We took these photos more than a month ago, and it’s taken me this long to coherently put into words why these images are important. The short answer is: because we pretty much never get to see fat, brown people in this kind of imagery. The long answer made me far too angry for far too long and angry writing doesn’t make for nuanced reasoning.
When I started this blog more than a decade ago, cottagecore didn’t have a name. But it was this aesthetic – pale, svelte nymphs traipsing through woodlands and meadows in floaty dresses and flower crowns – that kindled my love for fashion and led me to try and create a bit more representation for people who look like me. That was 2010. Now in 2022, cottagecore is fairly mainstream and has been so for a while now – yet the bodies that it centres remain as thin and white as ever. Go to any social media platform and search for cottagecore, fairycore, princesscore, dark academia or any related keyword. Then see how long you have to scroll before you come across a) a brown person, b) a fat person, and c) a person who’s both. I can assure you that you’ll be scrolling for a long time. I’ve been asking myself why this is and I don’t have any good answers.
The obvious (and simplistic) answer lies within the nature of the aesthetic itself. From a purely visual standpoint, cottagecore overlaps heavily with the tradwife movement – a deeply misogynist ideology rooted in ethno-nationalism that seeks a return to traditional gender roles and a vision of an all white Europe/America. But attributing the lack of diversity within cottagecore to neo-nazis adopting the same aesthetic is far too simplistic an explanation and ultimately not very useful. As a neurodivergent creator I struggle with engaging in conversations online, but even in the limited range of interactions I’ve had with creators in this visual space, I’ve found nothing but warmth, inclusion, and support. In fact the least inclusive thing about cottagecore is social media algorithms (yes, you, Instagram) that consistently elevate and centre thin, white bodies.
We live in a world where being thin and light skinned is aspirational by default, and where people of colour, especially fat poc with darker skin are stereotyped as loud, brash, and unruly. The people who program social media algorithms are far from immune to these prejudices. If developers on Instagram think cottagecore to mean pale, thin figures against European landscapes, then that’s what people browsing the platform see when they search for cottagecore. And when people see only one body type and skin colour in this aesthetic, it inevitably becomes associated with those specific features. Eventually we end up with a feedback loop where cottagecore is thin and white because we only ever see thin and white people in this style of imagery. Fat people of colour who adopt this style as their own remain unseen because that’s not what people are used to seeing.
As a fat, brown creator I constantly resist the pressure of being pigeonholed into the plus size influencer stereotype. People follow plus size influencers to see fat bodies in lingerie and bodycon fits. That in itself has a worthy purpose, which is to normalise fat bodies. But when a fat, brown person decides that, actually, they’re perfectly comfortable with their body and would much rather do something else now please, suddenly no one’s interested. Can we only imagine fat bodies or brown bodies in the restrictive niches we force them into? Does our only worth lie in making statements of ‘bravery’ or ‘confidence’ with our socially unacceptable bodies? Can we not be fully realised people beyond that?
Naturally I can only speak from my experience as a fat woman, an Indian woman, an immigrant from the third world to the first. When I speak of fat, brown people I’m using my experience of living in this body and navigating the world in this skin to reach certain conclusions. I would never presume to speak for anyone else or any social group other than the one I belong to. This is relevant to my next point about the lack of diversity in cottagecore, which is lack of access. One of the main reasons we don’t see brown people in rugged, romantic, European landscapes is the lack of access to those places. Like I said, I can only speak from my experience as an Indian immigrant to the north of England and what I’ve observed in the time I’ve been here, but as an international student at York Uni 10 years ago, I soon realised that I was completely cut off from accessing the vast swathes of British countryside I dreamed of visiting. I didn’t drive (and still don’t!) which meant that I was wholly reliant on public transport. Just as an example, to get to Owen’s parents who live out on the moors in County Durham we have to drive for an hour and 15 minutes from Alnwick. If we wanted to make the same journey on public transport, we’d have to take 3 buses, 1 train, and walk for half an hour bringing the total journey to 3 hours and 15 minutes. And that’s the most time efficient route according to Google. Ofcourse there are wonderful stretches of meadows and forests much closer to Alnwick seeing how it’s a picturesque market town in the heart of Northumberland with an almost entirely white population. Which brings me to my second point about access – the undifferentiated whiteness of Britain outside of large cities.
When we lived in Newcastle, it was hard not to notice that certain areas were almost socially cordoned off for brown people to live in. This isn’t peculiar to Newcastle, every largish city in Britain will have an ‘ethnic zone’ like this. And you can bet that these areas have some of the worst connectivity via public transport. There are both internal and external pressures that contribute to the phenomenon of these ‘ethnic zones’. Being an immigrant, especially a brown immigrant from the third world to the first, is an intensely alienating experience. You crave and latch on to anything that reminds you of home. It’s natural, then, to want to live amidst people from your own culture who understand your alienation and struggle better than anyone else. This is the internal pressure. But then you find that private landlords simply don’t want to rent to you outside of these areas. Houses that are available to the white students in your course mysteriously go off the market when you contact the letting agents. The only places that become available to you are the ones in ‘ethnic neighbourhoods’ or cardboard coops run by slumlords.
This isn’t an imaginative flight of fancy that I’ve constructed – this was my experience as an international student from India 11 years ago. Later on when I moved to Newcastle to live with Owen, I left the househunting to him and we got the place we wanted without any issues. Being married to Owen conferred a very different kind of legitimacy onto my person. Suddenly I was deemed a whole lot safer, more normal and acceptable even in spaces that weren’t meant for me. People I encountered while shooting with Owen out in the countryside visibly relaxed and took on a friendly demeanour once they saw that I was with him. Driving out to these places where we seldom encounter another brown face can be unsettling but Owen is like a protective charm for my brown, immigrant self. In his presence, I’m a fascinating curiosity instead of a threatening one. While there are many brown people in the U.K. who have this protective shield extended to them by virtue of having a white partner, many others don’t, and navigating these white spaces outside the city as a single brown person or with your brown family in tow can be nerve wracking. The level of stress involved makes leaving the safety of your community in the city very much not worth the pain.
I’m by no means arguing that there aren’t any brown people outside of cities in the U.K. But the sort of racism and prejudice we’re faced with makes it much harder to carve out a life outside these geographically and socially close knit communities, especially if you don’t have a white partner or family. Which brings me to my last point of discussion – cultural containment. Here I can only speak for myself and my own culture – the vast, self contradictory yet self contained melting pot that is Indian culture. I grew up feeling alienated from Indian culture for reasons too numerous to list here (I talk about it a bit more in this Instagram post) and sought refuge in the culture of a far off land dramatically different to mine, yet which had colonized mine for over 200 years. I grew up dreaming of benign woodlands and windswept moors – tropical jungles with “nature, red in tooth and claw” held as little charm for me as the Bollywood films my peers watched and the salwar kurtas they wore. It’s no surprise that I gravitated to this aesthetic that’s so rooted in European/British landscapes and costuming that neo-Nazis aspire to emulate it for wildly different reasons.
If the majority of brown people/south Asians/Indians aren’t drawn to this aesthetic, it could be because most of us have our own, culturally coherent and self contained aesthetic language. Maybe that’s what needs to be explored within the sphere of cottagecore imagery. Sarees and ghagras on brown bodies but out in coastal meadows and bluebell woods (watch this space because that’s something I’m planning!) That still won’t solve the problems surrounding access to the countryside for brown people, especially immigrants, but the visual medium is a powerful one. Maybe seeing a fat, brown person in a jewelled lehenga and bindi musing in quiet contemplation amidst a sea of snowdrops will allow others like them to visualise themselves in a similar setting. Inaccessible as these places are, maybe they’ll feel a little less alien, and a little more like someplace a brown person could visit and feel safe to be themselves. And why just stop at a sea of snowdrops? Why not the green expense of paddy fields, of cloud wreathed rainforests, meadows golden with mustard flowers, rivers so vast under a brooding sky you can’t tell where the river ends and the sea begins? Can’t cottagecore be translated to these landscapes as well?
If you’re interested in reading more about people of colour in the English countryside, I thoroughly recommend The Museum of English Rural Life’s refreshing blog series ‘Changing Perspectives in the Countryside’. For further reading on the intersection of tradwife ideology and cottagecore aesthetics, I recommend this erudite and insightful article on Lithium Magazine. The best way to foster representation in the cottagecore community is to diversify your feed. Follow fat/BIPOC/queer/trans/disabled creators and amplify their work! And finally, if you’ve enjoyed reading this blog post or found something of value in it, please consider supporting my work on Ko-fi.