The word "aesthetic" was long used on the internet to describe the style and "essence" of a person. w the internet more commonly uses it as a stand-alone word. The most common sentence construction, ala Gen-Zers: “That’s so aesthetic.”
Source photos: @kaelimaee/TikTok (2); @camrynshows/TikTok (4)
January 13, 2023 2:55 PM EST

Kaeli Mae built up more than 13 million followers on TikTok with soothing videos of her organized life—from restocking her diabetes medication to filling out her ice drawer. The 22-year-old, real name Kaeli McEwen, is one of the stars of “aesthetic” TikTok—which prizes a clean, neat and very neutrally colored lifestyle.

But her latest viral video has left some people wondering if the trend is an example of TikTokers increasingly straying from TikTok’s roots of featuring “authentic” content. On January 7, she posted a video of “aesthetic taxes.” That’s right. The video, which has more than 1 million likes, features her romanticizing tax season for her viewers—juxtaposing her heap of receipts with the satisfying view of her beige iced coffee and planner placed symmetrically on her also conveniently beige desk.

Podcaster Gabby Sanchez, who saw Kaeli Mae’s viral taxes video on Twitter, says she was slightly dismayed by the video. “I’m not against the whole aesthetic thing if it’s getting people through their day, but the taxes video felt a little too far,” she says. “It was nicely done, but why are you romanticizing the government taking your money?”

What is ‘aesthetic’ TikTok?

Kaeli Mae, who lives in Seattle, Washington, includes the hashtag #aesthetic in all her videos, a TikTok category with over 190 billion views on the platform. The platform’s site even encourages users to create their own “aesthetic” videos.

The word “aesthetic” was long used on the internet to describe the style and “essence” of a person—or anything, really—as in the “antique grunge aesthetic” or Tumblr’s popular “cottagecore aesthetic.” Now the internet more commonly uses it as a stand-alone word. The most common sentence construction, ala Gen-Zers: “That’s so aesthetic.” Translation: That’s so “cool” or “attractive,” or in the case of the TikTok platform being taken over by Kaeli Mae-like content, so “satisfyingly without color.”

Kaeli Mae, who quit her Starbucks barista gig last year to pursue TikTok full-time, is a pro at making her everyday wearabouts around her home a soothing internet hit. She describes her category of “aesthetic” as one of TikTok’s most popular: The “that girl aesthetic,” which promotes a put-together lifestyle of workout routines, “clean” eating, and a tidy home. “My content inspires and motivates a lot of people that are especially trying to be ‘that girl.’ I think they keep coming back to my videos to find inspiration to be the best version of themselves,” she says.

A major component to this aesthetic is the presence of neutral tones like beige. (Even the highlighters Kaeli Mae featured in her taxes video are dull colors). The neutral element of this internet niche mimics the likes of Kim Kardashian’s popular Hidden Hills mansion known for its neutrally colored, minimalist interior design choices.

To many, like the hashtag Kaeli Mae uses in all her captions, the muted tones are satisfying to watch. “Most people aren’t going to sit and watch your video if it’s not appealing to the eye,” she says. They’re appealing to the ears too–in her recent video you can clearly hear the clack of her pens and shuffle of her paper receipts, a nod to an internet trend known as ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response).

The mixed reaction to ‘aesthetic’ TikTok

While the content performs well, its numbers come with critics.

Not everyone is happy with this new use of the word, with tweets like “The usage of ‘aesthetic’ as an adjective has got to stop in 2023” and “Why does everything have to be labeled as an aesthetic now?”

Many of the creators have faced backlash from viewers that believe the portrayal of a romanticized, neutral-toned life is a rejection of expression, individuality and to its extreme, real life. Some say the beige aesthetic can go too far, calling out “sad beige babies” whose parents have removed color from their children’s rooms, wardrobes, and toys.

For Gabrielle Perry, founder of nonprofit The Thurman Perry Foundation, the neutrals in videos like Kaeli Mae’s are comforting. “There’s nothing wrong with having a place of neutrality,” she says. “I decorate my house similarly because it helps with my anxiety.”

Beige and neutral tones performing well on social media are potentially connected to audiences finding an emotional escape from a life saturated in color and noise, says Karen Haller, color psychology specialist and author of The Little Book of Colour. “We live in a world that’s full of noise, chaos and clutter. Finding softly colored, minimalistic clips like this on social media can serve as a micro moment of joy and safety,” she says.

The effects of ‘aesthetic’ TikTok

Kaeli Mae’s content doesn’t only resonate with viewers, but has also encouraged other creators like Camryn Shows, a 23-year-old based out of Austin, Texas, to get on the aesthetic bandwagon. Since last May, Shows has gained over 15,000 followers on her TikTok page from uploading videos showcasing the neutral elements of her home–from her bedroom decor awash in white, to her beige new puppy.

Shows credits TikTok’s algorithm— dubbed the “secret sauce” for the explosive growth of the Chinese-owned social media app—for the strength of her content’s performance. “It brings people together that like similar things and have similar interests,” Shows says. Ninety percent of her audience is female between the ages of 20 to 40 years old, she adds.

Shows often gets comments on her posts from naysayers questioning her decision to maintain a neutrally toned presence online. Her neutral choices go beyond her content creation, and are more-so a personal lifestyle decision to help with her obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety, she says.

She wants to showcase the home she’s proud of, but reckons with the idea that many of her viewers could be internalizing an unrealistic expectation of everyday life. “It’s so important to keep in mind that social media is just a highlight reel,” says Shows. “I’m giving glimpses into a portion of my life, but it’s not always so picture-perfect and organized.”

Perry is doubtful that this current trend on TikTok will be the end-all be-all. “Home decor and aesthetics work in shifts,” she says. “This isn’t the first time neutrals were in trend and it won’t be the last.” Kaeli Mae is confident that this type of content is here to stay and is hopeful her online career will continue to grow because of it. “Even with all the different trends, I’m able to adjust and make content that has those soothing, aesthetic, ASMR qualities.”

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Write to Mariah Espada at mariah.espada@time.com.

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