Members of Gen Z process their nostalgia through ‘rare aesthetics’ on TikTok

Imagine a waffle iron, a tiny styrofoam cup of weak coffee and a stack of rectangular Smucker’s jam containers. You’re wearing flannel pajama bottoms and all the furniture around you is a rustic, earthy tone. There’s lukewarm breakfast food in front of you, but for some reason, it smells like chlorine.

This is the continental breakfast “rare aesthetic.”

@swagner365

this one feels safe (s/o to @thelionking1218 for this idea) #fyp #rareaesthetic

♬ crimewave by crystal castles – kermishy

An “aesthetic” is, to members of Gen Z, just a fancy word for a visual style. The ones you’ll see regularly on your feed include cottagecore, dark academia and softboi.

Rare aesthetics are just that — style trends you don’t see every day. Sometimes they’re literally just weird-looking clothes, but often they have a certain power for the youngest generation, in the sense that they carry “deep memories” and unlock forgotten emotions.

The continental breakfast rare aesthetic is a striking example. You probably never think about the morning buffet spread at the two-star hotel you stayed at with your family when you were in middle school, but when you reflect on the images from @swagner265’s TikTok, you’re transported directly there.

You might feel emotional and long for vacations past with your parents and siblings, or crack up while reflecting on the silliness of it all. You probably won’t find old photos of any continental breakfast spreads, but chances are, that TikTok meant something deeper to you.

Rare aesthetics are a brand new medium that members of Gen Z, who have spent their entire lives with camera phones and social media (or parents who kept their every move documented), are using to experience nostalgia.

Rare aesthetic TikToks dredge up powerful emotions through visuals that aren’t necessarily striking.

When you reflect on a time in your life that has long since passed, you probably look at photos. The things you photograph are probably memorable or visually appealing, or both. The things we can’t capture in a photo, because they’re feelings or not-so-pleasing to the eye, are often forgotten.

That’s where rare aesthetics come in. They capture the uniquely romantic visuals of a late-night drive home from vacation and what you do when spending the night specifically with your grandmother.

These are not things that you would ever photograph, but they’re intensely emotional. The sadness and longing that comes from the end of a pleasant trip, as well as bonding with an older relative over Tom and Jerry cartoons, are precious moments that slip through the cracks for younger generations used to photographing and sharing everything.

Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a practicing clinical psychologist who specializes in generational differences, said that the rare aesthetics trend is part of the movement toward frank openness on social media that has been on the rise for decades, but peaked with Gen Z.

“Their wistful recollections and nostalgic perspectives are often shared in a raw, visceral way punctuated by the artistic framework that technology makes readily available,” she explained to In The Know. “To share with others around the world that which feels special and unique on one end — yet almost desperately common on the other — can be bonding.”

Video of the rare aesthetics of your male English teacher or your dad on Christmas morning can dredge up the emotions you felt at that time in your life. Sharing that experience — no matter how “desperately common,” can help you process those feelings.

Rare aesthetics put the most connected generation in touch with memories they didn’t realize they forgot.

Each member of Gen Z is basically a digital historian covering their own lives. The moment they get a cell phone, they get a camera — and let’s not even talk about how easy it is to instantly be anywhere in the world thanks to the internet.

As mentioned before, they’re not taking photos of things that don’t seem memorable or beautiful, so moments that seem insignificant at the time can slip through the cracks.

Things like the local hippie boutique or elementary school standardized test day can be considered “deep memories,” or memories you didn’t know you had until you stumble upon something that brings them back up to the surface. That’s nostalgia, even if it seems a bit unconventional for older generations.

Dr. Cristel Russel, a professor and research psychologist at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School, said Gen Z’s “need for uniqueness” drives them to look for moments like this.

“Nostalgia also tends to trigger common reactions [for different] people — everyone has the same notion of ‘the good ol’ days,’ so it’s easy to tap into a rather universal emotion,” she explained to In The Know. “This sometimes makes people look to an imagined past, a period when things were simpler, easier and happier.”

Naturally, Gen Z is still going to experience nostalgia the same way Millennials and older generations do through cartoons from their childhood and passé fashion trends, but they don’t have to wait for entertainment or media to serve it back to them.

In the same vein, it’s harder for them to access that same level of joy that older generations do — the “Oh, I totally forgot about that” feeling — because many of their memories exist at their fingertips.

For that, there are rare aesthetics. I’ll see you all on the other side of memory lane.

If you enjoyed this story, read our guide to all the biggest aesthetics on TikTok.

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