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Pretty, young, overtly sexual, with a deliberately uncurated Instagram feed – these are the hallmarks of a growing subculture of female social media users who are the antithesis of the wholesome, mainstream aesthetic marketed by Drea Chong and the like.

These girls push the limits of Instagram decency with pictures of themselves in intimate situations you normally would not see on social media. Dark, grainy photos in drunken darkness, seemingly unclothed bodies in bright, overexposed light. There is a clear undertone of “young, wild and free” in their raw, controversial aesthetic.

They are what some would call “ratchet”, a term that is borrowed from Hip Hop culture, and one that we often use interchangeably with “trashy”. But after speaking to the girls, I realise that their “ratchedness” is not only a distinct aesthetic, but it also signifies a certain lifestyle that they want to align themselves with.

Charlotte, 18, @charlythebicorn

For Charlotte, her Instagram is a safe-house of sorts. The 18 year old started off using it as any other 13 year old would – posting photos of her and her friends hanging out, food, the like. But at some point in the last two years, she realised that she needed an outlet that’s public, that reaffirms her sexuality and empowers her.

“This is my page, and I can post what I want. I am free,” she tells me over the phone.

Although her pictures are shocking at first glance, you get used to it after a while, and maybe even welcome new posts. Charlotte’s Instagram page, she told me, grounds her in reality. She posts photos of good times. These pictures remind her that she is able to be happy, and that she has good memories, despite what her mind likes to tell her.

Maybe that’s why she is seen as a role model to some people. Girls DM her all the time telling her they admire her for her confidence and ability to express herself so freely, even in a public domain.

“Everyone needs to love themselves more,” Charlotte says to me.

“You mean, celebrate their bodies?”

“Exactly that.”

Bella, 17, @itaint.bella

For 17 year old Bella, what she wants to get out of her Instagram page is much less lofty, and a lot more practical.

“I’m getting my hair done for free as we speak,” she tells me.

Bella gets invitations to events and sponsorships through her Instagram account. Her boyfriend’s  mother is a socialite and they like to hang out at events. She used to love partying, but Bella is now tired of it.

Her pictures are a lot more overtly sexual than Charlotte’s. When I asked her if she thought they are sexual, she laughed. “I don’t like to label things. I don’t post these photos to prove anything. I just feel like posting them.”

Bella does admit, however, that they can be seen as sexual, but it doesn’t bother her as much as it used to. She used to balk at comments that call her names and shame her, but now she just thinks they are funny.

When she first started using Instagram, like Charlotte, Bella posted pictures that were present on any other teenage girl’s profile. The turning point was when she realised that she was going to get judged anyway, so she might as well just post whatever she wants. She feels a lot happier now that she’s no longer bound by any type of social expectations.

The part that she didn’t expect was that she started to get a lot of younger, female admirers. She, like Charlotte, also receives DMs from other people lauding her for her bravery and confidence. In Bella’s case, however, the messages she gets are from younger girls, and a lot of them are questions. Some questions are about how she does her eyebrows (Anastasia Beverly Hills Pomade), and others ask her about sex-related things, of which she feels unequipped to answer. She often implores these younger girls to find someone close to them to ask these questions, as it’s hard for her to give them advice when she doesn’t know them.

What all of this suggests is that there are many girls out there who look up to them, and who wish to emulate the lifestyle that is represented on Charlotte and Bella’s feeds. It’s also a strong indicator that we’ll be seeing more and more accounts like theirs. As it is, there are a numerous Singaporeans girls who adopt some, if not most aspects of this aesthetic on their personal Instagram accounts.

From the grimy, borderline indecent tones to the feeds that are curated to look uncurated i.e. “real”, it’s quite clear that these girls aspire to a similar “ratched” aesthetic. They are however not quite as overtly sexual enough to have reached the level of “ratchedness” that Bella and Charlotte seemed to have achieved.

Unsurprisingly, both Charlotte and Bella experienced a spike in followers when they started posting ‘sexual’ photos. They both tell me that they are aware that their pictures can be seen as sexual when all they’re trying to do is post photos where they think they look good. Both of them also experience slut-shaming, comments that shame them for not behaving in a society-approved manner.

Bella’s father doesn’t approve of her Instagram page, but her mother doesn’t really care. Charlotte is sure that her mother followed her on Instagram at some point, but she blocked her. Both the girls have friends that support them and love them, and they are the most comfortable in their own skin than they’ve ever been. They get comments from people calling them trashy, or ratchet, but they don’t care, or at least they try to not care.

This makes me wonder if this whole “ratched” thing is simply an act of rebellion. Teenagers after all, have always acted out, and perhaps social media has simply made rebellious behaviour more visible.

It’s also debatable whether this behaviour is really about, as Charlotte puts it, a celebration of their bodies. Expressions of self-love are kinda complex: on one hand, it does give us a sense of validation and it makes us feel like we’re appreciated. On the other, its hard to say whether this is validation real. What if people are just objectifying these bodies? Is it not possible for you to love yourself and explore your sexuality via selfies that you don’t post online?

But most of all, I remain curious as to what might come next. Teenagers will always try to test the boundaries, and I can only imagine what would happen if Instagram ever does away with its “no nipples” policy.

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