Zoe Holland is a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Southern California, where she is surrounded by possibly unintentional VSCO girls (pronounced “visco”). With her jet-black hair, blunt Bettie Page bangs, black-winged eyeliner, heart cheek stamp and pink-blushed nose and cheeks, Holland is the quintessential e-girl, lost in a sea of Malibu Barbies taking selfies.
E-girls are Gen Z’s version of emo, listening to and dressing like Billie Eilish. Holland is a musician, and when asked what kind of music she plays, she deadpans, “Sad music.”
E-girl is Holland’s personal style, but when she goes to class, it’s not in the full face of makeup seen on social media. “I might add something fun like a little face stamp or a little eyeliner, but that’s it.” She’s not alone. Many of the teens appearing in a full face of dramatic makeup on TikTok videos are going to school barefaced.
If you’re not a teenager, you may have no idea what any of the aforementioned terms mean. Let’s back it up:
TikTok: A short-form video app owned by Chinese company ByteDance, TikTok is where users (who are mostly teenagers) can quickly swipe through 15-second videos of “Jackass”-like challenges, lip-syncing and satirical bites. It’s where memes like VSCO girls, e-girls and soft girls were born and where they live. According to analytics firm Sensor Tower, TikTok has surpassed 1.5 billion downloads internationally on the App Store and Google Play, proving its vast influence.
VSCO girls: VSCO girls are named for the subscription-based photo and video editing app VSCO (Visual Supply Company) known for its soft, flattering filters that make VSCO girls look like they spent all day in nature instead of editing photos of themselves. VSCO girls are 2020’s version of “basic”: predominantly white, skinny girls, outfitted in puka shell necklaces, scrunchies, Birkenstocks and Pura Vida friendship bracelets, who give off a carefree beach vibe yet are label-obsessed. They forgo a face full of makeup for a swipe of Glossier Boy Brow, a spritz of Mario Badescu rosewater face spray and a dab of Carmex lip balm. With their Hydro-flasks adorned with “save the turtles” stickers and metal straws, we are led to believe VSCO girls are environmentalists, Valley girls with a cause. Endlessly scrolling through TikTok videos hashtagged #vscogirl, you will see mostly mocking videos targeting their signature co-opted phrases (“sksksksksk,” “and I oop”) and their label-heavy aesthetic.
E-girls: Short for “electronic girls,” picture if Harley Quinn and Kurt Cobain had a baby. E-girls always have a blocky, black-winged eye, bright-pink blush over the cheeks and nose, and a drawn or stamped black heart (or another shape) on their cheeks, and sometimes wear baby pigtails and snap clips.
Soft girls: A more feminine, hyper-anime version of an e-girl; think “Sailor Moon” meets Ariana Grande.
According to Urban Dictionary, “e-girl” was originally a misogynist slur for gamer girls, and unfortunately, it’s still sometimes used that way, as evidenced in an entry from March of this year: “The difference between a normal girl who plays video games and an e-girl is that an e-girl begs for money or sells herself for it.”
The woman-hating entries on Urban Dictionary do not describe the empowered e-girls found on TikTok. “E-girl, soft girl, VSCO girl — it’s all based on internet culture and it’s mostly satirical,” said Camden Forbes, a 15-year-old from Monterey, California, and owner of the @WorldofEgirls Instagram account.
“Yeah, VSCO girls get made fun of, but they don’t take themselves too seriously, either.” Forbes also said that as much as the media has painted VSCO girls, e-girls and soft girls as subcultures, they’re more about aesthetics than community. “Nobody identifies themselves as an e-girl, soft girl or VSCO girl. It’s more of a look they’re creating for TikTok.”
Image Is Everything
“VSCO girls don’t really care about saving the environment,” declared Grace Weinbach, a 15-year-old sophomore from Miami. It’s evidently just another item in their starter pack. “They follow the trend, and saving the turtles is part of that. People don’t want to be called a VSCO girl, now it’s a big joke. There were definitely girls who looked like VSCO girls before but weren’t called that until TikTok gave them a name and people started making fun of them.”
Where VSCO girls are preppy and easy-breezy, e-girls are edgy, dark — a grunge, goth, cosplay mashup. VSCO girls go for the same look every time, where e-girls change it up. One day an e-girl might channel Japanese Harajuku (Tokyo's teen fashion epicenter) wearing a Clueless-esque plaid pleated mini-skirt with a crop top and a pink wig and then head-to-toe black, Doc Marten boots and silver chains the next.
That raises the question of whether e-girls and soft girls outside of Japan, many of whom are white, are guilty of cultural appropriation.
“If the e-girl videos are ‘borrowing’ from anime/manga cultures, yet do so as satire, it could be seen as cultural appropriation since the performer may use the culture to commercially or socially benefit from it, but not necessarily to celebrate its cultural roots and/or pay homage to its cultural meanings in Japan,” said Jung-Whan de Jong, associate professor of sociology at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. De Jong is currently working on a book called “Cultural Appropriation of Fashion and Entertainment” with FIT colleague Yuniya Kawamura.
Though De Jong sees e-girls and soft girls as potential cultural appropriation, he also recognizes the razor-fine line. “Cultural appropriation is such a difficult ― as in subjective ― concept,” he said. “For example, cosplay is actively promoted by the Japanese government as part of ‘Cool Japan’ soft power/pop culture diplomacy, as is Manga, anime and Harajuku. In that regard, if the country of origin exports the culture with a goal to expose a large population to Japanese cultures, it might be more difficult to talk of cultural appropriation.”
Self-proclaimed cosplayer Devin Feheley, 25, sees her TikTok content as an homage to Japanese culture — so much so she is moving to Osaka, Japan later this month. “I absolutely love and respect Japanese culture above all else!” Feheley exclaimed via Instagram direct message. “I am so infatuated with Kawaii/Japanese fashion that I do admit my style has been evolving more towards that genre lately. But I always try to remain respectful and stay within the fashion realm, especially whilst living there.”
While Feheley doesn’t see her content as appropriation, she acknowledges that other TikTokers may be guilty of it. “I have seen Japanese appropriation with other TikTok girls and Instagrammers and it’s honestly quite hard and frustrating for me because they gain a large following in double the time, as well as make large sums of money off of it. Though it’s confusing and frustrating, I don’t think I would ever cross that line. I prefer to have the opportunity to assimilate into Japanese culture rather than disrespect it.”