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Sabrina Carpenter and her blueberry milk nails capitalism
Sabrina Carpenter and her blueberry milk nails

Blueberry milk nails and the illusion of choice under capitalism

From latte make-up to tomato girl summer, micro beauty trends have been dominating the internet for months – but what can they teach us about consumer culture and the way it shapes our identity?

If you feel like you can’t keep up with trends anymore, you’re not crazy and you’re not too old. Although the internet has been churning out increasingly rapid trend cycles for years, their lifespan has been shrinking alongside our attention spans. Trends that would have otherwise lasted for years are now declared old news – or even worse, cheugy – within days. The unsustainable pace of these trends might be mind-numbing for consumers, but they’re great for business, compelling consumers to never stop buying. It’s a marketing model that has thrived on TikTok – until now.

Shortly after beauty blogs first declared “blueberry milk nails” as the nail trend of the summer, TikTok users responded with incredulity and half-serious outrage. “We are not turning light blue into ‘blueberry milk,’” beauty and lifestyle influencer jokingly shouted in a video. “I’m not actually mad, I’m just very disappointed.”

The milky-blue shade seemed to be a tipping point: we could get away with old money coastal granddaughter and perhaps even clean girl, that girl, girl dinner. But could we get away with renaming something as banal as light blue into blueberry milk nails? Perhaps we’ve finally found the ceiling to TikTok’s micro-trends and the identities that go along with them.

It’s worth noting that these trends rarely seem to come off of our handheld screens and into the “real” world. There’s a growing disconnect between trends in online and offline spaces, while online micro-trends come and go so quickly that they outpace the ability of people to keep up offline.

Now, many of us construct our identities, consciously or not, out of the things we consume. You are what you buy. Our consumption habits have become a signaling game, in which everything we purchase is meant to say something about who we are – or who we hope to be. Starter pack memes and their variations have existed for years, dating back to the Polyvore style boards of the early 2010s. But their prevalence in modern internet culture reveals just how closely tied our identities are to the consumer goods we purchase. In the comment section of a TikTok variation of a starter pack meme, featuring a collage of Lululemon fanny packs, Trader Joe’s seaweed snacks, Maison Margiela Replica perfume, and grape-flavoured Olipop, a user states simply: “i am so unoriginal.” As TikTok video essayist Rayne Fisher-Quann wrote in her Substack essay on “micro-individuality”, “everyone seems to be more obsessed with individuality and differentiation than ever before, while simultaneously participating in one of the most intoxicating lifestyle reproduction mechanisms in human history.” 

TikTok trend cycles are attempting to remain on the cutting edge of uniqueness, while flattening all forms of individuality into a carefully selected collection of Amazon Storefront-shoppable products that formulate a “-core” or “girl” (sure to end up flooding Goodwill donation bins and landfills within a year). As life under capitalism feels increasingly alienated and social institutions are in continuous decline, these trends feel like a confused attempt to reconcile individualism with a desperate need for community.

When we see parts of ourselves reflected in consumer goods that others online also identify with, it can feel like a stand-in for community without sacrificing our desire for individualism. We’re part of an in-group (“the girls that get it, get it, and the girls that don’t, don’t”) that is inclusive enough for us to feel camaraderie with strangers who have the same preferences for cream blush, but exclusive enough to signal status.

We can choose between being blueberry milk nails girls or tomato summer girls or latte make-up cozy soft life girls. But in reality, it is only the illusion of choice. They are an aesthetic veneer to give us a fleeting feeling of agency. If we can pick between glazed doughnut nails or blueberry milk nails, dark feminine energy or coquette ballet Sandy Liang x Baggu energy, we can assert some kind of power over ourselves and the ways we are perceived, even if just for a moment.

Capitalist society is invested in offering us these glimpses of choice and naming them freedom, in the hopes that we will remain distracted enough not to realise that large parts of our lives are marked by what Marxist scholar David Harvey referred to as unfreedomThe experience of the working class is shaped by a significant degree of unfreedom. We spend most of our lives at jobs we keep to survive. From the moment we clock in, we give away all our freedom, spending most of our waking hours doing work that very rarely fulfils us, in the service of someone who is most likely exploiting us. Replying to @katie COMMENT YOUR FAV COLOR DOWN BELOW!!! 💅💅💅 #fyp #nails #cancelled #blueberrymilknails #makeup ♬ original sound - katie

Capitalist society convinces us that freedom is the freedom to consume, to pick from a dazzling diversity of options (never mind that they’re all owned by the same four corporations). Under capitalism, we are constantly reminded of our freedom to; the freedom to buy, the freedom to do as you please, so long as you have the money to pay for it.

Yet for the vast majority of workers, we are often constrained by our lack of freedom from; freedom from losing our housing after rents are jacked up to eye-watering rates, freedom from harassment at a job we can’t quit if we want to pay our bills. Marx argued in Capital that the “realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases”; in other words, where the realm of necessity is left behind.

Without democratic control over our workplaces there is no freedom. There is only the illusion of freedom offered to us in the form of a series of carefully branded consumer goods with just-different-enough packaging. In a world that feels increasingly out of our control, these moments of consumer choice offer brief refuge. Don’t get me wrong, I still find myself influenced by TikTok trends, still find myself drawn to the olive oil bottle with the cute graphic design, still get a rush of dopamine every time a new package shows up on my doorstep. But a freer world is one we’ll have to organise and fight for, no matter what colour nail polish we wear while doing it.

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