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  • Barbara De La Peña Cuevas

The Iconic, the Cringe, and the Timeless: Why We’re Still Talking About Alexa Chung’s It Ten Years After Its Release

Words by Barbara De La Peña Cuevas (she/her)

 

CW: Disordered Eating.


After many years living overseas, I finally landed in my teenage room for a few weeks to escape the burnout of my most sincere attempt at adulting and keeping myself together. To my delight, I was surrounded by my old book, CD, and movie collections. I dove deep into my bookshelves and found my hardcover, linen copy of Alexa Chung’s 2013 book It. The timing of this serendipitous find was perfect: I was fighting jet lag and drowning in homesickness, in the need for teenage nostalgia. I re-read the book in one sitting and it brought up all sorts of feelings. 


Here are some of my reflections.  


The question ‘What does being cool mean?’ takes us to a greater philosophical dimension than we imagine; a metaphysical exploration, even. This question holds everything but superficiality. ^It is a love letter to Wednesday Addams, French New Wave muse Anna Karina, Jane Birkin, and Chung’s grandfather Kwan, who she recalls being “a skinny Chinese man with serious style[; a] fashion legend”. 


For me, It compiles the best and worst of the nostalgic early-2010s Tumblr era that, to this day still, shaped me and millions of other teens. The edgy corners of Tumblr in 2013 consisted of the ‘I was born in the wrong era’ groupies whose inclinations included indie icons such as The Neighborhood, Arctic Monkeys, and Lana del Rey. Our Tumblr feeds fawned over Courier New quotes from Lolita and American Apparel outfits that paired denim jackets with black pleated tennis skirts. This aesthetic was the thing that connected Chung to her readers: we all wanted to escape, grasp what felt timeless, and scream to the top of our lungs, “I’m not like the other girls. I’m cool… Every night, I pray to Winona Ryder in Heathers!”  


Like millions of other teenagers, I came across It via my Tumblr dashboard. I reblogged a few photos of its pink hardcover next to a bottle of blk. water before I got my hands on a copy. My mother got it for me from a business trip to California. I urged her to stop at Urban Outfitters to grab me a copy of It, alongside some Polaroid film (very Alexa of me). The goods came wrapped in an Urban Outfitters bright red felt bag that I opened at 7:50 a.m. before my 8:15 Monday class in year 12. I was late to class.  


Part of the sensorial experience that comes with holding a copy of It is its visual and literary motifs. It is a book that addresses everything and nothing at the same time.  It’s a niche of Chung’s own, filled with snapshots of her youth; a curation of an ambiance of a stylisée that still captures the effortlessness of a woman on the go tracing her way through the fashion and entertainment industry. Some of the book’s main motifs are photo booth picture strips with no context at all, point-and-shoot images, doodles that occupy one or two pages, and oversaturated photos of writings in the sand that read ‘fuck you’.  


We can all agree it has become a silent yet collective effort to trace down affordable and functioning analogue cameras just to capture the trivial and the elevated to ultimately post online. This is partially thanks to Chung’s continued relevance within today’s ‘cool’. It’s embrace of 1960s nostalgic, candid, and analogue visual elements have returned in 2023, and have become the aspirational aesthetic, with current teens on TikTok favouring the ‘2014 Tumblr look’. Chung created such a timely text that brought something new to the table at the time: it spoke to the present, the past, and the future.

  

As is the case with all great pieces of art, It has its own controversy. I mean, who doesn’t love looking back to taste nostalgia through dumb politics? The book stands politically alongside the hegemonic beauty standards and gender politics of its time, as well as an ambivalence that swallows any opportunity to discuss more politically engaged topics such as gender, privilege, and race. There are parts of It that haven’t aged. It has a lack of awareness which makes it seem almost too naive. 


Chung highlights and champions icons who look just like her: skinny, white (passing), and glamorised in the spotlight. There are accusations that Chung exacerbated the disordered eating ‘thinspiration’ pipeline that many teenage girls (including myself) looked up to. In the 2010s, Tumblr spoon-fed the ‘I must have a thigh gap’ era, making Chung a questionable source of inspiration for girls who did not fill the criteria. 


The book hardly touches on the complexities that come with holding, in her case, an Asian last name within a white-dominated industry, especially back in the early and mid-2010s. Chung could have utilised this space to give visibility to the lack of diversity, maybe even condemn it, or show empathy towards her peers with similar experiences (at the very least). Instead, she candidly mentions (as a side note in parenthesis) that her modelling card would hold her name “Minus the “Chung” part, so that clients could project whatever nationality they wanted onto my face.” This is a very subtle moment of enlightenment that she could have pushed even further, potentially questioning and exploring race issues. Instead, Chung describes the dinosaur t-shirt she wore endlessly during her modelling days while all the other models seemed to adhere to “the uniform of skinny jeans, skinny vest, skinny legs.” She chose to focus on being not like the other girls.   


While rhetoric in the 2020s derives from ever-evolving conversations concerning gender expression, diversity, and representation, Chung still embodies a voice that looks at gender from a traditional scope. The voice within It can’t seem to let go of the outdated gender constructions. There are some moments in the book that portray limited depictions of gender, as well as Chung’s relationship with her femininity and other women’s.


As the “self-proclaimed groupie” that she is, Chung admits to thinking that “Girl bands can dominate music, but only ever one at a time. That is the rule. Don’t try to change it.” It’s interesting to note that this statement came right before the MeToo movement. Back then, it might have slipped under the radar easier than if it was said now: a time where women’s presence and representation is a constant fight in all dimensions. 


Another similar moment is when Chung reflects on hairstyles and their potential effect on men. “Boys say they don’t mind how you get your hair done. But then they leave you for someone with really great standard girl hair and the next thing you know you’re alone with a masculine crop crying into your granola.” The problem here is the allusion to this ‘standard girl’ hair she refers to. Today, we might ask, who can possibly relate to this? What even does a ‘standard girl’ look like? Would non-white women fit into this? From previous evidence in the text, we can assume that no they wouldn’t; this ‘standard girl’ mould looks like Alexa Chung and fits into her Eurocentric beauty standards.  


Despite its controversy and weaker moments, re-reading It made me wonder about myself and what types of things I have valued throughout my life. It as a body of text encourages readers to make a mental scrapbook collection of our very own lives. It shows us that ‘cool’ can be fluid (if you ignore things like the ‘standard girl’ mould that is). 


‘Cool’ varies. It’s based on our own personal stories and inspirations. It proves how works of art and literature can infuse us; how we somewhat become what we consume, and how we can broaden our scope as much as we desire. In this case, we become what we read, what we see, and how that makes us think, reflect, and inhabit our space in the world. We become a collection art that we weave into our beings.  

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