“I’m going to have a hot girl summer.”
This from a colleague who was explaining her decision to head back to the gym. She made reference to her dissatisfaction with her body, saying that the pandemic of overindulgence had come to an end for her. Jokes ensued, as well as wishes for good workouts and encouragement for body positivity.
I didn’t realize that the phrase “hot girl summer” was a real thing — a hashtag meme, in fact — until dinner with my kids that evening. Since they have become teenagers, mealtime has become joyously (for me, anyway) filled with enlightenment and deep learning as they uncomfortably explain various references that I come across during the day working with people younger than me.
Words like “cap” (lie), “lettuce” (hair) and “gnarf” (eat fast — although they may have been tricking me with this one) are recent additions to my lingo. But what did they think about “hot girl summer”?
“Oh ya,” said my 14-year-old son, with a smirk. “It means when all the girls go crazy before the summer — like with exercise and stuff.”
I might have rolled my eyes.
When I was in high school, the “hot girl” many of us hoped to be was a someone with big breasts and blond hair — neither of which I had. I got some help with the first from my mom, who — equally small-chested — discreetly left a well-padded Wonder bra on my bed one afternoon while I was at school (thanks, mom). The second I attempted myself with (gasp) bleach, and various drugstore hair colouring kits. It never looked good — and certainly not like the shiny yellow waist-length wonderfulness that the girl who sat in front of me in geography class had. (She also had a pony, and in the winter, she sported at least two faded ski lift tags on her coat zipper at all times. My immigrant parents understood neither ponies as pets nor paying good money to freeze on a hill. Sigh.)
While I had the padded bra, a girl on my relay team would stuff her bralette with brown paper towels — the rough, hard-to-crinkle kind that you pull down out of a machine on the wall in public washrooms. She held the first position on the team, and I was the anchor, the final runner. She sometimes complained of chafing when we were practising, but she persevered. We made it to the city finals one year — a pretty cool feat for Catholic girls from a small Scarborough school — and when the gun went off for our last race, she was graceful and speedy, until she swerved to one side, letting the girl who was on her heels pull past.
No runner ever wished for big breasts
By the time I had the sweaty metal baton in my hand, we were well behind. I walked to the finish line with my teammates who explained that the paper towels had shifted during the run, catching the wind and flying away, causing enough of a distraction to slow her down. The coach was furious. “Girls, when you are older, you will feel bad about the time you wasted making yourself something you aren’t,” she squished an empty can of diet cola with her hand. “And by the way, no runner ever wished for big breasts.”
Today, I have a teenage girl of my own, who is smart and strong and beautifully opinionated. And while my older, wiser self wishes for her to be happy in her own skin, with those bright blue eyes, quick laugh and fearlessly curly hair, she often talks about the constant reminders from social media of beauty that’s perceived as straight hair, small waists, flat stomachs and clear skin. Even teeth are up for debate and scrutiny.
And it’s not just girls who are shackled by online portrayals of what perfect is — boys are also impacted. A report in the American Academy of Pediatrics found that as a result of images in the media of muscular men and readily available information on muscle-building, young men were engaging in more “muscle-enhancing behaviours,” like taking steroids — an increase that was “cause for concern.” There’s even a name for it: “bigorexia” — a preoccupation with building muscle that often leads to an obsession with appearance. Adult men can also fall into this damaging vortex of the quest for perfect pecs.
It’s telling that even adults aren’t immune to comparing themselves to what they see on social media — from jobs and travel, to clothes and marriages, it’s sometimes hard to feel that what you have is enough. And when it comes to appearances, the turmoil can continue into middle age and beyond. According to Eating Disorder Hope, the onset of eating disorders in later life, particularly for women, is on the rise as those who are older seek to achieve a more youthful body by restricting food, diet pills, extreme exercise, or even purging.
So when an online search for the meaning of “hot girl summer” turned up countless references to feminism and girl-power, I was, well, annoyed. So was my daughter.
“It’s a phrase people use all the time — ‘I’m having a hot girl summer’ — most girls take it literally,” she said, making a face. “It’s about bodies, working out, watching what you eat and getting the guys… not feminism.”
But according to Glamour, “hot girl summer” is more than a phrase — it’s a “movement.” Coined by rapper and “chief hot girl” Megan Thee Stallion — she even made a song about it in 2019 — “hot girl summer” apparently means exactly the opposite of what it sounds like it means. It’s not just another way to pressure girls and women into society’s impossible mould of beauty and what it means to be attractive and sexy. Nor is it meant to conjure images of toned tummies and long firm legs splayed out on a beach towel. And it certainly isn’t meant to drive girls and women — and to a lesser extent men and boys — to the gym, extreme diets, and expensive beauty treatments.
Instead, Stallion — who got her name as a teenager because of her 5’10 frame — told The Root that “hot girl summer” is “basically about women — and men — just being unapologetically them, just having a good-ass time, hyping up your friends, doing you, not giving a damn about what nobody got to say about it. You definitely have to be a person that can be the life of the party, and, y’know, just a bad b**ch.”
Maybe it depends on your age. After all, when Glamour asked women of different ages — mostly in their 20s — to describe what “hot girl summer” means to them, the responses ranged from “looking good,” and “wearing less and going out more” to “a drunk girl summer” and “leaving boyfriends at the door.” But my favourite came from 47-year-old Michelle, who wrote, “I question the definition of ‘hot girl summer.’ Your best life is whatever you define it to be, and if that is what is important to you, then fine. But equally if someone enjoyed reading as much as partying, that too should also be classified as a ‘hot girl summer.’”
Sure, but I am pretty certain reading isn’t the same kind of hot girl summer that Stallion is referring to.
Sarah Nakonechny, a writer for the University of Regina’s student paper, The Carillon, goes one step further. Using words like “toxic” and referring to eating disorders and low-esteem, she says that hot girl summer and its corresponding hashtag is nothing but another way to body-shame, and make the rest of us feel less-than.
“Every year we run into this never-ending stream of hot girl summer nonsense,” she writes. “It is the platform for those who are tall, thin, and tan to show the world that they are living their lives to the fullest and that they are looking their best while doing that.”
Nakonechny urges readers to “take back summer… normalize normal body types and stop looking towards those who promote unhealthy habits for our standards of beauty. Whether you are big or small, tan or not, I promise you it does not matter.”
My track coach would certainly agree.