Since the mid-20th century, each generation has had their own version of what is now known as an e-girl. Think back to the British punks, in tartan and T-shirts destroyed by safety pins. In the ’80s, they were called goths, loved the Cure, and dressed in all black, with black hair, and intentionally pale skin. In the 2000s, it was the angsty, pop-punk emo girls who listened to My Chemical Romance and took Facebook photos like this. And now, it’s the age of the e-girl, who stamps black hearts on her cheekbones, listens to K-pop, and dresses like she’s auditioning for a reboot of The Craft.
How Can You Spot an E-Girl?
The prototypical e-girl is really more of an idea — an aesthetic rather than a person. As the antecedent “e” would imply, the e-girl is also “very online” — maybe she’s a gamer, a cosplayer, or spends a lot of time on TikTok. Tumblr, the dinosaur medium used by emo-girls of yore (2010s), also makes up a big part of the e-girl online diet. The style is heavily influenced by Asian culture, specifically anime and K-pop. YouTuber Jenna Marbles called it a mix between “Harajuku, emo, and Igari makeup, the hangover makeup in Japan.” Think Harley Quinn with rudimentary film-editing skills.
The e-girl’s hair doesn’t stay the same color for too long — often it’s pink, purple, green, anything other than its natural shade. She shares the aesthetic nihilism of her foremothers, emo girls, punks, and goths, with the bright, cutesy accents you’d expect to see in cartoons. Death (crosses, guns) and bondage (chokers, fishnets) are running motifs, covered in a bubblegum-pink filter and finished with a hint of blush on the nose, to make her look a little bit sickly. Like the VSCO girl — 2020s answer to the basic bitch — there’s a whole genre of “transformation videos” where people “become e-girls.” They aren’t really making fun of them, rather taking the aesthetic to its highest level. A popular TikTok format used the “e-girl factory” to change otherwise “normal” people, or in one case, Peppa Pig, into e-girls or e-boys. Yes, there are e-boys, too. The labels are binary but the aesthetic is not. E-boys have pretty much the same aesthetic, except they often part their hair like a ’90s heartthrob.
Where Did the Term Come From?
It’s changed over time. The earliest definition on Urban Dictionary is from 2009, and says that an e-girl is someone who is “always after the D.” The term is always used to describe “very online” women, but it used to be a lot more derogatory. Definitions on Urban Dictionary that are dated before 2017 tend to be riffs on the same idea — they’re promiscuous women who invade male spaces (the internet and its games) by being sexy. As one entry from 2014 put it, “An e-girl is an internet slut. A girl who tends to flirt with many online guys. Her world revolves around getting attention from professional gamers as well as guys who are extremely e-thirsty … Calling a girl an ‘e-girl’ is an insult. You might as well be calling her a hoe who’s sub thirsty.”
The first wave of articles from mainstream media outlets about e-girls came years later, after a teenager was murdered in 2019 and photos of her were shared online. Bianca Devins, who was 17 years old, was killed by a man she met through a gaming app. With a pink bob and a documented affection for chains, cobwebs, and Hello Kitty, Devins was characterized as an e-girl in the surrounding media coverage. She is also an extreme example of the kind of harassment female gamers get regularly.
But the current use of the label is tonally benign, verging on dismissive. The term likely softened because of its popularity on TikTok and in meme pages. Even if they’re mocking e-girls, teens making videos that show their faces on TikTok are less viscous than anons on gaming forums.
So Is It a Meme?
No. I’d argue that now, years removed from the early Urban Dictionary entries, the term has softened to just describe the aesthetic. And the “e-girl factory” videos, among others, have helped push the look into the mainstream via TikTok. YouTuber Linzor did one such video where she transformed into nine different e-girls, which involved nine different wigs and vintage tees layered over striped tees, fishnets, barrettes, harnesses, and water dabbed under her eyes to smudge her dramatic, winged liquid liner to show that, “I’ve been crying, because I’m an e-girl.” She paints on a nosebleed for some. Another represents the “strict parent e-girl,” the one who can’t color her hair, but is working with just with clothing (fishnet long sleeve shirt underneath a Disney princess-y purple top, and glitter stickers on her face).
In a video for Vogue, Doja Cat, a rapper who has been described as the TikTok diva of your dreams, described her e-girl look as “[looking] like she just got pneumonia.” Turns out, it takes a lot of work to look that sick. “I remember being on Pinterest and I didn’t know what an e-girl was,” she said. “I just saw these emo girls, like Tumblr girls, and I saw them looking like they were sick, but it looked intentional, like they were wearing a lot of makeup. So … now I do that.”
Why Would Anyone Want to Look Like They Have Pneumonia?
The makeup isn’t so much a sign that the wearer is punk rock (or actually ill) it’s that the e-girl is trying to portray that they’re in need of protection, innocent, or helpless. As such, one of the signatures of e-girl makeup is wearing a bit of blush on your nose. Like you just got a cold. Their persona relies a lot on submissive feminine stereotypes, even as the costumes they choose are brash and aggressive. It’s baby. (Vox likened the aesthetic to “Daddy Dom Little Girl” kink. Which … you can fill in the blanks there.) The #egirl on Tumblr shows a 2:1 ratio of e-girl outfit inspiration and soft-core porn. The VSCO girl, by comparison, is a bit more innocent, even with all of the bikini pics. One of the interesting things about e-girls is that they are seemingly more quick to embrace their title than others niche groups — almost like they’re signaling their authenticity online. Whereas tagging a photo “vscogirl” is likely cloaked in irony, tagging a photo of yourself “e-girl” is self-aware, self-promotion.
Are There E-Girls Offline? In the Real World?
If an e-girl exists as a person in real life — and I’d argue that she does — they’d be a lot like Xepher Wolf. She paints on her nose and under her eyes, and likes her makeup to be “confrontational.” Wolf is a college student studying fashion design in Los Angeles with 174,000 followers on Instagram. She’s a bit older than the typical e-girl teen, but she is influenced by the same anime and video games, specifically Legend of Zelda, and says her style influences are “the art world, anime, and medieval and renaissance things.”
She says she knows some other people in the alternative scene who look down on e-girls for copying their gothic look. “E-girls get a bad rap, and I don’t think they should. It’s just a style,” Wolf said. “Sure, some e-girls are probably doing it for the trend, but I’m not offended by that. Everyone has the right to express themselves.”
While you’ll see plenty of e-girls online, it’s rarer to see one in the wild. So if you see someone with heart stamps under her eyes out in public, consider yourself blessed.