The ‘Tumblr Girl’: the internet context that shaped a generation

 A look into the Tumblrcore style, the romanticisation of mental health issues, and 2014 fashion coming back

Hannah Grace Miller A Tumblr-like picture of two people's feet

“My friends and I remember listening to music by the bands we liked and dressing up how we thought the girls in the songs would”, reminisces 20-year-old Adele Cardani about her teenage years. “The type of girl guys in bands would fall for”.

A woman standing against a car

[Hannah Miller]

This implied soft grunge-y clothes in moody colours, black skinny jeans, striped tops, high-knee socks, and boots – the usual ensemble of ‘alt’ teenagers, mostly girls, who found a community on social media website Tumblr in the mid-2010s. 

The ‘Tumblr Girl’ look, also known as ‘indie sleaze’ was a visual craved by many at the time. She represented a seemingly effortless persona, evidenced by simple items of clothing in muted tones, often bold with coloured hair and dark makeup, and ‘authentic’ with polaroid cameras and classic rock band tees. The character’s influence over pop culture at the time is evidenced by rapper G-Eazy’s song Tumblr Girls – which says ‘I’m in love with these Tumblr girls with skinny waists and drug habits’, and its newly released sequel from 2021 that carries the same lyrics.

The golden days

As a whole, the internet in the 2000s acted as an enabler of teenage discoveries and connections. Especially – now nearly obsolete – Tumblr, which was a melting pot of cultural exchange, with people from all over the world coming together to discuss and share their favourite music, fashion inspirations, TV shows and fandoms.

“I was really into One Direction and that ‘punk-indie-pop’ scene of the time, with bands like Blink-182, Panic at the Disco or Fallout Boy, all of which were really big on Tumblr, as well as classic rock bands”, remembers graduate student Julie Heinisch. She explains how the fan communities around her acted as one, feeding off and into a certain aesthetic and habit: “We all bonded over the same things, and wanted to dress like that aesthetic, to live that kind of life that was portrayed online”.

Tumblr fandoms mostly bonded over the indie-pop scene of the mid-2010s, whose biggest bands – like The 1975, Arctic Monkeys and The Neighbourhood – and female singers – such as Lorde, Marina and the Diamonds and Lana del Rey – showcased a laid-back, vintage-inspired, ‘alternative’ image.

Artists like those became trendsetters, and their fans often reflected their thoughts, actions and looks. Tumblr was a place for the fans to relate to their favourite musicians and television characters – and, of course, dress the part. Quotes like “normal people scare me” (from the TV show American Horror Story) could be found everywhere online and became a lifestyle, that made teenagers feel special for ‘not being like all the others’.

People who were part of the mid-2010s Tumblr culture now highlight a shared positive memory of growth, seeing the online communities as places for awareness and knowledge, where many teenagers at a formative age learnt about social justice issues, activism and were met with support from outside of their family and friends’ circles.

As well as having an impact on her music tastes, the internet context of the time made up for an environment 20-year-old Natalia Britto considers to have been crucial to her communication skills: “Tumblr was a place where I could engage with poems, texts and conversations very naturally, and those interactions taught me the ways people my age talked, and what mattered to them outside my closed community – which started to matter for me too”.

Especially prevalent was the fight of the LGBTQ+ community, whose young members found a home on Tumblr. The platform became a place for sharing experiences, recognizing and promoting media representativity and spreading awareness.

Also, although the era has been criticized for focusing on ‘white feminist’ problems – like periods and body hair taboos – as expected of a platform largely populated by young women and girls, discussions around feminism and gender equality were constant on Tumblr. Organizations and communicators of the time were credited to a ‘new wave’ of internet activism, offering a visually rich, simplified approach to relevant issues.

“Social justice topics were being brought to light on many Tumblr communities, and in different levels of depth, so this contact opened my eyes to some things and definitely helped me build my character to some extent”, comments Julie.

Like many others, the three women look back at the time with positive, albeit sometimes cringe-worthy, memories of posing for angsty photoshoots in front of fences and brick walls, and posting pseudo-deep quotes on personal blogs.

Experiences like theirs might be part of the reason why in 2022, not even 10 years later, a revival of the aesthetic is already in the works. On TikTok, the hashtag #tumblr2014 – the year considered the peak of the ‘era’ – gathers videos that now amount to more than 92 million views. A good portion of the content showcases late teenagers’/people in their early twenties’ memories and self-proclaimed nostalgia for the time, and many others announce the comeback of ‘Tumblrcore’ fashion.

However, beyond bonding over social justice, indie pop music, TV shows and ‘edgy’ fashion, a significant part of Tumblr’s public were part of a truly deep dark hole of romanticization of mental illnesses and eating disorders.

Hidden behind a front of an online network of support and comfort, depressed teenagers on Tumblr often found a cycle of fuelling each other’s display of sadness.

One’s transition into adulthood is generally marked by efforts to “fit in” to the communities they are part of, and in the mid-2010s, it was ‘cool’ to be angsty: “It was a place where I felt like to be deep or interesting, you had to be depressed and deeply sad,” explains Adele. “The biggest impact the time had on my teenage years was making me believe if I was happy, I wouldn’t be cool enough in a way, there surely was a mentality of sad is pretty”.

The concept of beauty in sadness isn’t new, but in this case, it was accentuated by musical artists’ recurring theme when it came to sound and song lyrics: heartbreak, the portrayal of toxic relationships and behaviours or existential dread. So, in order to relate to what their favourite band was playing and a big part of the online space they frequented were talking about, it was out-of-character for people on that side of Tumblr to show ‘too much happiness’.

That ‘lifestyle’ collided with the struggles of users who were actually fighting mental illnesses, and together, became the force behind good-intentioned efforts to help the community. Tumblr was a meeting place for various self-care and support initiatives, enabling people to share their battles and express their deepest thoughts – but some consider that the exposure given to depressive thoughts, and, in turn, their transformation into an aesthetic, watered down the importance given to real mental health problems.

As a result, (then 13-year-old) Natalia’s first contact with mental health discussions was through Tumblr’s filtered ‘sad is cool’ trend. “A lot of users I saw online banalized the struggles many people – even themselves – went through. The situations were very real and worrisome, but it wasn’t seen as that big of a deal because you were sad like everybody else, and they saw that as a way to fit in”.

Closely tied to the self-deprecating content found there, one side of Tumblr has a sad history of uncensored pro-anorexia accounts and posts, explicitly – in the form of “thinspo” posts – and implicitly, as Julie reminisces: “I remember looking in the mirror and being annoyed that my thighs would touch since at the time it was expected that your legs would be very skinny. It’s really messed up to think about how I always was slim, but the look portrayed back then was very size-zero”. 

A girl with a thigh gap leaning against a wall.

[Hannah Miller]

The ‘thigh gap’ was the goal of the Tumblr Girl, and posts with quotes such as Kate Moss’ mantra of ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ fed a certain beauty standard to young, easily influenceable girls, who felt the pressure women in other generations already suffered with, at an even earlier stage of their lives: “As well as the adults who already had been perpetuating this in magazines and the media, having people your age validate those thoughts held a new weight”, explains Adele. 

Looking dainty and frail was part of the look, which excluded not only girls that weren’t skinny, but also all of those who didn’t match the ideal Tumblr Girl: a size-zero body type with Eurocentric features.

Therefore, Natalia’s naturally curly hair didn’t satisfy the standard necessary to look ‘trendy’. She mentions acting on the pressure to chemically straighten it at the age of 13, in hopes of erasing her biggest insecurity: “My self-esteem got a brief boost after that because I finally looked a little more like the girls I would see online. But with that came the realisation that naturally I just didn’t look pretty enough”.

23-year-old student Sofia Glasner, who remembers the time with mixed, but mainly negative memories, comments that “young people didn’t even realise the trends were whitewashed until later. Then, we only made efforts to be similar to the female artists we looked up to or to Tumblr Girl icons”.

On the fashion trends of ‘Tumblrcore’ coming back, Hannah Miller – the fashion content creator behind this TikTok video that was viewed more than two million times – says it was “bound to happen either this year or the next one”. She says after Vogue released an article on Tumblr style coming back, influencers immediately acted on it: “I saw that and I thought ‘oh no’.” 

She considers the whole period to be one you “have to take with a pinch of salt, for it was damaging to a lot of people, to a traumatic level for some”. But the nostalgia for the ‘golden days’ that come before adulthood seems to overshadow the several negative aspects the trend entails for many – some of whom went through multiple lockdowns and reconnected with old habits, tastes and hobbies – and developed a sense of escapism, seeking for comfort in tough times.

Following the 80s/90s craze in 2020 and the Y2K fashion revival of 2021, the Tumblr Girl is now predicted to resurface from her fall from grace – which, in turn, defies the concept of the ’20-year-cycle’ rule, an estimate for how many years it takes for trends to come back around.

Hannah thinks fast fashion becoming the norm all over the globe is to blame for the quick pace the industry is working at, as well as social media influencing culture. She explains that fashion is now easily accessible, and people are becoming part of the unsustainable cycle of overconsuming: “People trust an influencer’s word on what’s in style, and as soon as the ‘trendsetters’ have to come up with new content, the consumer won’t even have had enough time to enjoy the looks”.

“In contrast, specifically the ‘#Tumblr2014’ look could turn out to be a good weapon against overconsuming,” says Hannah. The style was all about matching simple items of clothing, which can be introduced to one’s personal tastes or even integrated to looks from other fashion inspirations. “If people are buying more white t-shirts, neutral colours and denim jackets, they’re going to work with everything. The Tumblr revival can push people to have more of a versatile wardrobe”, she explains.

For now, the reinvention of ‘Tumblrcore’ comes in the form of outfits and makeup highly inspired from the 2010s – although ditching the infamous classic pair of skinny jeans – and hopefully a revamped mentality, that does not focus on the body type and toxic behaviours as a trend.

Gen-Z’s reception of the phenomenon – that happened when most were pre-teens or children – has been anticipated with worry, with Hannah explaining how her videos received comments wondering how younger kids were going to respond to and be influenced by it as the previous generation did.

Although the fashion industry notably still has a long way to go when it comes to inclusivity, the current scenario is considerably healthier than half a decade ago, open to consumers from diverse backgrounds and shapes, and according to the influencer, there’s no going back. As an example, she mentions the ‘mom jeans’ trend from the 90s, which came back in diverse sizes and were marketed to look good on any type of body.

“Everyone now seems to be a lot more aware of the issues of the time, and people of all ages are making an effort to be more size and POC-inclusive because that is thankfully what the current public looks for,” Hannah considers. “So, it’s kind of up to us to make the best and healthiest of this nostalgia.”