Analyzing the Popular Girls of Instagram

What a deep dive into Instagram’s Cool Teens taught me

12.12.16
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I’ve always been intimidated by teenagers. Before I was one, while I was one and even now, as a 28-year-old with a pretty neat life (I think!!!). 2014 and 2015 were especially haunting, with profile on profile of Cool Teens. New York Magazine put a then-13-year-old Mike The Ruler on its April 2014 cover; The Fader profiled NYC kids at the aforementioned Mike’s grassroots streetwear meetup (organized with model Luka Sabbat and this kid who goes by the name Asspizza and has 60k Instagram followers); Complex covered Luka with in-depth piece dubbing him “the internet’s coolest teenager”; we became intimately familiar with the superior genius of Jaden and Willow Smith; and an entire crop of actor/model spawn came of Insta-age (Sofia Richie, Lily Rose Depp, Kaia Gerber, Hailey Baldwin and last but not least, the Jenners ‘n Hadids).

When I don’t understand things, my default is to research exhaustively and objectively. But the whole thing with “cool” is that it can’t be deduced to defined elements. The glue of cool is elusive, and that’s elemental to the draw. A firm decade out of my own teens, I understand the surge of confusion, jealousy, outrage and longing to belong that consumes me when I realize I don’t “get” something, and I’m never going to be on the inside of the thing I’m looking at with such analysis. As they say on Westworld, “The maze wasn’t meant for you.”

Cool Teens freak me out because, as an observer, it seems to me that they found a way to change biology and totally skip the garbage parts of being a teenager: the insecurity, the emotional volatility, the personal style trial and error (and all the photos of all the errors that live online f o r e v e r oh god). It’s like the fear that artificial intelligence will eventually learn faster than us.

But then.

I found myself deep in an Instagram hole of a slightly different kind of teen, discovered on the fringe of Cool Teens. A mashup of lithe bodies, great hair, unapologetically extreme eyelash extensions, chokers, ironic Hooters T-shirts, dad hats, Prada backpacks, septum rings, highlighter, Supreme merch, oversize jean jackets, selfies while masking, security camera selfies, white New Balance sneakers (pre-disgrace), and poorly disclosed teatox sponsored content. A balance of high E! culture and fine arts undergrad angst.

A photo posted by @sahar.luna on

If you followed the aggressive link trail above, you’ll see I’m anchored on two girls, @fatherkels (Kelsey Calemine, 1M IG followers as of publish) and @sahar.luna (real name… Sahar Luna?? 554K IG followers). I found them through Madison Beer, a singer slash beautiful person associated (professionally) with Justin Bieber. She has 6.7 million (MILLION!) Instagram followers. Her boyfriend is a Vine star. She was born in 1999. They all were born in 1999.

In April, Kelsey — then with a measly 300K followers — gained media attention when an image of her began circulating, captioned “if Lucy Hale and Kylie Jenner had a child it would look like this.” The actress (Hale) acknowledged the image with an astonished tweet.

Who these girls are — who their parents are, which part of LA they live in, how they know each other, what their professional aspirations might be — doesn’t really matter. As pretty, rich girls that other girls pay attention to, they’re popular kids, scaled to the size of the mobile internet (I direct you here to a great New York Magazine piece that goes deeper into this). Popular girls are a lot easier to understand than cool teens, because popular girls are reblogs, where cool teens are original content in a language that was just invented.

A photo posted by kelsey (@fatherkels) on

But just because they aren’t instigating newness doesn’t make them unimportant. Like popular girls of any decade, they are attuned to mass culture. When I was in high school, 2004 to 2007, this looked a lot different: belly button piercings on your 16th birthday, low-rise Abercrombie denim (bonus points for a whale tail), Ugg boots, big sunglasses with thick frames, a deep tan.

Despite evolving visuals (“fashion”), teens don’t really change over time. Decades pass, denim legs get wider and then skinnier just to get wider again, and girls yell at their moms with the same communication frustration that causes toddlers to turn red and scream-y. Teens forever straddle not caring and caring so, so much. The way teens express these extremes is reflective of the moment. Then: Uggs (“I just want to be comfortable”) and rhinestone navel jewelry (blatant, Paris Hilton-influenced youthful sexuality). Now: an Instagram of a snake eating a mouse (#nationalsnakeday tribute) followed by a bodysuit selfie (look. at. my. young. hot. bod). Same shit, different clothes.

But if popular girls are pixilated screenshots of Cool Teens, and I can see their innate teen struggles, then Cool Teens must have them, too. It’s comforting — validating? — to see that Gen Z doesn’t get to skip over the angsty tropes. So thank you, popular girls of Instagram. It is by your bare legs jutting out from oversize, ironic college hoodies that I have been freed. Youthful beauty will forever make being a teen look enviable, but nothing has changed. No one wants to be a teen twice.

Illustration by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; follow her on Instagram @heysuperstar.

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