Gossip Girl made me explore my complicated relationship with fashion & beauty trends
Low income teens often feel alienated in the beauty & fashion space.
By Samia Abbasi, Editor
Once during my high school AP Literature class, a stylish classmate glanced at my sandals and asked, “Are those Tori Burch? They’re cute.” They were, in fact, a pair of $10 sandals from Payless shoe store. As a teenager who came from a lower income, immigrant household, this was a pretty memorable thing to hear.
I recently binge-watched all of Gossip Girl (2007) for the first time, while simultaneously starting the new Gossip Girl (2021) on HBO Max. Down the rabbit hole I went: “teeny-boppers” involved in ridiculous scandals, headbands, handbags, & high heels, and “Super Rich Kids with nothing but fake friends.” A fever dream, I know!
Popularity and trends fascinate me; they can be seen as superficial but are deeply complicated at the same time. Trends have an ephemeral quality to them, shifting with environment, context, and time.
By participating in beauty and fashion trends, teenagers can visibly take part in their generation’s culture, as it's being shaped.
Gossip Girl fed my curiosity about the link between socio-economics and beauty.
The connection presents itself both subtly and overtly in many high school teen shows, like Riverdale, Julie & the Phantoms, and Euphoria (read our Euphoria article). And in Gossip Girl, Manhattan teen socialites set the precedent for what to wear, gracing the cover of magazines and walking the runway of fashion shows.
photo credit: HBO Max / Gossip Girl (2021)
What has struck me most about the Gossip Girl reboot is Zoya Lott’s character (played by Whitney Peak). Zoya is a freshman scholarship student of color at Constance, who moves from Buffalo to Manhattan, NY. Zoya navigates the uphill battle of Constance’s social hierarchy, and she also has a very different economic background than her affluent peers.
In the fifth episode, Zoya meets a scholarship student from another school on the bus. Without getting into too much detail because spoilers, we sense some comradery and shared connection between them — finally, a character who (potentially) understands the precarious position she is in.
I resonate with Zoya and the many thoughts that filter through a low income student’s mind when faced with fitting into the culture of their school.
I began to wonder: What is the link between beauty trends and a culture of belonging in high school? And how do lower income students navigate all of this?
Note: In this article, the term "low income" is used in the context of America and the writer and interviewees grew up in different parts of America where the cost of living, demographics, and income brackets differ from place to place.
Beauty Trends: High school students just want to belong.
Like Goldilocks, high school students test out different things — friends, clubs, clothing styles, hobbies — until something is just right or they settle for it. For older Gen Z, beauty and lifestyle YouTubers were taking off when we were in high school. Teenage YouTubers were often in the spotlight: Bethany Mota, My Life As Eva, and Meredith Foster, to name a few. I’m not sure how many Forever21 and Bath & Body Works hauls I binge-watched, a guilty pleasure for sure.
Back then, I wanted to understand what it meant to be a cute and cool American girl. And a lot of it, evidently, had to do with leaning into Eurocentric beauty standards and American consumerism. I could see these trends from YouTube permeate among my peers: contour products, DIY hair bows, American Eagle jeans, and thrifted band tees.
A thought would creep into my head: If I just buy that one thing from that one store, I can be cool, too, right?
photo credit: CW / Gossip Girl (2007)
For Priya R., a Gen Z Nepali & Bhutanese refugee, beauty and fashion created a sense of belonging for her, during her teen years. When Priya started high school, she had only been in America for six months, so it gave her an opportunity to strike up new conversations with her peers. She explains, “As a person experiencing such a different culture for the first time, everything was captivating. I remember being fascinated by Americans’ obsession with sneakers. I learned that wearing mascara without kajal was a trend. At that point, I was skilled at wearing eyeliner, since that was the beauty standard of Nepal. This actually became my primary source of interaction with my American peers.
People would come up to me and say, ‘I love your eyeliner, how’d you do it?’
This was great, because it helped me gain social skills, while explaining something I was skilled at and didn’t need to overthink about. It helped me build confidence. Through this, I slowly started drawing similarities between me and ‘Americans’ and thus, began to ‘fit in.’”
Low Income Students: Did you ever feel a little self-conscious?
In the first episode of the Gossip Girl reboot, Constance’s queen-bee Julien Calloway (played by Jordan Alexander) sends Zoya a metallic mock-neck dress to wear and later, an iconic sequin orange dress. Zoya looks slightly uncomfortable in these outfits, but rocks them anyway.
By the end of the episode, she’s wearing an oversized green Constance sweatshirt to school and her hair in natural curls. Zoya’s style shifts with social context and, yet, she has a spring in her step and confident smile when she’s being herself. I love this visualization of her pulling the rug out from under Constance’s social hierarchy. All the power to her!
photo credit: HBO Max / Gossip Girl (2021)
As a lower income teen, I shopped at places like Ross, Kohl's, JCPenny, and Walgreens — always with a coupon in hand. I felt a bit self-conscious about what I wore, but I had some favorite clothing items that made me feel like my best self. I do remember regarding some of my peers’ outfit choices with a mix of admiration and jealousy. Don't get me wrong; money doesn't necessarily equate to style. Low income teens are often savvy with their shopping habits and creative with DIY elements to their looks.
There is so much to make sense of when it comes to personal style and fitting in: plural cultural identities, complex emotions, who you are at home v. school. Aarti G., a first generation Indian teen, agrees with the difficulty of this. She says that growing up in the United States, “I never really speak about my financial situation to anyone, so I think people just made assumptions about me having a horrible sense of fashion. But I don’t think anyone really understands how difficult it is to be from a low income family, especially as a teenager. I continue to feel guilty going to the mall; clothing is so incredibly expensive and fashion is continuously evolving, so you can never guarantee that something you buy is going to last.”
Aarti touches on a critique of the fast v. slow fashion conversation: How are lower income folks expected to afford sustainable clothing/beauty and keep up with fleeting trends? Aarti tells me, “I try to keep it basic and buy clothes that I need or see myself wearing. So, even inside my closet right now, I may not have the most trendy clothing, but I’ll have a few T-shirts, a few pants, etc. that I like wearing that I mix and match.
Maybe it’s not the most trendy approach to fashion, but it’s definitely sustainable, and I’m happy wearing them.
I think that’s all that should matter.”
Film and fashion YouTuber Mina Le (@gremlita) also talks about this in a YouTube video about fast fashion, stating that folks who can only afford fast fashion “are not the ones contributing to the dominance of fast fashion, because generally these people actually cherish their clothes.”
End Note: We can’t not talk about how income plays into beauty & fashion.
I’ve always wanted to write about this topic, and I acknowledge that there are so many layers and lenses to approach it. But by following conversations in the beauty and pop culture space, I’ve started to intertwine the observations, reflections, and experiences I’ve had for years. This is a gap that needs to be addressed more:
Lower income consumers often feel alienated in the beauty and fashion space.
And sometimes, they’re shamed for using affordable products that aren’t necessarily favored on social media. I’m glad that beauty and skincare content creators, like Gen Z hijabi skinfluencer Hajar M. (@honeyjarhajar), are starting to talk about this more, call it out, and share their own stories. And with seeking a sense of belonging and exploring personal style as a lower income teenager, social media will continue to play a part in shaping their experience. Xoxo Gossip Girl.
About — Samia Abbasi is the Editorial Content Lead of Kulfi Beauty, based in the Bay Area, CA. She has a degree in Creative Writing from Mills College. Her previous editorial experiences include The 1947 Partition Archive and Hachette Book Group. In her free time, Samia is an avid reader, anime-watcher, tea-drinker, and loves playing with her cats. You can follow her on Twitter & Instagram at @samiabossee and get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.