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February 22, 2023

The Coquette Aesthetic and the Sexualization of Girls

“Who would ever think that so much went on in the soul of a young girl?” – Anne Frank

Unhealthy and even dangerous cultural beauty standards for women are not new. From the arsenic used in makeup in the Elizabethan Era to the skeleton-altering corsets worn by the Victorians, women have long been the victims of ideas around beauty. Today, thanks to the internet, young women can be reached far more easily with even more diverse—but equally impossible—images of what beauty is supposed to look like. This often comes in the form of online “aesthetics,” a word used to describe certain lifestyles or vibes that include clothing, makeup, hair, activities, decorations, and behavior. Some of these are relatively innocuous, but some are more harmful, like the newest trend sweeping social media: the coquette aesthetic.

What does coquette mean?

The official definition of the word coquette captures the idea of a woman who is charming, flirtatious, feminine, and alluring. However, as many words do online, “coquette” has taken on a life of its own, becoming shorthand for a type of girl who is feminine, but who also infantilizes herself. A search for “coquette aesthetic” on TikTok, Instagram, or Pinterest will bring up images of hearts, angels, and lipstick kisses on mirrors, but also teddy bears and (troublingly) frilly children’s underwear. Self-identified coquette influencers, like TikTok user @olafflee or Instagram user @petuniadurmiente pose in micro-skirts and lacy tops (many of which are actually sold as clothes for children and purchased in larger sizes) and style their makeup with an aim towards emphasizing round cheeks and big eyes. There are also more overtly concerning examples, like an Instagram post with almost 2,000 likes captioned “And he’s an older man!” to a TikTok, which has been removed at the time of this posting, touting “coquette meal inspo/thinspo” containing images of emaciated teen girls and a pairing of a Diet Coke and a strawberry vape captioned “dinner.”

What role does media play in the coquette aesthetic?

Many influencers have defended the coquette aesthetic, saying it celebrates femininity, girliness, and romanticizing yourself.But perhaps the two most marked signs of the coquette aesthetic’s potentially harmful influences are two of its media staples: singer Lana Del Rey, and Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita.

Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, who performs as Lana Del Rey, released her debut album Born to Die in 2012, which romanticizes themes of drugs, sex, and heartbreak, turning sadness into a glamorous object of desire. The song “Lolita” (which takes its name from the above-mentioned novel) is a good example of the tone of the album. Though the speaker’s age is not explicitly stated, several lines suggest that the song is written from a young girl’s perspective, like “skipping rope, skipping heartbeats with the boys downtown” and “My suntan, short dress, bare feet.” At the same time, there are sexual references right alongside these lines. “Would you be my baby tonight,” “kiss me in d-a-r-k, do it my way,” and “just you and me feeling the heat when the sun goes down” leave no questions about the relationship between the speaker and the object of her desire. The two ideas are combined in the line: “Could you be kissing my fruit punch lips?” The song is dramatic and cinematic, and combined with Lana Del Rey’s sultry vocals and a thumping bass line, it’s clearly supposed to be sexy. The entire album—and indeed, Lana Del Rey’s whole discography—suggests an idea of sensual innocence, forbidden “romance” as the best kind, and can encourage very young girls to think of much older, off-limits, and perhaps even dangerous adult men as viable sexual and romantic partners.

Lana Del Rey has said that the novel Lolita is a massive influence for her music. The book is about a 37-year-old man who carries on a sexual relationship with his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Lolita. In the novel, Lolita is painted much in the same way as Lana Del Rey’s protagonist is in her song: seductive and irresistible, drawing the successful and essentially good men into sexual encounters against their better judgment. In the novel, the villain is Lolita herself; Nabokov describes her as a temptress who makes her stepfather fall in love with her and then runs away with another (adult) man. The book is described in official literary canon as “an erotic novel,” rather than any kind of critique or reprimand of pedophilia. Many in the coquette community find the book romantic, and #lolitacore and #nymphet (Lolita’s protagonist’s word for a sexually attractive young girl) often appear beside #coquetteaesthetic in social media posts.

What are the impacts of the coquette aesthetic?

The coquette aesthetic is particularly troubling in its insistence that young women both infantilize and sexualize themselves. Throughout Scripture every piece of this narrative is decried in explicit terms: Jesus declares that it would better to die than to cause harm to come to a child (Matthew 18:6), and the Old Testament goes a step farther when God commands that any Israelite who sacrifices their child is to be stoned to death (Leviticus 20:2-5). The Bible also specifically warns against sexual immorality (1 Timothy 1:8-11, 1 Corinthians 6:18, Ephesians 5:3 to name a few), and defines an appropriate sexual relationship as one between an adult man and an adult woman within marriage, and commands that it be viewed as holy (Hebrews 13:4).

God created children and sex, and the two are not supposed to overlap. But the coquette aesthetic insists on exactly that overlap, and heaps upon it the other harmful narratives of extreme thinness and substance abuse. But the coquette lifestyle wraps up its dark side in things that are beautiful: youthfulness, innocence, and unabashed femininity. These are things to encourage and foster in young women, whether they express it with heart-shaped lockets and paper valentines or not. But it’s essential to seek the truth of Scripture when culture suggests an idea that seems appealing. It is possible to celebrate what is beautiful, true, and good, and reject what is evil, wholesale.

If you want to dive deeper on these themes, check out the Axis Parent’s Guide to Modesty!


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