Chasing the #Aesthetic: Living Life Through a Moodboard


The one word that has risen in popularity in recent years, and has become impossible to escape on social media, is ‘aesthetic.’ Regardless of which platform you use or your social media habits, it’s highly likely that you’ve come across the word ‘aesthetic’ in some shape or form. On social media, aesthetic doesn’t simply refer to the dictionary definition: “relating to the enjoyment or study of beauty.”

An ‘aesthetic’ is a feeling or a mood that a particular object/lifestyle evokes. It has evolved to be all-encompassing, where anything from clothes and makeup to the books you read and the leisure activities you take part in being indicative of a certain aesthetic. You may have heard of a few popular ones such as cottagecore, VSCO, and dark academia. 

For those unfamiliar with social media ‘aesthetics,’ it was a term popularized in 2013 on Tumblr.  

Unlike subcultures, being part of an ‘aesthetic’ doesn’t necessarily require active or constant participation from its followers. This low level of gatekeeping is partly the reason that being of an aesthetic is so popular—it’s so easy to participate in. But other than that, aesthetics are also popular because they confer a sense of cohesion and identity to a person. Someone who identifies with the dark academia aesthetic is suddenly in possession of their life manual. They know to dress in dark colours and opt for blazers and plaid, to buy binders and take notes on paper, and to pursue scholarly activities. There are such guides for every aesthetic, perhaps no better exemplified than in the ‘starter packs’ available online. This can allow them to feel in control of their life, and to define themselves. But the problem with definitions is that they disregard the possibility of change.    

An Aesthetic Life 

It’s all well and good when your aesthetic is used to guide your visual surroundings. After all, your aesthetic plays to what you find visually pleasing. Outfitting your house to conform to your aesthetic can make you feel more at home and happy in your space. So if you conscientiously search for the best farmhouse sink while identifying with the cottagecore aesthetic, then that will likely bring you happiness every time you step into the kitchen. But what happens when you extrapolate your aesthetic beyond the visual?

While many problems regarding inclusion aren’t faced when identifying with an aesthetic—like there would be when being part of a subculture—an aesthetic poses the unique problem of being too restricting. This is usually a self-imposed restriction as followers may perceive certain lifestyle choices as a necessary, and often representative, part of the aesthetic to the extent that those who identify with the aesthetic feel like they must like certain activities or adopt a certain lifestyle. For example, are you really of the dark academia aesthetic if you haven’t read ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt? Can you really call yourself a follower of cottagecore when you don’t always buy organic and sustainable? 

While not everyone who partakes of these aesthetics may feel this way, it can be a real danger to those who perceive their membership of these niche groups to be a central part of their identity. They may try to fit their life around this identity, spending their time chasing these aesthetics instead of forming their identity off their natural way of life. 

But why must your aesthetic preferences determine the lifestyle you lead? As if what you find visually pleasing is tied to the values and beliefs you hold. Human beings are multifaceted, with complex personalities and likes and dislikes. They can like dark academia fashion but yearn to bake instead of to read. Identifying with an aesthetic does not mean you have to follow its guidelines to a tee. It’s completely fine to like and appreciate only parts of an aesthetic, and you shouldn’t feel forced to follow all of its tenets. Likewise, you may find that you have grown out of the aesthetic you identified with previously. That’s also natural. 

At the end of the day, identifying with an aesthetic can be uplifting. It can provide a common link between people that can make for easy conversation-starters, provide content that you are likely to enjoy, and expose you to new things that you may enjoy and wish to explore. Identifying with an aesthetic can also help you to produce content by providing you a mental guide and is something that is guaranteed to be enjoyed by other followers of the same aesthetic.

Being part of an ‘aesthetic’ is just like being part of social media: partaking of it can be fun and beneficial, but over immersion can lead to problems. You have to remind yourself that these moodboards are carefully curated; real life does not come that curated. And besides, you don’t want to be one-dimensional, do you? Enjoy the aesthetic, but don’t take it too seriously!