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I’m starting to see her everywhere. Walking through downtown Columbia is suddenly a fever dream of hydro flasks, tie-dye shirts and scrunchies. On YouTube people are explaining her, making memes about her, even becoming her. Who, you ask?

VSCO girl.

Feeling older than my 24 millennial years, I turned to the internet to explain this latest invention of the youths.

A search of the hashtag across social media paints a VSCO girl as someone who is young, on-trend, into photography and social media, believes in good vibes and beachy waves and is incredibly brand loyal to a list of must-have accessories. Similar to Instagram, VSCO is a social media platform used for its photo editing features, but VSCO girl culture has escaped the internet and taken on a life of its own. It’s not enough for a photo feed to be aesthetic; these girls are living aesthetic.

But I needed to know more. Is a VSCO girl a fashion trend, a meme, a lifestyle? I needed to study this cultural phenomenon like an anthropologist, to become the Jane Goodall of the VSCO girl universe and then, only then, could I hope to unlock its mysteries. So, who better to answer my questions than a VSCO girl herself?

Where does one find a VSCO girl? I made a list of the usual hangouts according to the backgrounds featured in social media photos. Sunflower fields, sunsets, vintage stores and trendy murals seemed to top the list. I was considering setting up a stakeout at the butterfly mural downtown when another editor connected me with Kristina Esdale, an MU student pursuing a dual degree in journalism and textile and apparel management. She manages social media, including VSCO, for her sorority. Jackpot.

Esdale agreed to an interview, but I was nervous. Did I need to make some kind of peace offering, a friendship bracelet perhaps? How did VSCO girls greet each other? Should I display my Carmex flavor collection on the table or play it cool and apply a new flavor every few minutes? And did I have a t-shirt big enough to make it look like I wasn’t wearing any shorts to achieve that classic VSCO girl outfit?

Esdale’s ready smile put me at ease, and quickly I realized I’d found the right source. White Hydro Flask? Check. Long, flowing hair held back with circular-lens sunglasses? Check. Tie-dye t-shirt, cute bracelets and leather sandals? She was the real deal.

Esdale follows the VSCO girl trends and has had an account for awhile but hadn’t actually heard the term until recently when she saw a YouTube video about someone “becoming” a VSCO girl.

“I was watching, and I was like, oh no, that’s me,” Esdale laughs. “I would say a VSCO girl is someone who follows trends. They want to go to the trendiest places, try the trendiest things.”

Esdale laid out the VSCO girl lifestyle. What do they eat? Only sliced tropical fruit, as far as I could tell. “A big trend is eating healthy," she says. "Like, we’re going to drink all the Starbucks, but we’re going to eat only plants.” You can bet that Starbucks will only be drank with a metal straw because VSCO girls care about the planet, and Hydro Flask hydration is next to godliness. Their actual goddess? Emma Chamberlain, an influencer and YouTuber who some consider the ultimate VSCO girl.

“I love Emma Chamberlain,” Esdale says. “What I like about her is she’s so real and has an interesting sense of fashion that’s different but not at the same time.”

Whether you love them or love to laugh at them, the internet seems to agree that VSCO girls have a reputation for being generous and sweet. Love the filter on her latest post? The VSCO girl will probably send you her custom preset. Need more embroidery thread for bracelets? She’ll give you a ride in her Jeep. While she would only consider herself partially a VSCO girl, Esdale seemed like she would have offered me an extra scrunchie if I ever needed one.

VSCO girls seem to walk on the sunny side of social media. Instagram is a numbers game: how many likes, followers and comments can a person get on a picture? On VSCO, however, the number of likes or followers isn't shown. Unlike most social media that comes with a pressure to compare, VSCO appears to be a safer space where creativity, not influence, is #goals.

I reached out to Matthew Pittman, an assistant professor of advertising and public relations at the University of Tennessee, about a study he conducted on social media use that could shed some light onto the inner workings of VSCO girl culture. He agreed to an interview about what is essentially a meme come to life.

Pittman’s study found that social media, specifically ones that focus on connecting through pictures, has the potential to alleviate feelings of loneliness and increase those of happiness and satisfaction. “It’s better at facilitating social presence or the illusion that the people you’re talking to are really there,” Pittman says. Basically, our brains are easily tricked.

To be known makes the person feel connected to the community and can build self-esteem. In a jungle of scrunchies and Crocs, dressing the part might subconsciously feel like the safest and surest way to be accepted into the group.

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Dinner on the beach 😍🧺

A post shared by 𝘏𝘢𝘪𝘭𝘦𝘺 ☀️ (@hailey.112x) on Jun 30, 2019 at 11:40pm PDT

What is the price of popularity? The tropes of the VSCO girl look aren’t just accessories; they’re brands. VSCO girl starter pack memes don’t feature facial mists and sandals; they’re specifically mentioning Mario Badescu and Birks. For science, I crunched the numbers on what it would cost to fully transform into a VSCO girl.

  • Hydro Flask - $29.95
  • Mario Badescu facial spray - $7
  • Urban Outfitters velvet scrunchies - $12
  • Crocs - $44.99
  • Carmex lip balm stick 3-pack - $2.99
  • Birkenstocks - $99.95
  • Fujifilm Instax Mini 9 Camera – $59.99
  • lululemon Run Time Short II - $58
  • Fjallraven Kanken Mini Backpack - $70
  • Urban Outfitters shell necklace - $18
  • Glossier Boy Brow - $16
  • Glossier Cloud Paint - $18
  • VSCO Year Membership - $19.99
  • Urban Outfitters stainless steel straw and brush set - $6
  • Vineyard Vines t-shirt - $42

Total Cost of Becoming a VSCO girl: $504.86 

As beautiful as this rose-colored filter of VSCO girl culture may be, the sticker shock of the VSCO girl trend might pull you back to reality. Spending $30 on a water bottle in order to be trendy? That doesn’t sound very happy and carefree to me.

“It can be expensive,” Esdale says. Even using VSCO can come with a price; you can use a limited, free version of the app or purchase an annual membership to unlock additional presets and editing tools.

What does the future look like for VSCO girls? A content specialist for advertising agency Bernstein-Rein, Libby Allen says nostalgia is the key.

“I think VSCO girls are going to keep evolving and continue more towards nostalgia, identifying trends that were cool back in the day that are going to make a comeback,” Allen says. VSCO girls have resurrected ’90s trends like Puka shell necklaces and tie-dye t-shirts, and that’s only the beginning.

Millennials and Generation Z are most associated with VSCO girl culture, but the new trend could have a ripple effect in the fashion world.

“We are different generations, but we all have access to the internet,” says Li Zhao, a textile and apparel management assistant professor at MU. “There are many factors to consider, but because of the internet, we will probably observe some similarities.”

Zhao pointed out that even traditionally high-end brands like Gucci now wish to cater to a younger market and pay attention to widespread trends. 

As far as internet fashion archetypes go, VSCO girls are far from insidious. They have a reputation for being relaxed, friendly and certainly hydrated. VSCO girl culture seems to promote healthy eating, social awareness and creativity. And hey, if they save a few turtles with their titanium straws, more power to them. But VSCO girl culture is both welcoming and exclusionary, real and fabricated. Whether you are a VSCO girl or just strangely fascinated by them like me, we can all use this cultural moment as an opportunity to be aware of how brands may be benefiting more than anyone else from the subconscious message that to be cool you need to spend $400-plus on accessories.

That, and you really don’t have to look like you’re wearing pants in public to be socially acceptable.

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