Approximately once in a generation (and by generation, we mean news cycle), there emerges a trope that takes the experience of young womanhood — in all its beautiful, maddening, tumultuous, tear-stained glory — and flattens it to the point that it means virtually nothing. In the 1980s, it was the Valley girl; in the 2010s, it was the basic bitch. Now, on the precipice of the Year of Our Lord 2020, the latest stereotype used to malign and mock burgeoning teenage female identity is that of the VSCO girl, a meme that originated among teens using the app TikTok that has now infiltrated the mainstream.
The phrase “VSCO girl” is an allusion to VSCO, a photo editing and sharing app with about 20 million weekly active users, the majority of whom are under the age of 25. Although the app is somewhat less overtly image-obsessed than Instagram, omitting such now-standard social media metrics as likes or follower counts, it’s best known for its gauzy, beach-inspired filters, which has led to it becoming associated with a certain type of breezy, casual, Hollister-esque aesthetic (though no self-respecting aspiring influencer would actually buy Hollister). But the VSCO girl meme itself has primarily found a home on platforms like Instagram and TikTok, with the latter boasting 785 million views of the #vscogirl hashtag.
Even if you don’t know what a VSCO girl is, you have undoubtedly encountered one on the internet. Her hair is long and lush and ombre and is either pulled up into a messy bun or effortlessly cascades down her back, impossibly managing to be straight and wavy at the same time. Her skin glows from the inside, like she just swallowed a radioactive goldfish. Her shirts are adorably baggy, while her shorts are so tiny as to be virtually nonfunctional. And her VSCO photos are often taken from behind, by an unseen boyfriend or husband or gay BFF or less effervescent female friend, who lies in wait till the moment she can wordlessly enter the frame and revel in the sunlight.
Above all else, like most female archetypes, the VSCO girl can be summarized less by who she is and more by what she buys. She swears fealty to a laundry list of brands, wearing Vans on her feet and Fjallraven Kanken on her back and a Brandy Melville striped tube top on her lithe, tanned torso. (The California-based brand, which was previously best known for drawing immense criticism for its non-inclusive sizing, is now virtually synonymous with the meme; given these connotations, it is perhaps not surprising that most VSCO girls are able-bodied and thin, not to mention white.) If she’s of age, she’ll drink her White Claw out of her Hydroflask; if she’s well-off, she’ll use Mario Badescu facial spray in her morning skincare routine. Above all else, she is known for her fondness for scrunchies. You probably thought scrunchies were over, but let the VSCO girl assure you: they are not, and your belief otherwise is yet another indication that you are almost impossibly decrepit and old.
Even within the context of the hyper-rapid meme cycle, the “VSCO girl” trope has had a relatively brief shelf life. Google search data shows that people only really started searching for the term in June 2019. (KnowYourMeme, essentially the Talmud for digital culture scholars, traces its origins earlier, to a 2017 story on the app itself in Galore magazine, but for all intents and purposes the actual trope didn’t really acquire a life of its own until earlier this year.) In the current social media ecosystem, they exist almost in direct opposition to egirls, another uniquely Gen-Z female aesthetic that would not exist without social media. The egirl aesthetic is both more overtly “alternative” and higher-maintenance than that of the VSCO girl, characterized by winged eyeliner, pastel hair, and a fondness for ahegao, an exaggerated facial expression popularized by Japanese hentai that is meant to mimic an O-face. (Remember the ska kids in high school? That’s an egirl, only with much better hair.)
Given how specific the VSCO girl aesthetic is, it’s less something to actively aspire to and more a trope that’s ripe for parody. That said, those who are adept at replicating the aesthetic are, without a doubt, rewarded for their labor on social media. The patron saint of VSCO girls, YouTuber Emma Chamberlain, has more than 8 million subscribers, while other influencers appear to be actively leaning into it. Danielle Cohn, the 15-year-old primarily known for her scantily clad selfies who has called herself the “one of the most hated girls on Instagram,” recently posted a photo on Instagram in a baggy plaid shirt, Birkenstocks, and a puka shell ankle bracelet — a pretty significant pivot from her brand, as well as clear nods to the VSCO girl aesthetic. It racked up 140,000 likes.
Even though the VSCO girl aesthetic is, in many ways, specific to Gen Z culture, it didn’t arise in a vacuum. Its antecedent is the 2014 basic bitch, who was also characterized primarily by her exaggerated casualness and ardor for generic brands like Starbucks, North Face, and Yankee Candle Company. Unlike basic bitches, however, VSCO girls have something of a more political bent, at least in theory. On TikTok, VSCO girl parodies make reference to dilettante Greenpeace slogans like Save the Turtles, as well as a predilection for sipping green juice out of metal straws. But the VSCO girl’s passion for sustainability is viewed as little more than virtue signaling, and many versions of the meme will ironically misspell the animal as “turtals” to denote the cosmetic nature of her politics.
In this vein, the VSCO girl’s use of internet vernacular is also intended to denote frivolity. Almost every VSCO girl meme will refer to her penchant for phrases like “sksksksksk” (an expression of incredulity, for when you, in pre-VSCO girl parlance, just can’t even), and, “and I oop,” a reference to a 2015 YouTube video featuring RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Jasmine Masters (ostensibly intended to express shock or surprise, but as is often the case with memes, is now basically applied to every context imaginable). Such phrases aren’t limited to VSCO girls — for a certain subset of Extremely Online folks, they’re pretty much universal. But on TikTok, they’re intended as shorthand for a very specific brand of female ditziness, one that, combined with an obsession with social media and feigned casualness and a purely cosmetic interest in social justice causes, render the VSCO girl patently ridiculous.
All of this is to say that the VSCO girl brand is not something that someone would actively aspire to identify with, and indeed, that’s the case on TikTok, where most teens are eviscerating — or, at the very least, gently poking fun at — the trope. Indeed, many of the tropes associated with the meme originate less with VSCO girls proper and more with the subgenre of YouTube videos parodying it, a seemingly endless offering of videos of ponytailed teenage girls hosting sleepovers on trampolines and pool floats. In true internet-snake-eating-its-own-tail fashion, VSCO girl parodies have become synonymous with VSCO girls themselves.
And while VSCO girl hate isn’t limited to one specific gender or demographic, many of the TikToks that get the most engagement are by teenage boys performing a type of VSCO-girl drag, scrunchies, Hydroflasks, oversized sweatshirts, and all. And some of these TikToks are pretty aggressively problematic. One TikTok features a teenage boy pretending to be a psycho VSCO girlfriend, while another shows a boy zooming in on a group of girls wearing puka shell necklaces and Vans. The girls look to be extremely young, maybe 10 or 11 years old, and they appear to be unaware that they’re being filmed; the boy mockingly says “sksksksk” while zooming in on them. That TikTok has more than 360,000 likes.
That said, while the VSCO girl archetype has undoubtedly be coopted by some high school boys as a way to skewer or demean their female counterparts, most of the parody appears to be in good fun (some of them are also pretty funny, particularly those giving VSCO-girl makeovers to Dora the Explorer and Maui from Moana.) And while there’s nothing inherently funny about teenage girls becoming interested in “serious” subjects like environmental sustainability, while at the same time liking “unserious” things like selfies and self-care products, if nothing else the VSCO girl label crystallizes a very specific brand of performative casualness embodied by thin, young white women on social media, an aesthetic that screams “what? Beautiful? Me?!?! But I just woke up like this!” when we all know perfectly well that you very much did not wake up like this.
So all hail the VSCO girl, in her expertly rumpled, adorably sun-kissed, high-ponytailed, baggy-sweatshirted, scrunchie-wearing glory. And all hail teenage girls on the internet, who contain multitudes and never fail to be anything less than impressive to grown-ups like us — and who also never fail to make us feel unspeakably old.
Correction Fri., Sept. 6, 9:18 a.m. An earlier version of this post stated that VSCO had 20 million users. It has 20 million weekly active users.