More so than millennials, Gen Z is changing what is “sexy” – and it is going to have big implications on how brands operate and how we dress in the future, argues Olivia Petter.
When Julia Roberts went to the premiere of Notting Hill in 1999 with hairy underarms, people gasped. The fact that the actor had even allowed her armpit hair to grow beyond the odd stubble sent shock waves through Hollywood.
But were Roberts to do the same today, nobody would bat an eyelid. In fact, they’d probably say she was behind the times, because in 2019, young women aren’t just exposing their underarm hair, they’re softening it with “fur oil”, getting modelling contracts for growing unibrows and earning praise for posting photos of their blossoming bikini lines on Instagram. And it’s all thanks to Generation Z, the age group redefining what it means to be sexy, one hairy body at a time.
Metrically speaking, Generation Z is made up of those born between 1996 and 2006. It’s the first generation to enter adolescence with Instagram, invented in 2010. Unlike their millennial predecessors, today’s teenagers are growing up in a world of self-curation, complete with body positivity hashtags and social media campaigns that champion diversity and gender fluidity.
Traditional advertising giants no longer have the sovereignty they once did – can you remember the last time you saw a billboard? – which means today’s young women are being exposed to a different mode of beauty, one that hasn’t been distorted by out-of-touch marketing executives or corporate leads trying to appease the male gaze.
Instead, their vision of attractiveness is shaped by real people posting real images, and that is having a positive impact on perceptions of female beauty standards, says Chloe Combi, author of Generation Z: Their Voices, Their Lives. “Instagram gets a lot of stick for creating huge amounts of anxiety,” she tells Vogue.
“While the excessive airbrushing and ‘best life’ boastfulness can certainly do that, the power of Instagram and platforms like it has made consumers the creators of their own media. This makes for much richer and less monolithic beauty ideals that were imposed on previous generations.”
Of course, that’s not to say damaging perversions like filters and Facetune have been rendered obsolete – Kylie Jenner’s 140 million followers haven’t just come from nowhere – but they might soon face a reckoning in line with Gen Z’s social media habits, notes Emily Gordon-Smith, director of consumer product at global trends intelligence company, Stylus.
“Kardashian-style exhibitionism and editing hasn’t gone away on Instagram,” she tells Vogue, “but it certainly looks out of date and irrelevant to a whole new generation who uses social media in a totally different way and rejects this kind of sexual objectification as a way to be popular.”
This is affecting the way that Gen Z engages with brands, with a recent report by think-tank Irregular Labs finding that the key thing making brands “cool” to Gen Z-ers is authenticity. This is not a generation that glorifies lithe-limbed Victoria’s Secret models as the sole bastions of beauty. Instead, it’s looking to brands that celebrate a diverse range of body types, skin colours and physical abilities such as Fenty Lingerie, Aerie and Dove. Marketing consultant Nancy Nessel explains that Gen Z defines beauty as “being yourself”, telling Vogue: “Gen Z demands and appreciates each individual as their most authentic self.”
It’s this attitude that prompts companies to launch campaigns such as Project Body Hair. The campaign was created in 2018 by female razor brand Billie in a bid to show women’s body hair in advertising for the first time, with a view to normalise it even. The brand launched its most recent component to the campaign last month, a short film titled Red, White and You Do You featuring women with gloriously uncultivated pubic hair peeping out of their swimwear.
Naturally, this defiance of social norms is also impacting the way Gen Z dress. Look at someone like Billie Eilish, for example, the 17-year-old mega pop star who performs almost exclusively in baggy clothing. That way, “Nobody can have an opinion because they haven't seen what’s underneath,” the singer explained when she fronted an ad for underwear giants Calvin Klein wearing a loose-fitting green tracksuit.
By eschewing long-held ideals about how young women should dress, celebrities like Eilish are encouraging Gen Z-ers to trade high heels for chunky trainers and swap restrictive miniskirts for comfortable tracksuits. Hannah Craggs, youth editor at global trend forecasters WGSN, says that is why streetwear brands are so popular among this generation: not just because the clothes are cool, but because they’re comfortable too.
Gen Z’s rejection of “sexiness” might seem revolutionary, but it’s been a long time coming, says writer and activist Scarlett Curtis, 23. “Teenage girls have been sexualised for hundreds of years and for the majority of us it happens before we are ready. This results in us feeling uncomfortable and dimorphic over our growing forms.”
Gen Z is finally realising that sexuality is something for them, Curtis says, noting that this can come in myriad forms, be it by wearing baggy tracksuits every day and throwing away your razors or taking pictures wearing lingerie and donning red lipstick. All of it counts, so long as it’s empowering you and feeding your autonomy. “It’s a small but powerful rebellion,” Curtis adds, “and teenagers love to rebel.”
[Via British Vogue]