Being told you’re stinky is pretty high up on the list of hurtful personal insults. Being told you look stinky – on social media, for the world to see – is taking things to a whole new world of nuance.
The word ‘musty’ – which has been around for donkey’s years – seemed to fall out of popular parlance for a while before being given a new lease of life during the pandemic by the comment literati of social media, who are, for better or worse, the laureates of the internet generation. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, musty, in its first instance, means “impaired by damp or mildew”; “tasting of mould”; “smelling of damp or decay”. For instance: “My Lewisham flat is as musty as a rat’s arse.” It can also mean “trite or stale” or “superannuated”. Its double meaning gives it a uniquely effective (read: offensive) texture when thrown in insult form.
When I saw the ‘mustiness’ trend emerge back in 2020, it had particularly spiky resonance and I watched with interest. I got called ‘musty’ in high school for having bad skin, in a frankly impressive display of linguistic panache from the teenage bullies. (‘Stinky’ would have been much more obvious.) The implication being that I didn’t wash, which of course was not the case. I washed with vigour and valour daily in the hope that my face might fall off and I could sprout a new one. Those who’ve had acne will know we are the most un-musty people on the planet.
“I thought it meant old person,” said a few people on the R29 team who aren’t as well versed in TikTok subculture. This is true, it does sort of mean that, but if you’re an online trend connoisseur, you’ll know that ‘musty’ has picked up a very specific, new and often genuinely painful meaning online. As Urban Dictionary describes it: “Odour (usually sweat) that smells like wild onions.” Or: “Cheese smell that Andrew has.”
‘Mustiness’ seems to have re-emerged as a ‘young person’ thing around the time that everyone started calling that Hype House guy Bryce Hall ‘musty’ this summer. He was going through his well-choreographed mullet phase (which I happened to quite enjoy) and looked like a micromanaged Billy Ray Cyrus. “He looks musty” was also hurled at Yungblud recently as he spat beer into the audience while looking sweaty at a gig during the pandemic. Post Malone is another leader of the musty male brigade. Love you, Post, but I imagine the world won’t be in a rush to sniff the inside of your beanie.
Let’s not get it twisted. This particular brand of musty celeb is likely to be well-preened and manufactured. ‘Indie Sleaze’ and grunge are aesthetics that have come back with a bang in 2021 – and guess what, looking purely fragrant isn’t the aim. While 2020 Kourtney might have wanted to be perceived as smelling of roses, 2021 Kourt would probably rather be perceived as smelling of cigarettes and whisky. What’s more, in real life, all these celebs probably smell like Le Labo and granola, or whatever else their team has presented them with that day.
Where things get complicated is when ‘mustiness’ is hurled as an insult at those who aren’t deliberately going for that look and simply can’t help that they’re having a greasy hair day, or have unmanicured nails, or have just worked a 12 hour shift. A warning to the comment literati: calling us guys musty is not a good look. The teenage D’Amelio sisters broke down earlier this year when they were cyberbullied after being called ‘musty’ underneath a video of Dixie D’Amelio on the way back from the gym.
Things went from bad to worse when ‘mustiness’ became a trend in direct opposition to the oft-coveted ‘clean’ aesthetic. In the so-called ‘musty/clean’ challenge, TikTokers ask their commenters to decide which camp they fall into. In one viral video that has 305k likes, @kruthimattupalli says she refuses to partake in the trend “bc I know for a fact that people are going to think that I’m musty just bc I’m Indian”. A commenter agrees: “anyone who isn’t white, or ppl with bad lighting or acne get called musty like huh?” Thankfully, the ‘musty/clean’ trend seems to have been cancelled already, though this hasn’t stopped the #musty hashtag reaching 490 million views at the time of writing.
It’s comforting to think that a portion of those views are the valiant ironic watchers who, like me, are eye-rolling at their phones with overstated finesse. There are also some who are reclaiming the ‘musty girl aesthetic’, too, which I wish I’d had the courage to do back in school. TikToker @catphia helped popularise #mustygirlsummer earlier this year. “Me getting ready to start musty girl summer by giving up showering, not wearing any panties, and spraying myself in stinky perfume that i [sic] bought off etsy,” she writes. Sometimes, needs must.
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