In the past few years, our cultural zeitgeist has seen a rise in aestheticization: Everything these days is “[blank]”-aesthetic or has the word “-core” appended to it, conveying that it’s a theme or set of related visualizations that carry certain cultural connotations. For example, “cottagecore” usually makes one think not solely of a small cozy cottage in the woods, but of related visual imagery: light airy dresses, fields of grass, flowers in your braided hair — a romanticization, so to speak, of a certain way of life.
Unsurprisingly, the spread of “the aesthetic” across social media — Instagram and TikTok in particular, with their focus on visuals — has generated many critiques. A major one is political: that these aesthetics reflect a systemic valuing of white and Euro-centric ideals over everything else, even if they are seemingly harmless. “Cottagecore,” for instance, has been criticized for excluding POC and promoting concepts that, if not now, at least historically, have racist and colonial roots. The second critique I’ve heard is more sociological: that our societal obsession with “the aesthetic” prevents us from simply being human. Within the rigid constructs of aesthetics, everything we wear and do must match a certain societal standard of beauty — everything must be Pinterest-worthy, as if you are constantly on display for the world to see.
A lot of these criticisms are valid, and there certainly is something to be said about embracing the realities of life, with all its horrors, pains, and problems — everything that “the aesthetic” and romanticization aim to simplify and hide.
But I’ve found that for me personally, commitment to certain aesthetics has been not only an escape but a method of success throughout higher education. When I sit in the library, with my silly little cup of iced coffee, looking outside at the overcast sky as I read my medieval-era French novel for class, the feeling that I am living the archetypal dark academia life (even if I’m not — who wears a blue sundress like I do in those dark academia inspiration posts?) keeps me working. It’s a strange thing to explain, but in that scenario, to stop reading and stop working feels like a betrayal: There’s nothing more important than commitment to the bit, I tell myself every time, and frankly, it works.
Or another example: If it’s raining outside and I’m in my dorm, I’ll get into comfy pajamas, curl up with a blanket and a plushie, turn on my string lights, grab a cup of tea, and get to work: the Pinterest-perfect image of coziness. Here, again, I am maybe subjecting myself to norms of what a cozy evening “should” look like or, to take a darker interpretation, acting in private as though the camera is trained on me in a real-life dorm-style panopticon — but in the end, it gives me motivation to work and get my assignments done during periods of stress.
And it’s not just academic. Pretending that my 8 a.m. walk from the Greenways to Val is an autumnal stroll straight out of the movies, for instance, helps me find joy in what would otherwise be an annoyingly early and unnecessarily long commute. Even the romanticization of being a college student itself — someone on the quest for knowledge, whose job at the moment is simply to learn and grow — makes me feel a lot better when I might otherwise sink into burnout. These small moments of romanticization make life on an otherwise often stressful campus feel so much better.
In particular, I’ve found that “fake it till you make it” really applies here. On the days when I put the effort to look the most put together, I feel the most ready to get my assignments done as well, as though if not, I’d be betraying the theoretical “day in my life” video playing in my head. And on the other side, it makes the days where all of that showmanship is just too much — the days where I wear the first clothes I see and just head straight to class and back to my dorm — feel like true “rest days.”
Some things shouldn’t be romanticized, it’s true. But there’s something to be said about the escapism of aesthetics to keep our minds off everyday worries. If it gives you the motivation to stay devoted to all your commitments in the midst of a busy semester, stay romantic!