If you’ve noticed scrunchies are making a comeback, you might have stepped into the VSCO girl trend. Amongst Generation Z (the generation after Millennials), teens and tweens have begun curating an aesthetic which, for girls, now has a name: the VSCO girl.

Named after the app that allows its users to edit their photos, the VSCO girl is creating a carefully curated identity that exudes a laid-back SoCal vibe. Wearing cut-off shorts, slip-on shoes, and beachy waves (with a scrunchie on her wrist), the VSCO girl is the Instagram influencer of tomorrow.

Combining both consumerism with an early adoption of digital technology, the VSCO girl shows us who we really are; we can just see it better in the teen trend.

Whereas past teen cultures often wanted to stand out and be unique (eschewing brands and fads), the VSCO girl gets her identity from the brands she wears: Vans, Hydroflask water bottles, metal straws, and pura vida bracelets to “save the turtles.” Teen influencers on YouTube and Tik Tok have created a shorthand vocabulary (with catch phrases like “save the turtles!,” “tsk tsk,” “and I oop”) that’s already becoming comically overdone for those in their generation.

What the VSCO girl phenomenon does isn’t simply curate selfhood as teens come into their place, moment in time, and histories. What it does is equate the Project of Selfhood with two streams that actually detract from the growth of a mature self: consumerism coupled with the pervasiveness of digital technology.

Consuming Identities

The VSCO girl phenomenon has made self-expression equal with consumerism so that what someone owns equals who she is. Consumerism is more than simply purchasing goods and services; it is an alternate liturgy, a form of worship, around which we orient our lives. It tells us that the good life is found in the ability to buy more or better things. Rather than education, corporate success, or even our generosity, consumerism centers the self and the self’s purchasing power as what makes us unique and worthy of love and respect. We use what we buy to stand in for who we are.

It isn’t just a new teen phenomenon, however. For VSCO girls to be VSCO girls, it’s the parents who are purchasing the $40 metal water bottles, $60 shoes, and $25 string bracelets. And as much as it might look ridiculous to adults to notice the VSCO girl trend and see it as a bit of tween preening in front of social media, we realize that most of us post-teens have been formed by the phones in our pockets. Through our own digital practices, we’ve effectively told our children and teens that we’re not only what we buy, we’re also what trends we choose to fit into.

When we’re discipled by our phones, swiping up on Instagram to purchase our own version of the VSCO girl (which for women in their 30s and 40s often looks like a carefully curated farmhouse Chip & Jo aesthetic, Lululemon leggings, and pumpkin spice lattes galore), we can’t expect Gen Z to be any different.

Combining both consumerism with an early adoption of digital technology, the VSCO girl shows us who we really are; we can just see it better in the teen trend. Just like them, we are performing our identities for virtual strangers.

In an article in New York Magazine, Instagram sensation Tavi Gevinson (with more than half a million followers) wrote: “With Instagram, self-defining and self-worth-measuring spilled over into the rest of the day, eventually becoming my default mode.” She writes about how this has caused her to rethink her own identity in light of performing it for so many years on social media: “I think I am a writer and an actor and an artist. But I haven’t believed the purity of my own intentions ever since I became my own salesperson, too.”

While it’s impossible to know if this article-writing is also another performance—here, a pseudo-vulnerability is what the masses now want—it does bring up questions about how we show ourselves online. When something as complex as identity formation is wrapped up into branding and then performed, filtered, shared, and monetized, I have to wonder if we’re losing ourselves.

Finding Ourselves Again

If the VSCO girl trend emphasizes that we—and I mean all of us, not just Gen Z—have value according to both what we consume and how we display that allegiance (through curated content on social media), then for those of us who believe in a Greater Story of the gospel, what are we to do?

Should we go all Benedict Option and eschew social media? What about those of us who need a social media presence as part of our work? And can these platforms be used for good? Indeed, if social media sites are the places where people hang out, how do we engage it so that we are less formed by it? Can we detach from the brands, the buying, the equation that says you’re only as loved as what you have and who sees you?

We must begin by seeing our use of social media sites as something more influential than simply how we spend a few minutes a day, scrolling through Instagram or Twitter. We are losing ourselves even as we see more VSCO girls performing brand identities in place of fully fledged people.

Reality is, we are spiritually formed by our scrolling. Our desires shift ever so slightly to the latest thing someone else is being paid to market to us. Our imaginations are ignited by rage on Facebook, the hearts on Instagram, and retweets on Twitter. We have to slow down enough to see it for what it is—an alternate liturgy to the good news of the gospel that says you are more loved than you could even hope and more sinful than you even see (so yes, Tavi, we need to check our intentions).

We start small. Instead of mindlessly scrolling, we open up pockets of quiet contemplation, we take a walk without needing to capture it and share it, we leave our phones plugged in, away from us, when we come home from work. We don’t buy even if we could, we give money away, and we allow the things that are eternal, things that are in our present moment, and the things that are concrete to shape us. We get our hands dirty, we listen more, we detox. Maybe then we’ll begin to find ourselves in a wider story; maybe then God will surprise us with the very thing we can’t seem to find in all our scrolling, searching and buying: a stable and spacious identity.