I first heard about VSCO girls because Dr. Phil was trending on Twitter. In a now viral video, the talk-show host played the perfect clueless grown-up, asking with just the right pitch of confusion what memes like “and I oop” and “sksksksk” mean.
As commenters laughed about how out of touch he is (OK, boomer…), I read through the thread feeling similarly out of the loop. I was surprised to find out these memes had something in common—they were both connected to a popular teen “type” known as a “VSCO girl.” What was clear from the comments was that being a VSCO girl was a bad thing.
A quick search informed me that VSCO (pronounced “visco”) girls are both a subculture of teens and a derogatory term for referring to that subculture. The name comes from the popular photo-editing app VSCO, which many teens use because of its artistic photo filters.
VSCO girls are easy to recognize. They typically wear oversized T-shirts, tie their hair up in messy buns and sport scrunchies on their arms as bracelets. In stereotypical depictions, they carry around a metal water bottle known as a hydro flask and use a metal straw in order to protect the environment and save the turtles.
Brands are incredibly important to VSCO girls. You’ll find them wearing Birkenstocks, Vans or Crocs and Fjällräven Kånken backpacks. They put cute stickers on everything from laptops to water bottles and are known for making friendship bracelets. They are often depicted as overly friendly and attention-seeking both off- and online. They are also frequently white and affluent.
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As I read through these depictions, I wondered what it was that made other teens and adults gleefully mock a group of girls that range in age from as young as 10 through to about 18. I read posts where they were called annoying, basic and desperate. I watched satirical videos on YouTube and TikTok in which people of all ages made fun of them (including, in one case, a father who dressed up as one).
Some of the criticisms were more salient than others. For example, a few writers questioned whether it was appropriative for a group of mostly white girls to overuse catchphrases like “and I oop,” which originated from drag queen Jasmine Masters, and “sksksksk,” which originated in the Black community. Others charged that VSCO girls’ environmentalism is superficial and that their focus on banning straws and going vegan hurts disabled and Indigenous people, respectively. And some talked about how keeping up with the VSCO-girl image by wearing the right brands could be expensive. These were all relevant criticisms.
But the majority of the criticisms levelled against VSCO girls are not about substantive things—most seem to boil down to the belief that they’re annoying and uncool because they dress nearly identically, want attention and are too earnest. All of these things make others see them as justifiable targets of their derision.
Despite the fact that I haven’t been a teen for a while, none of this is unfamiliar to me. While some online are comparing VSCO girls to the Valley Girls of the late ’80s, they remind me of the girls in my school who wore identical American Eagle vests and hemp necklaces. As a teen, I couldn’t stand the thought of being like them, trying so obviously to look like everyone else. But then I was also told it was wrong to be any other type of girl (because teen girls are always seen as “types”)—especially the ones who wore jeans with waists so low you could see their thongs. Looking back, I realize that there really wasn’t any “right” way to be a girl. Just like there really isn’t a right way to be a woman.
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After all, our culture revels in criticizing women. Trans women, cis women, non-binary people who are read as feminine by strangers—all face a barrage of opinions from everyone from cultural critics at major publications to people in supermarket checkouts. If you’re a woman, you’ll face criticism whether you’re too feminine or not feminine enough, whether you’re married, cohabitating or single, whether you have kids or are childfree. Being a woman often means being criticized for being both too much and not enough at the same time.
It doesn’t help that the things women like are often deemed to be inherently trivial. Virginia Woolf captured this phenomenon well back in 1929 when she published A Room of One’s Own. “The values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex,” she wrote. “Yet is it the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial.’”
The deeply entrenched cultural belief that women and their interests are silly might be part of what fuels the ire that VSCO girls face—an ire that isn’t directed with the same glee at any equivalent subculture of boys. Left unchecked, this misogynistic tendency to devalue the things that women like extends well beyond mocking a love of scrunchies.
After all, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna was called Climate Barbie to undermine her legitimacy, and former editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue Elaine Welteroth surprised people when she made the publication more political because that kind of shift wasn’t expected from a former beauty editor.
Perhaps some of the criticism that women and girls face isn’t because they engage in things that are uncool or unserious—it’s because the involvement of women or girls often makes those things uncool or unserious to those who have an internalized or unconscious bias against women.
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Criticizing adult women is one thing. But this hyper-criticism of teen girls is likely impacting their development of a healthy self-concept. Studies show that there is almost no difference in self-confidence between girls and boys until around age 12. After that, teen girls see a drop in their self-esteem by 30%. According to a Ypulse poll, this could be partly because of the high standards girls feel they must meet. From the age of 12 to 13, the number of girls who feel that they were not allowed to fail goes up by 150%.
That’s around the time when they start being treated more like women. Suddenly, they feel like their bodies and identities are not enough because they’re being judged by their peers more intensely.
All this takes a toll. Eating disorders like anorexia usually begin at puberty, and girls are twice as likely to experience depression as boys. Given these struggles, VSCO girls don’t need their peers ruthlessly mocking them, and they definitely don’t need adults doing it.
While VSCO girls might benefit from developing more sophisticated viewpoints on environmental issues or the ability to recognize their privilege (because, duh, they are children), an actual conversation with them will likely be more helpful than a TikTok video.
If your instinct is to laugh at girls who are mostly too young to get a driver’s license, it’s time to ask yourself whether you have unconscious or internalized sexist ideas about girls as a whole. Don’t hit “tweet” on that salty VSCO girl comment. Give girls the freedom to grow up.