In the last months, the VSCO girl phenomenon has been hyped globally although it appears to be already waning. In this article, I will describe this new social group that exists embedded in digital spaces as a micro-population; that is, a layered, polycentric, transnational and loosely connected social group. In the process, we will also see what makes one a VSCO girl.
Where did VSCO girls come from?
Let me start by explaining where the term 'VSCO girl' came from. 'VSCO' refers to an image-editting app. The app lets users edit pictures (for example, adding filters to them) while also giving them the possibility of sharing their edited pictures, thus creating a community of VSCO users. This summer, a new phenomenon emerged around the app: girls started calling themselves 'VSCO girls' on other platforms besides VSCO such as Instagram, but mostly on TikTok. This emergent group of VSCO girls can be described as a micro-population (Maly & Varis, 2016) since these VSCO girls are grouped together by their specific characteristics and the (digital) space they are found in, which is mainly TikTok. As shown in the graph below, Google searches of the term started rising from June onwards. Now, the hashtag #vscogirl includes videos with a total of 1,8 billion views on TikTok and 1,6 million posts on Instagram.
Multiple explanations can be proposed as to why VSCO girls are mainly found on TikTok. An important aspect is the fact that TikTok is aimed not so much at linguistic, but mainly at audiovisual culture. Given all the material (visual) expressions of VSCO girl culture that will be discussed below, the visual aspect is found to be the most prevalent one in this subculture. Another important factor is that the audience on TikTok is generally very young, with 41% being between 16-24 years old, or even younger given that children can bypass the age restrictions by simply stating an older age when creating an acccount.
Many global hypes can disappear as quickly as they appear. The time since their emergence is too short to tell if VSCO girls will be a lasting phenomenon, but it is now a few months after their appearance and the hype already seems to have died down quite a bit. Many VSCO girl TikTok accounts that were popular in the summer have been abandoned, or if they are still active, they seem to gain way less engagement than earlier TikToks.
What makes a VSCO girl?
So, what makes a VSCO girl? This question can be answered with a quick search on TikTok. Several audio files titled 'VSCO girl check' are currently in circulation. TikTok users can make videos using these audio tracks. The concept of a VSCO girl check video is simple: users show that they possess the 'VSCO items' on these checklists. Specifically, there are now plenty of videos to be found where users complete a 'VSCO checklist'; that is, they sum up what they need to be a VSCO girl and tick the boxes off when they acquire the items.
These VSCO girl check or VSCO list videos quickly reveal what's needed to be seen as a VSCO girl (see below).
As shown in plenty of nearly identical VSCO checklists, VSCO girls wear oversized t-shirts and either Vans shoes or Birkenstock sandals. Accessories they wear include—very importanly—'scrucnhies' and summery shell necklaces, which allude to the emergence of this group during summertime. Scrunchies are a specific type of elastic hair bands, worn by VSCO girls not only in their hair but also around their wrists as an accessory. The more they own, the more colours, the better.
Another essential item is a specific type of water bottle called a hydro flask, and a reusable metal straw to go with it. This bottle and straw combination is connected to one of the VSCO girl catchphrases: 'save the turtles'. Since turtles can choke on disposed plastic straws, VSCO girls use reusable metal ones to reduce plastic waste. This (supposed) environmental concern is one thing that distinguishes VSCO girls from other groups with similar styles. The water bottle also serves another purpose: it's used as a stand to attach colourful friendship bracelets to. The list of characteristic items mentioned here is not even close to being exhaustive: some VSCO girl checklists include over 30 items needed to become a VSCO girl. According to these lists and videos, for example, a VSCO girl also needs Carmex lip balm, a Fjallraven Kanken backpack, a pastel-coloured polaroid camera, and airpods. All these items function as identity emblems. If we consider the notion of enoughness (Varis & Blommaert, 2015), controlling enough identity emblems is essential to be recognised as a member of a group, so at least a handful of the VSCO girl material conditions found in checklists need to be met to be seen as 'enough' of a VSCO girl. For example, owning only the Ffjallraven Kkanken backpack does not make you a VSCO girl, neither does owning only the characteristic metal straw. It's the combination of multiple of the required items that make one recognisable as a VSCO girl.
The list of characteristic items mentioned here is not even close to being exhaustive: some VSCO girl checklists include over 30 items needed to become a VSCO girl.
Translocality is another feature that characterises the group. In other words, VSCO girls are not bound by a specific physical space; they could technically be found all over the world. This is made possible due to the availability of these items: some emblems are available on a (semi-)global scale, while others only operate on a lower, national scale. This variation in scale gives the culture layeredness: for example, the specific hydro flask that appears everywhere in America is not so easily available in the Netherlands. Therefore, Dutch VSCO girls have different types of reusable water bottles, such as the Dopper bottle. They are still recognised as VSCO girls because many of the items are globally available, or local variations are close enough to still be viewed as an identity emblem.
Notably, the VSCO girl identity is very much expressed in terms of material conditions. One of the implications of this is the considerable degree of homogeneity found in the group: every VSCO girl has to own (more or less) the same items. You can't be too unique if you want to belong to this specific group because if you vary too much from the needed characteristics, you will not be recognised as a VSCO girl anymore.
Another implication of the importance of material expression for the VSCO girl identity is that a community is created with strong material terms of inclusion and exclusion. If you don't have the majority of the (mostly expensive) items necessary, you are seen as not enough. In this way, some people (especially less wealthy people) are excluded from this micro-population. In fact, VSCO girls seem to be mostly a Western phenomenon with most of the VSCO girl TikToks originating in the US or Western Europe. One of the causes for this could be this connection to wealth: users in less wealthy countries have less VSCO girl resources available.
The language of VSCO girls
In addition to all these materials, VSCO girls have also gotten themselves some specific catchphrases, creating distinct language characteristics for them. For example, the catchphrases 'sksksk' and 'and I oop-' typically belong to a VSCO girl's vocabulary.
However, it would be incorrect to say that VSCO girls came up with these catchphrases as they both have their origins elsewhere. These phrases now function as polycentric phrases, meaning that they are used by both VSCO girls and their original users, alluding to different kinds of identity.
The phrase 'and I oop-' was first used in 2015 by drag queen Jasmine Masters in a Youtube video titled 'Jasmine Masters handle your liquor'.
After talking for a while, she interrupts her speech saying 'and I oop-'. She then explains herself by saying that she 'just hit her balls'. According to Know Your Meme, the clip resurfaced on Twitter in March 2019. Given Twitter's 'tweet video' function, the video was then widely distributed as a reaction video with a big variety of captions. Twitter users used this clip to show them interrupting themselves or to express a surprised or shocked reaction.
Somehow, this phrase evolved into a catchphrase for VSCO girls. It has a noticeably different use among them, though. VSCO girls seem to use it as a random expression and not so much for surprised or shocked reactions. Some even seem to write it as 'anna ou-'. Commenters under the original Youtube video also mention the takeover of the phrase in sarcastic comments such as 'R.I.P 'And I oop-' 2015 - Early 2019, Reason of death: Stolen by the vsco girls'.
'And I oop-' is not the only phrase appropriated by VSCO girls. Their phrase 'sksksksk' also has its origins elsewhere, more specifically in the black community. This phrase was then taken over by a specific part of Twitter, referred to as 'Stan Twitter'. These are accounts devoted to a specific person that the owner is a big fan (a 'stan') of. The accounts have been using the 'sksksk' phrase as a form of keyboard-smash given that it's an easy phrase to type because when you hold your phone in two hands, your thumbs typically rest above the 's' and 'k' keys. As for its meaning, the phrase can express a variety of things such as awkwardness and laughter, or it can typed at the end of a message with a vaguer meaning. This phrase was originally not meant to be spoken out loud; it was only meant to be typed. However, VSCO girls (and, to an even bigger extent, parodies of VSCO girls) have started to speak it out loud.
VSCO girls as outsiders
Even the top post on #VSCOgirl on TikTok is not a serious VSCO girl video, but one that plays with the VSCO girl concept. The video is captioned 'Turning Pennywise into a VSCO girl'. In it, the creator dresses Pennywise the clown from Stephen King's It in an oversized shirt and adds various accessories such as the Fjallraven Kanken bag and scrunchies.
The audio used is one made by another user, who also plays with the concept of VSCO girls by overdoing it, for example by mentioning wearing 20 scrunchies around one's arm. These two users are just examples of a wide variety of users mocking the concept of VSCO girls by purposely overdoing it. A lot of VSCO videos at this point seem to be parodies: a scroll through #VSCOgirl on TikTok and its top posts reveals more parody posts than posts from actual VSCO girls, with the parodies featuring songs and comedy videos where the creators use 'VSCO girl items' to mock them.
A lot of the VSCO videos at this point seem to be parodies: a scroll through #VSCOgirl on TikTok and its top posts reveals more parody posts than posts from actual VSCO girls.
This is just one example of many showing that, inevitably, with the emergence of a new group, comes the emergence of people who do not like or even mock the group. Just as quickly as they emerged, VSCO girls were marked as an outsider group by others because they do not follow conventional norms (Becker, 1963). This outsider status quickly resulted in many parodies.
Other cases that illustrate the status of VSCO girl as an outsider status are cases of people expressing their 'fear' of being called a VSCO girl because of one characteristic they conform to. The fact that they do not want to be associated with VSCO girls emphasises their outsider status. Even though for VSCO girls themselves saying 'sksksks' is not enough to be seen as a VSCO girl, this phrase is so strongly connected to the VSCO girl identity that associations with it are made instantly.
In conclusion, the case of VSCO girls shows just how quickly a micro-population can emerge online, how characteristic identity expressions can be taken out of context, and how quickly a group can be marked as an outsider group.
Becker, H. (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. Free Press Glencoe.
Maly, I. & Varis, P. (2015). The 21st-century hipster: On micro-populations in times of superdiversity. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 1-17. DOI: 10.1177/1367549415597920
Varis, P., & Blommaert, J. (2015). Enough is enough: the heuristics of authenticity in superdiversity. Enoughness, accent and light communities: Essays on contemporary identities (pp. 4–30).