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A trip down the weird rabbit hole of Tumblr Girls

pink_tumblr_girl_logoStyle icons have existed for hundreds of years (probably longer), from Marie Antoinette to Coco Chanel to the supermodel squad of the 1990s. But in the past 10 years, the rise of social media and blogging culture swung the axis of style photography toward self-starters; ordinary, fashion-obsessed people with smartphone cameras and Instagram accounts now command immense cultural credibility when it comes to fashion imagery. People no longer need to drop $8 on a thick Vogue to find style inspiration, since the Internet gives us access to ridiculous amounts of photographs of good-looking, well-coiffed people.

While paparazzi remain capable of propelling celebrity, anyone who wants to gain fame also masters the art of the selfie.

Fashion stars used to be full-fledged celebrities – your Marilyn Monroes and Jackie Kennedys – but now street fashion blogs like the Sartorialist and Bill Cunningham’s New York Times street fashion photography have mainstreamed the idea that everyone and anyone can be a fashion icon. Even formerly crusty, freewheeling events like Bonnaroo and other music festivals have morphed into opportunities for young people to be photographed and included in slideshows in New York Magazine. People once excluded from mainstream fashion are using the Internet to blog their way inside, like Leandra Medine of the website The Man Repeller, whose once-hobbyist blog is now an influential fashion staple, replete with sponsorships and brand affiliations.

Waiting for someone else to take your picture isn’t necessary now. While paparazzi remain capable of propelling celebrity, anyone who wants to gain fame also masters the art of the selfie. Just look at Kim Kardashian’s Instagram account. Self-promotion is now just as valid as old-school promotion. And for many teenagers, the heights of real-person fashion success are reached with Tumblr – you might not become a full-time model through this method, but you can gain a kind of quickie fame by becoming a “Tumblr girl.”Screen Shot 2013-06-17 at 11.44.12 AM

Say what? A “Tumblr girl” is a young woman who gets quasi-famous on Tumblr for her style (and God-given looks). Her photos are reblogged thousands of times and she has hundreds of thousands of followers. It’s become something to aspire to, even as more self-aware young people poke fun at the archetype. It’s not always quite as involved as Man Repeller-levels of blogging, but young women with an interest in fashion and an even bigger interest in capturing what they look like wearing said fashion are now a well-known Tumblr staple.

And since they’re reaching more achievable levels of fame and generally tend to post from their parents’ homes, the appeal of the Tumblr girl stems from the fact that they’re both more fashionable than the average Tumblr fan but still a real person – it’s an attainable sort of fashion celebrity, which makes Tumblr girl status more intensely coveted than, say, becoming a Victoria’s Secret Angel. It’s something that teens know they could potentially achieve with just a few perfect snapshots and a good hashtagging game.

 There’s already an e-How article about how to achieve Tumblr girl-ness and it’s funny, sad, and revealing all at once. There are six steps, apparently. Mostly involving buying “hipster” clothes. One of the best pearls of wisdom: “Take cool photographs. Use a filter to make your photos look more scenic. They usually have Helvetica writing and nebula.” So basically, download Instagram and press on that Toast filter until your thumb hurts.

Eloniee Pope, who doesn’t consider herself a Tumblr girl and runs a Tumblr Girls Twitter account (which, naturally, posts pictures of Tumblr girls) says most Tumblr girls just do it for fun, not to become professional models. While they are a rampantly-posting bunch, Pope says there isn’t a strong, supportive Tumblr Girl community. “Tumblr Girls aren’t really fans of each other,” Pope explains. “It’s usually a fight to see who is a better Tumblr Girl. Normal regular girls do fandom. They feel insecure or lonely and believe the ‘Tumblr Girls’ receive more attention.”

Urban Dictionary defines Tumblr girls in a few entries, none of them particularly sympathetic. “White hipster girls who post crop pics of themselves showing their tanned midriff posing highwaist short shorts, fringed shirts, and heels (if the picture doesnt stop at their upper thighs). Sometimes a group of friends. They are all generic and are annoying. For some reason, dumbasses think everyone wants be a Tumblr girl when in reality nobody but hipster blogs gives two shits about them.” Pope didn’t go in-depth describing the Tumblr girl aesthetic, but she did make sure to point out they have a homogenous body type. “They are usually skinny.”

The whole Tumblr girl phenomenon might seem like innocent, albeit navel-gazing, fun. And a lot of it is. Young people love Tumblr for many reasons, but one of them is because it facilitates supportive communities, and that includes many members of the “Tumblr girl” world. But this corner of the Internet can also get pretty dark for a number of reasons. These Tumblr girls style themselves in the vein of alternative fashion, so it looks like they’re getting a freer reign on what’s cool to wear than people who obsess over brands and top designers. But the parameters of what makes a cool Tumblr girl are actually crazy narrow if you want to achieve top-shelf popularity.

Screen Shot 2013-06-17 at 3.13.41 PMYou have to be on trend and adopt a very specific look, one that countless YouTube tutorials have down to a science. One prominent Tumblr girl, Erika Bowles, is a good example of the eclectic-yet-improbably-beautiful thing most of these ladies have going for them.

Your hair can be long or short, but it has to look styled. You can’t wear too much makeup, but you have to have prominent eyes, so most Tumblr girls have eyeliner and plenty of mascara on, paired with nude lips. You have to be good-looking, obviously. Some Tumblr girls are tan, blonde, and conventionally beautiful. Others are edgier. In other words, some are Beyonces and some are Solanges. But most are obviously young, fashion-addled, and dedicated to becoming an admired digital object.

There are many critics of teenagers and young adults now who act as though the preoccupation with digital documentation is a sui generis character trait instead of something that makes perfect sense when you look at human nature in general. Everyone wants to be noticed. The Millenial generation’s collective personality (if there is such a thing) isn’t so much markedly different than older generations; it is just markedly more fluent in advanced technology, including social tech like Tumblr. 

The thrill of instantaneous positive feedback is part of what makes social media so addictive, and Tumblr is no exception – people want encouragement, and posting meticulously planned selfies on Tumblr (if you’re a pretty young thing) is one of the easiest ways to get a cascade of digital applause. But woe to the teen who doesn’t quite get how to capture the Tumblr girl aesthetic; the only thing more certain than the rush from positive feedback is the fact that the people who give you pats on the back will also rip you to shreds if you don’t meet their subjective standards. 

The possibility of praise encourages young people to stick their online necks out and go beyond reasonable measures to ensure Tumblr popularity – and since some corners of Tumblr girl culture fixate on “thinspo,” or photos of women looking “admiScreen Shot 2013-06-17 at 2.59.50 PMrably” skinny, there’s serious concern about wannabe Tumblr superstars adopting unhealthy eating habits to achieve lean legs or flat stomachs. Photos tagged with #thighgap glorify people who have such thin legs that their thighs don’t touch, and it’s becoming a serious trend on Tumblr (and Pinterest, and Instagram).

The thinness-obsessed element of Tumblr girls veers into problematic areas because it provides insecure women with the very thing they don’t need – reinforcement that their fixation on attaining an unhealthy weight is both interesting and admirable.

There are definitely some areas of the community bucking the trend toward seriously skinny – one (still very slender and fit) girl captioned a picture “It’d be kinda legit to be the first tumblr girl without a thigh gap.” But she’s the exception to the rule of a culture that glorifies the ultra-svelte.

And it’s competitive. Look at blogs like The Tumblr Famous, which will profile you … if you have over 10,000 followers.

Now, the idea of being a Tumblr girl isn’t out-and-out toxic. There are those like Tavi Gevinson, who started a fashion blog called Style Rookie at the ridiculously young age of 11 but mixed her self-styled photoshoots with impressively insightful text, you can’t argue that DIY fashion blogging is necessarily bad for teens. Self-published fashion blogging (including selfies) allowed Tavi to catapult herself into the fashion world but maintain a critical eye. The problem with Tumblr girlhood is the emphasis on followers for followers’ sake and the over-reliance on a specific aesthetic that can be just as alienating as the more traditional Abercrombie & Fitch teen dream of my days.

On the flipside, it’s heartening that many young girls are aware that the “Tumblr girl” title isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There are nearly as many sarcastic YouTube videos about Tumblr girlhood as there are sincere tutorials.

And if you’re a guy and wondering why only the ladies are hitting it big on Tumblr, don’t worry – young men are also carving out their niche as ultra-popular selfie-obsessed blogging icons. They’re not usually lumped together as “Tumblr guys” as frequently, but Tumblr stalwarts like Mike Cerrato have major presences on the site. Cerrato actually deleted his incredibly successful Tumblr posts (still on Instagram, Cerrato fans!) but he’s still a major fixture just because so many people reblog old photos. He even has GIF shrines, just like popular Tumblr girls.

At least we can say that Tumblr “girl”-dom is equal opportunity. 

Kate Knibbs
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Kate Knibbs is a writer from Chicago. She is very happy that her borderline-unhealthy Internet habits are rewarded with a…
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