“HOT GIRL THEORY”
HOT GIRL THEORY
a body that becomes flesh is not
sublime, but obscene,
(and I want it)
I move hesitantly through a throng of mostly women–mothers and daughters, gaggles of teens, girlies and gays–weaving down the narrow aisles of a crowded Sephora. Pulsing beats of pop songs I’ve never heard before thud through my brain. The bodies around me are close and chaotic. But I’m on a mission.
Together my fellow shoppers and I pick up vials and bottles and tubes and tubs. We slather flesh colored liquids against the backs of our hands, smear blush across our cheeks, dab our lips with stains and balms. Squatting and hunched, we peel back perforated plastic to test out products we’re not supposed to, and I like this liberty we allow ourselves.
A line of lipstick names on display: Demure / Poetic / Intuitive
I drag a pencil liner across my upper lip. It gets caught on my cupid’s bow like a stutter.
Crouching in the aisles of the crowded Sephora, a desire I haven’t felt since early pubescence suddenly creeps back over me: I want to be hot.
And I’m not the only one.
I can’t talk right now, I’m doing hot girl shit. Hot girls have IBS. Hot girls have messy bathrooms. A cursory search on Twitter connects hot girls to a deep and complicated history with everything from Junie B. Jones books to the machine you look through at the eye doctor. Tinned fish is for hot girls. So is setting a million alarms to wake up in the morning. A bumper sticker while I’m stuck in traffic declares that hot girls hit the curb. A friend tells me she’s been going for hot girl walks; she wears a sexy outfit and takes a walk around her neighborhood.
Megan Thee Stallion coined the term hot girl summer with her 2019 song, but the phrase seemed to peak in the anticipation of summer 2021. As vaccines became widely available, we grew anxious to reenter the world for a season of public release. But our dedication to hot girl culture has persisted in the years since, and the potential reasons are myriad. Is it the chance to exercise control in a world full of chaos or the instant gratification of purchasing new products? Are the pressures of social media getting to us or is it post covid horniness? Are we eager to emulate the sex worker aesthetics of Only Fans, or is it the cultural loss of romance that compels us? At 31, am I acting out some hormonal rebellion against my aging body, or is the resurgence of Y2K trends catapulting me back to the mindset of an insecure teenager? Or–as climate change threatens the hottest years on record, perhaps we are simply following suit, preparing for a nihilistic end-times bacchanal.
When I told a friend I was writing this essay, she sent me a tweet that said “stop being deep. just be hot!!!!!!!!” I laughed at the tweet and myself. But in true hot girl Carrie Bradshaw fashion, I couldn’t help but wonder: could I claim, in today’s world, being deep as some hot girl shit?
In his book The Transparency Society, Byung-Chul Han laments the losses wrought by the contemporary imperative of transparency. He mourns, for example, intrigue, secrecy, privacy, and intimacy.
Han quotes Walter Benjamin: “The beautiful is neither the veil nor the veiled object but rather the object in its veil…the divine ground of the being of beauty lies in the secret.”
When I entered puberty in the early 2000s, what was hot was overt. Cleavage, Girls Gone Wild, Juicy Couture, party girl culture, tight low-rise jeans, gaudy accessories, and whale’s tail thongs. As the trend cycle circles back to reincorporate many of these elements, I appreciate them more this time around, finding relief in the obvious and uncomplicated.
Han writes that “transparency is not the medium of the beautiful.” Rather, it falls into the realm of pornographic.
But if pornography isn’t beautiful, I think, at least it’s hot. Unlike beauty, hotness can be carried largely by attitude and affect. This is one reason hot girls are able to designate such a broad swath of activities as their own. The appeal of hotness is its vulgarity, raw and open.
Hot girls pop their ingrown pubic hairs. Hot girls have lower back pain.
Including the banal and unappealing under the umbrella of “hot,” even ironically, allows anyone the opportunity to see themselves in it. It feels like a grassroots-led democratization–a far cry, for example, from the cringey forced diversity of a Dove commercial or a body positive Victoria’s Secret ad. The 2022 New York Times article “I Can’t Talk, I’m Being Hot,” notes that “Hotness is no longer just in the eye of the beholder. It’s a mood. It’s a vibe.” This vibe shift, driven largely by our online life, removes the concept of hotness almost entirely from the realm of the physical.
The implications of this practice have been effusively praised by many an optimistic think-piece. According to one Vice writer, it’s “a way to reclaim the identity of what a ‘hot’ girl should be, after centuries of the concept hanging on the hinges of the male gaze.”
But of course it’s impossible to divorce the concept of hotness from the toxic beauty standards, racism, ableism, and classism that inform our cultural perspectives and preferences. Despite hotness’s new ontological accessibility, it remains, in many ways, exclusive as ever. As I scrollthrough viral videos of girls doing not-so-typical hot-girl-shit, I notice they all look…well, hot. Beauty writer Jessica Defino summarizes this loop succinctly in her newsletter The Unpublishable: “The thing about ‘being hot is being confident’ is that we live in a world that tells us the easiest path to being confident is… being hot.”
In 7th grade Steven Sanchez turned around during homeroom and cocked his head towards me. “You know what?” he said. “You act like you’re all cute, but you’re not.”
I can’t remember what, if anything, prompted this comment. But I remember the burning I felt on the back of my ears as I sunk deep into my seat, and the shock and embarrassment that knotted my stomach. It wasn’t only that I wasn’t cute. It was that I thought and acted as if I was. I was wrong, and everyone knew it. That gut-punch of a comment made its home inside my brain, clinging to my skin and clothes, for years.
When I realized in middle school that I wasn’t, and would never be, a hot girl, I decided on the next best thing, which was hating them. Luckily this was an easy sentiment to tap into at the time, as the stereotype of dumb-blonde It-Girls was equal parts desired and demonized. I watched interviews with Avril Lavigne maligning cookie-cutter pop stars like Britney Spears and delighted in the music video for P!nk’s “Stupid Girls,” which mocked icons like Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson for their lack of substance and ambition. (Never mind that Avril and P!nk were also thin, white, rich, and conventionally attractive.)
“Disaster's all around/A world of despair/Your only concern, "Will it fuck up my hair?"
I remember the arrogance I felt, soothing my outsider status with the solace that I surely had more to offer the world than the girls I’d only recently wanted to be.
Sometimes I stare at myself in the mirror and pick at my blackheads. My skin is blotchy and red in some places. I trace my fingers across the familiar dry patches at the tips of my eyebrows, across my right cheek, along my hairline. They flake and peel and I scratch at them, watching dead skin fall like snow. I cover all of it with the tinted moisturizer I bought for $14 from CVS. I blend and dab, using my finger the way the girls do in their instructional Tik-Tok videos. In the low light of my bedroom mirror it looks perfect, smooth, like a porcelain doll, as my nana used to describe me. When I step outside, however, I realize it looks terrible. The color is wrong, it looks clownish and grotesque. I feel like a fool, suddenly, a fake. I scrub all the makeup off in my car with the bottom of my shirt, embarrassed to have wanted to take up space in this way. The wanting alone is embarrassing, even more so when it fails.
My mother was a hot girl. She had boyfriends all throughout high school, finished runner up in the Miss Massachusetts National Teenager pageant. I used to flip through her old photos and wish that I looked more like her. She was tan and thin, with long wavy hair and a toothy smile. As a child I watched her put on make-up, and she let me play with her old products, kept in a plastic bag in the bottom drawer of the bathroom. When I think of lipstick, I still think of magenta, my favorite of the colors that she let me try. To this day whenever we talk on the phone my mother rattles off a list of new products she’s tried recently, brands that she thinks I should look up. For my birthday she gifted me new moisturizer and a set of fake eyelashes.
My mother has always prided me on being smart, not like other girls. I think she was relieved to have a daughter who, unlike her, seemed more interested in books than boys.
As I grew older and my mom shared more of her history and traumas, she became the first person to teach me that hotness did not equate power, that it could in fact be manipulated against you. My dad once told me that one of my mother’s two best qualities were her looks. I can’t remember the other.
In her 2018 essay for The Baffler, “The Bimbo’s Laugh,” Marlowe Granados notes the pervasive misapplication of film theorist Laura Mulvey’s conception of the male gaze. She explains that while Mulvey’s original concept dealt with the depiction of women in art by male artists, now “Mulvey’s manifesto has been recast as an inescapable fact of life, conflating men’s artistic gaze with men’s literal gaze—the latter being painted as inherently oppressive.”
When my boyfriend took me to Las Vegas for my most recent birthday, I brought and wore a mesh dress with angels printed on it. Anyone could see my nipples, the outline of my cheeky underwear. Having my body on such open display thrilled me. I wanted strangers to glance at my nipples, and I wanted them to think I was hot. This admission feels both vulnerable and absurd, a tension that anyone who’s had to perform femininity well knows.
I agree that the question of whether it’s Bad Feminism to desire and respond to the male gaze (a concept that’s already been far removed from its original function) is circuitous and prescriptive. Fretting about the morality of the thing you are doing as you are already doing it turns into yet another performance. I know there are contradictions at play. Hot girls are in on the joke.
The thing is, even the most ardent feminists want to be hot, or at least feel attractive. “Of course we’d rather keep insisting that hot is a vibe,” Kat Rosenfield writes in her Unherd piece “The Problem With Being Hot.” “Of course we’d rather believe that beauty is accessible to all. It is not just easier, but nicer to imagine a world in which all it takes to be hot is to say you are, than one in which hotness has ceased to matter at all.”
Jessica Defino also takes issue with the “everybody is beautiful” rhetoric when she writes that such framing “limits our capacity to discuss the politics of physical beauty, on purpose.” She continues: “If ‘everyone is beautiful,’ then no one can really be oppressed by the demands to perform ‘beauty,’ and the consequences of not performing beauty don’t really exist.”
Though I understand now that much of the hot girl hate of my youth stemmed from internalized misogyny, a similar question still plagues me. A favorite meme of mine depicts an FBI agent sitting in front of a computer. “Actually, you don’t owe anyone anything,” he is typing. “You don’t owe them kindness, empathy or understanding. Self-care first, always.” Part of me wonders if the joyous promotion of hot girl aesthetics is an intentional distraction meant to keep us depoliticized, atomized, and focused on the superficial. In other words– is hotness a psyop?
I want to be sexy and engaged and tapped into the struggles of our time–not passively (as Britney prophesied) dancing (and overlining our lips) until the world ends. I want to believe it is subversive and disruptive for me to claim hotness for myself. I want to believe in its much-promised path to empowerment, that this power can extend to other parts of our lives and world. Sometimes I feel it. But at our point in history we well know that personal choice is intertwined with the political fabric. The feminist defense has long amounted to: “I do it for me!” More honestly, I do it for the cultural cache hotness grants me, which is only ever mine as long as I continue to participate–no matter the potential harm caused to those who don't.
Can women, as the old adage asks, have it all?
Hot girls are nothing if not delusional.