to discuss the various genres and subgenres with my coworkers as we walk through learning about YA lit

I wanted to check and see if this idea of an aesthetic was just something adults were putting on to teens or if it was a thing teens talked about, so I went and consulted with my sources. They immediately began to talk to me about various aesthetics and seemed pretty interested in the concept. Sometimes the media talks about teens in ways that don’t resonate with teens, but the teens I talked to were very much aware of the concept of aesthetics on social media.

For iPhone users, the newest update even allows them to personalize their homescreen to fit their personal aesthetic: https://www.cnet.com/news/from-tumblr-to-ios-14-how-aesthetic-home-screens-became-a-trend/. This is something that apparently Android users have been able to do for a while.

Here are some more articles on the topic of aesthetics for you, should you too want to jump down this rabbit hole.

Vox: Cottagecore and Dark Academia on Tik Tok

Girls Life: Popular Tik Tok Aesthetics explained. Which one is you?

What I’ve learned is that aesthetic is about branding, in some ways, but it’s about identity. And teens have always been about identity and wearing your heart on your sleeve to make your identity known. From punk kids to emo kids to jocks . . . teens have always had an aesthetic. Well, most teens do. It’s just now they have taken those identities and that aesthetic online and onto social media. So in many ways it’s the same thing as always, just expressed differently for a new generation. Which doesn’t mean it lacks value, because it does. Who you are and how you choose to share that with the world is and always will be very important to teens. It’s exciting to see the ways that teens are using new tools to express themselves.

I asked The Teen if Book Nerd or Doctor Who fan could be my aesthetic and she said, not really but sure.

Take 5: Afrofuturism for Teens

Even though I have been a teen services librarian doing collection development for 26+ years, I still learn new things every day. I recently learned about Afrofuturism, which is the term used to describe “a cultural aesthetic, philosophy of science and philosophy of history that explores the developing intersection of African diaspora culture with technology”. It was coined by a man named Mark Dery in 1993. It was around this time that I was beginning my career in librarianship, so why am I just now hearing about it? Mostly, because I am a white woman practicing in a profession that is dominated by other white women just like me. I learned about this term in large part thanks Twitter conversations that I saw taking place but also because there is growing and better representation in the youth literature being published for our kids. Today I am going to share with you 5 titles that I have heard being talked about in the discussions of Afrofuturism. If you, like me, would like to learn more about this topic to be a more knowledable librarian and better serve your patrons, I highly recommend reading up.

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

Publisher’s Book Description:

Nothing is more important than loyalty.
But what if you’ve sworn to protect the one you were born to destroy?

Tarisai has always longed for the warmth of a family. She was raised in isolation by a mysterious, often absent mother known only as The Lady. The Lady sends her to the capital of the global empire of Aritsar to compete with other children to be chosen as one of the Crown Prince’s Council of 11. If she’s picked, she’ll be joined with the other Council members through the Ray, a bond deeper than blood. That closeness is irresistible to Tarisai, who has always wanted to belong somewhere. But The Lady has other ideas, including a magical wish that Tarisai is compelled to obey: Kill the Crown Prince once she gains his trust. Tarisai won’t stand by and become someone’s pawn—but is she strong enough to choose a different path for herself? With extraordinary world-building and breathtaking prose, Raybearer is the story of loyalty, fate, and the lengths we’re willing to go for the ones we love.

Karen’s Thoughts: This was brilliant. It also came out yesterday and you should definitely get it and read it.

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Publisher’s Book Description:

They killed my mother.
They took our magic.
They tried to bury us.

Now we rise.

Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls.

But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.

Now Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.

Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers and her growing feelings for an enemy.

Karen’s Thoughts: I read this book when it first came out and it has appeared on the NYT Bestseller list for quite some time, as has its sequel. It’s an epic read with amazing world building.

The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis

Westworld meets The Handmaid’s Tale in this stunning fantasy adventure from debut author Charlotte Nicole Davis.

Aster, the protector
Violet, the favorite
Tansy, the medic
Mallow, the fighter
Clementine, the catalyst


The country of Arketta calls them Good Luck Girls–they know their luck is anything but. Sold to a “welcome house” as children and branded with cursed markings. Trapped in a life they would never have chosen.

When Clementine accidentally murders a man, the girls risk a dangerous escape and harrowing journey to find freedom, justice, and revenge in a country that wants them to have none of those things. Pursued by Arketta’s most vicious and powerful forces, both human and inhuman, their only hope lies in a bedtime story passed from one Good Luck Girl to another, a story that only the youngest or most desperate would ever believe.

It’s going to take more than luck for them all to survive. 

Karen’s Thoughts: I have not yet read this title, but I’m intrigued by the comparison to Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale.

War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi

Publisher’s Book Description:

The year is 2172. Climate change and nuclear disasters have rendered much of earth unlivable. Only the lucky ones have escaped to space colonies in the sky.

In a war-torn Nigeria, battles are fought using flying, deadly mechs and soldiers are outfitted with bionic limbs and artificial organs meant to protect them from the harsh, radiation-heavy climate. Across the nation, as the years-long civil war wages on, survival becomes the only way of life.

Two sisters, Onyii and Ify, dream of more. Their lives have been marked by violence and political unrest. Still, they dream of peace, of hope, of a future together.

And they’re willing to fight an entire war to get there.

Karen’s Thoughts: This is another title on the list that I have not yet read, but in addition to being Afrofuturism it also falls solidly into the CliFi genre, which are books that talk about climate change. This is definitely on my TBR pile.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Publisher’s Book Description:

Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.

Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.

If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself – but first she has to make it there, alive.

Karen’s Thoughts: I have long known about this book and it is my own personal failing that I have not yet read it. If you, like me, have been derelict in reading this important and seminal author then you should join me in correcting that right away. It’s important to recognize reading gaps and make course corrections.

This was a huge knowledge gap for me and it may be for some TLT readers as well. I’m excited to have learned more so that I can do better, be better and better serve my patrons.