A lot of things keep me up at night—to-do lists, embarrassing things I said in college, that earthquake they keep saying will come for California. A recent 3 a.m. had me fixated on one unknown in particular: Did hot girl summer happen? I’d seen dozens, if not hundreds, of anticipatory hot girl summer tweets. (Actually, we’ve been tweeting about hot girl summer for years—official trend authority dictionary.com claims that HGS first went viral in May of 2019, mere months after Megan Thee Stallion gifted us with the reason for the season.) I’d been, as they say, waxed and vaxxed. I was ready.
And then suddenly, it was soup girl fall. Staring at the ceiling, I felt like I’d missed something momentous. It felt like waking up an hour after you’re supposed to be at work. Time has felt increasingly plastic over the past year and a half, and realizing that we’re one month away from 2022 certainly stresses me out, but there was something else that bothered me about missing hot girl summer; I don’t resent that we weren’t indoor partying en masse—I would much rather we had “everybody’s safe summer,” but I realized, in the pre-dawn hours, that I don’t really know what “hotness” even is any more.
Even before the pandemic, we were collectively redefining hotness. Once a word that connoted outside appraisal and unrealistic standards of desirability, the past few years have seen a reclamation of hotness from narrow conventions around beauty and sexuality. As Megan Thee Stallion put it in an interview with The Root, hot girl summer is “basically about women—and men—being unapologetically them, just having a good-ass time, hyping up your friends, doing you, not giving a damn about what nobody gotta say about it."
Hotness became as much a personality trait as a physical one. As the world shifted with the pandemic, however, that coalescence felt oddly portentous: Our identities flattened to fit neatly into a computer screen. In public, we covered ourselves, while indoors the intimate details of our day-to-day lives—the unmade bed, the books on the shelf—became part of our work and social landscape. Our ideas of interiority and exteriority were constantly shapeshifting, and in the melee, I felt I’d lost my grasp on both.
Once a word that connoted outside appraisal and unrealistic standards of desirability, the past few years have seen a reclamation of hotness from narrow conventions around beauty and sexuality.
Now we’ve found ourselves in a strange new kind of liminal space. Venues are sort-of open, the holidays are here, and whether it’s a re-entrance into society or a recalibration of what socializing means to us, there certainly seems to be a simmering excitement going around, a jittery glow around dressing up again. On social media and on the runway, fashion favors decadent details like silk, puff sleeves, and corsetry, often paired with a dramatic lip or a bright eyeshadow. And if our physical, mental, and emotional selves are still entwined, is fall/winter fashion a way to collectively find and redefine ourselves? Is my rebound from athleisure actually an act of radical individualism?
Like many people, I’ve spent the past 18 months cycling through phases of fastidious grooming and what I call "struggle care"—a loose regimen of sit-down showers, dry shampoo, and microwave meals. I don’t mean to condemn the latter; care is care, with or without a nightly serum regimen, and it’s completely reasonable to want to direct our ever-dwindling energy supplies towards something other than microneedling. That being said, I’d be lying if I said that makeup was all about vanity, detached from my emotional well-being.
In the same way that being hot is actually about being enough for yourself, for me, skincare and makeup is often about play, creativity, or communicating to myself that I’m worthy of care and I deserve beauty in my life. Interestingly, a 2020 SAGE study on the correlation between makeup and self-esteem in YouTube beauty influencers found that makeup can both boost and diminish one’s sense of self-worth— the dependent factor was why a subject applied makeup in the first place.
As the research noted, "Makeup use may have a more direct effect on self-esteem if internally motivated and viewed as a mechanism for creativity, mastery, agency, and human connection." It feels important here to steer the conversation away from self-blame—"My self-esteem is low because I put on makeup for the wrong reasons, including low self-esteem" is circular logic that avoids addressing the social pressures that may lead to "wrong reason" grooming. Recently, Instagram confirmed that usage lowered girls’ self-esteem; an endless feed of pert noses and long lashes not only projects an unrealistic standard, but reduces a vast and complex idea of beauty into photo after photo of near-identical faces. Sometimes over-scrolling can feel a bit like you’re Facetune smoothing your soul.
The importance of the SAGE study, to me, is in its balance: Yes, exteriority can contribute to negative self-image, but we also have the power to use beauty as a ritual of reclamation. For me, personally, it’s been helpful to mute social media that makes me feel disconnected from myself. It’s also useful to return to hotness as self-assuredness; I can’t always control how other people see me, onscreen or off, but I can take the present moment as an opportunity to be more thoughtful about my purchasing choices, or about which products or activities make me feel like myself again. I’m also accepting that this is a rare opportunity to explore my identity, to gently question my habits and values and to build a life where I’m not phoning it in. I’m not there yet, but I believe I will find myself again, and until then, I’m grateful, sometimes, to be lost.
Tran A, Rosales R, Copes L. Paint a better mood? Effects of makeup use on youtube beauty influencers’ self-esteem. SAGE Open. 2020;10(2):2158244020933591.