Discover more from mixed feelings
i've left my true style behind to look like everyone else on my FYP...
mixed feelings is a bi-weekly advice column. Every other week, a different mental health expert or writer will respond to your most pressing existential conundrums. If you’re dealing with one right now, use our anonymous form to be considered for a future newsletter. This week, writer Tess Garcia explores personal style in the age of social media.
I find it hard to tell what my personal style is anymore because I’m constantly being told by social media what’s trendy and what I should be wearing each season. I feel like I used to dress and shop differently before social media came along. I didn’t pay much attention to what everyone else was wearing because I knew what I liked and what felt most ‘me’. I followed some trends I saw in magazines, but I would pick and choose what felt authentic to me instead of letting those trends completely drive my style.
Now, so many of the decisions I make when buying clothes or getting dressed are intrinsically hinged on something I saw online. I find myself shopping for specific pieces to recreate an outfit I liked on some influencer girlie I saw on my feed, instead of using my own creativity to pull a look. I’ve purchased a handful of things where I thought to myself beforehand, ‘omg that looks so cute on her, I have to have it,’ only to wear it once for an Instagram post and never be seen in it again. It’s like I’m seeking validation online by trying to prove that I keep up with the trends, but in that pursuit I end up leaving my true style behind to look like everyone else on my fyp.” — TheDevilWearsNada, she/her
I used to shop for a living. For two years, I worked as a commerce writer for a handful of magazines, where I recommended clothing and beauty products I deemed “worth” readers’ money. I found most of the items on social media, where I parsed through the feeds of influencers and celebrities to determine what they actually used and loved.
In that time, I learned almost no viral product — universally-flattering dress, long-lasting lip gloss, or otherwise — lives up to the hype. I became cynical, shopping-averse, and hyper-aware that purchases like these wouldn’t amount to happiness. Instead of curating my belongings on my terms, I wore and used whatever brands sent me for free. A few years have passed, and I’m still usually the last person you’ll find online shopping. But every now and then, I’ll open TikTok to a video that leaves me feeling lambasted by the exact compulsion you’re describing. I have every reason to see through Internet trends, especially when they’re touted by those whose job it is to make you want what they have. Yet I’m still susceptible to their pull — and if I still am after all of the above, then who isn’t?
what is personal style?
Fashion and beauty lovers constantly throw around the term, but it signifies something different for everyone. Connecting with your taste means accepting its fluidity. Your desires for your own appearance can, and should, change over time. Still, it can be tough to determine whether you truly like something or just want to buy what’s being sold to you.
“Social media can create a superficial relationship with developing personal style that revolves around recreating people’s exact ways of dressing, opting into individual items they wear rather than taking time to thoughtfully build a self to style oneself around,” says fashion theorist Rian Phin, who’s made a name for herself on TikTok by distinguishing between microtrends and determinants of individual taste. “In other ways, social media allows people to learn about styles they didn’t otherwise have access to, which can broaden their style influences. With this, people can develop themselves more complexly, and then work to build on their style.”
When putting together an outfit, makeup look, or hairstyle, think about the overall vibe you’re going for, rather than an item that may, at first, feel like the only way to achieve that vibe. Pinterest helps me determine the broader influences I want to embed in my style. For example, a painting of a meadow could inspire me to reach for flowy fabrics, sweep my hair into a messy bun, and apply only blush and SPF to my face. Think of this as an exercise akin to an unconventional challenge from early-2000s Project Runway. Instead of making clothes, your task is to create the visual effect of your dreams using items you already own. And let’s face it: Even if you had the money to buy products for every trend — from blueberry milk nails to the tomato girl aesthetic and every ephemeral, food-related niche in between — it’s impossible to keep pace with their entrance and exit from the zeitgeist.
If you can’t get a certain viral item off your mind, consider your susceptibility to the mere exposure effect, a marketing concept and psychological phenomenon that says the more we encounter something, the more we start to like it. “It’s been used for many years, but you can do it a lot more efficiently on an app like TikTok or Instagram, where you can rapidly swipe and see multiple images of things you may not have liked in the past,” says Dr. Evan Rieder, a board-certified dermatologist and psychiatrist in New York City. In other words, if you took a while to warm up to your current trend of choice, it could speak more to effective marketing — influencing, if you will — than to your actual taste.
You might still be itching to pull the trigger on something you saw on your FYP. Before doing so, reflect on the last purchase you thought you would use forever, but turned out to be a fad. Do your current feelings mimic any from your previous experience? It could be helpful to log your thoughts on the item in a journal and mark the date, then return to it in a few months, to see what’s changed. You’ll likely uncover patterns in your stages of interest.
“One analogy is, there’s pop music that people like immediately, but it’s like bubblegum: Within a week, you’re like, ‘I can’t listen to this anymore,’” says Dr. Rieder. “But there are songs that you didn’t like in the beginning, but you keep hearing them over and over, and they grow on you. That’s sort of what happens with mere repeated exposure, as well.”
other ways to fill the void
Phin feels we shouldn’t take our interest in someone else’s style at face value. Usually, she explains, it’s about more than what they’re wearing. “Rather than buying every piece of the latest TikTok starter kit, take time to consider what about it appeals to you,” she says.
Clothes and beauty products could be a vessel through which you’re pursuing something deeper. “For example, the idea of freedom in traveling is what I think attracts people to the tomato girl aesthetic,” Phin suggests.
Ask yourself: Outside of what they’re wearing, what aspects of a particular person’s lifestyle do you truly want, and are there more productive ways to achieve them than adding to cart? Maybe that means putting the money you would’ve spent on leg warmers toward a beginner ballet class. Maybe it means setting aside time each week to coordinate plans with friends.
Maybe it means limiting your screen time (sorry, but you knew this was coming). Start small; studies show that reducing social media use by even 15 minutes each day yields significant benefits. “It’s not rocket science, but there’s data that shows that when you limit your exposure to social media, your psychological outcomes will be better,” says Dr. Rieder. “You will feel less depressed, you will feel less anxious, and you will feel more comfortable in your own skin.”
It won’t always be picture-perfect, but you’ll be surprised how quickly you view your own world through a lens of beauty, one you might usually reserve for people online. With FOMO occupying less space in your brain, you’ll find more room to accept life’s good, bad, and ugly moments. Ultimately, that acceptance empowers us to view what we already have — in our closets, our makeup bags, and beyond — as mere tools for enhancing the passions that make us who we really are.