The Problem With the “Racially Ambiguous” Aesthetic

The Problem With the “Racially Ambiguous” Aesthetic

At nearly 20 million Instagram followers, FashionNova arguably has as strong of a reach as the thousands of influencers they partner with to peddle their brand of sexy-casual clothing to a predominantly Gen-Z audience. 

Growing up on social media, Gen-Z is attuned to the codes and conventions of visual platforms like Instagram, where certain aesthetics, poses, and styles are rapidly disseminated. These codes aren’t necessarily named, but years of conditioning allows Gen-Z to understand and interpret coded images; a “vibe” or “energy” is the Gen-Z euphemism for a desirable, visually-communicated aesthetic. 

Social media-first fashion brands understood this very early on in the Instagram era, and it’s something that marketers continue to struggle with. It’s a tightrope to walk across: to be sexy, but not too sexual; to look expensive using wealth signifiers like designer bags and shoes, but not come off as unrelatable; to look candid, but still camera-ready. Above all, there’s the need to look “real.” FashionNova, Boohoo, and Pretty Little Thing have achieved massive success by branding themselves using specific aesthetics that appeal to the Gen-Z consumer. 

Racial ambiguity is a term used to describe someone whose racial background is unclear at first glance; it’s often been forced onto mixed-race and other racialized people who happen to have lighter skin. There have long been conversations about the Kardashians and influencers like Emma Hallberg that have appropriated Black physical attributes like curvy hips, full lips, artfully swooped edges, and “tanned” skin to build their brand on social media. 

These well-established and repeated examples of “blackfishing” are part of the social media discourse, replicated by smaller influencers, then micro-influencers, and so on, planting themselves in the Gen-Z understanding of social media desirability. Brands like FashionNova have used the “mixed-race look” and marketed it as a lifestyle, something that can be copied and pasted over and over again. Instagram is full of women who go to great lengths with makeup to give themselves the look of skin just dark enough to be perceived as Black or Brown. Look no further than the #novababe hashtag, which will bring up anywhere from 1.1 to 1.6 million tagged posts of Gen-Z women. It quickly becomes apparent that many of these posts use the same looks and “racially ambiguous” aesthetics that Gen-Z has come to understand, consciously or not. 

Responsible social media marketing requires any marketer to understand that presenting these visual codes as a lifestyle to replicate is problematic. Racialization is not a trend, but a lived-in reality for segments of any marginalized population whose features have been praised but their personhood has historically been vilified. The underlying message in the marketing for Instagram fast fashion brands is that buying their products will make the purchaser more like what they see on their feeds, reducing Black and Brown features to nothing more than a “look” to pick and choose from. 

An account like @mixedbabiesig, whose sole purpose is putting mixed toddlers on display, has over 290K followers; it isn’t surprising, then, that FashionNova has used white women and mixed-race children in their Instagram posts as though they were props, further peddling this narrative of the racially ambiguous “lifestyle.” 

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These images have real influence on social media, and marketing managers behind Instagram brands are conscious of the choices they make. Exposure and experience to digital media from a young age has pushed Gen-Z to crave authentic interactions with brands and influencers, giving marketers an opportunity to build real connections with a generation whose spending power is growing.

Aesthetic appeal will never not be valuable on visual platforms like Instagram. Still, marketers tapping into their brand authentically, everything from their storytelling to the types of people chosen as social media ambassadors, will cut through the clutter— without resorting to racial dog whistles. 


Omar Taleb is a Toronto-based writer, marketer and content creator fascinated by the future of news media and the intersection of pop culture and politics. On any given day, you can find him bouncing around between HBO, Netflix, and Amazon Prime, or on Instagram @omar.taleb5.

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