This past May was full of so much hope: More than half of people over 18 in the U.S. had received at least the first dose of the COVID vaccine. For those of us who were vaccinated, this meant we could gather indoors — unmasked with other vaccinated people. It meant that large outdoor gatherings with varying degrees of mask-wearing became far less threatening. It even meant that coming face-to-face with an anti-vaxxer or a COVID-denier would no longer be life-threatening. It no longer felt dangerous or made you a danger to society — or a hypocrite — if you decided to indulge in some truly fatherless behavior this summer at the beach, in a bar, on vacation, at a concert, you name it. It was going to be Hot Girl Summer and nothing could stop it.
Or at least, such was the narrative coagulating online as soon as COVID vaccines became widely accessible. Back then, a certain slice of the population began living exclusively off anticipating, documenting, and preemptively regretting the many stages of Hot Girl Summer. It was impossible to avoid, because there is no such thing as a quick temperature check on the internet — if you dip your fingers in the digital ocean, you’ll be engulfed by waves of discourse and micro-trends. And so, even though the internet is full of contradictions — everything and nothing happens online — we all inhabited the same time and place. It was a reminder that the internet can expose us to so many different kinds of people, living experiences completely alien from ours (while also brutally suggesting to us that we’ve never had an original thought or experience). Even so, we were all able to be blissfully unified, as we occupied Hot Girl Summer together. Or were we?
Before answering that, let's try and make sense of the trend and journey that is Hot Girl Summer. Ever since Megan Thee Stallion called herself a “Hot Girl” in 2018, followed by an eponymous single the next year, every summer has had a new kind of potential, with “Hot Girl Summer” now replacing “summer” in so many of our lexicons. For the third year in a row, the phrase spiked in ubiquity in late-May/early-June, according to Google Trends. Ironically, half of the summers it’s seen since its 2018 birth have been during the COVID pandemic, and so have been summers of fraught contact, isolation, extreme precarity, and plenty of existential dread.
So, what is even a Hot Girl Summer? Plenty of explainers have described it as a state of mind revolving around unapologetic pleasure-seeking. Megan herself told The Root that it’s all about “having a good-ass time, hyping up your friends, doing you, not giving a damn about what nobody got to say about it.” Hot Girl Summer definitely involves a lot of partying and great outfits. It’s a time for twerking on your friends — a noble aspiration for our first vaccinated summer following the pandemic’s traumatizing second-wave.
And still, our online parlance set a hopeful agenda. When “vaxxed and waxed” took over our Tinder bios, around the time all adults in the U.S. became vaccine-eligible, it made a less-than-subtle spring declaration — and all to the tune of Selena Gomez’s “Come & Get It.” For so many cold dark months the internet had been dripping in messages of despair, nihilism, and maniacal laughter as the stop-and-go of the COVID era ate away at the precious years of our lives, putting enormous pressure on what little time we get under the sun. It’s no wonder that, especially for 20-somethings and older teens, spring was swollen with sexual anticipation, restless and eager to bloom.
But, has anything that’s received so much anticipation ever lived up to its promise? Given the scale of our expectations and the extent of the pandemic’s damage, was it ever even possible to have a Hot Girl Summer? Maybe not. Maybe, Hot Girl Summer was just the kind of projection into the future that’s far more revealing about the present than about anything coming into being. Maybe, our hopes for the future are directly proportional to our current sense of despair or exhaustion. And maybe, those hopes and dreams will remain unattainable until we address our current dread.
Or maybe not? After all, people were still out this summer! Outfits were worn! Kisses were swapped! Tans were secured! And plenty of fun was had! In fact, compared to last year, people on Tinder were swiping more, chatting more frequently, and having longer conversations. According to data Tinder shared with Refinery29, mentions of “Hot Vax Summer” increased 155 percent from March to June, and mentions of “Vaxxed and Waxed” doubled from May to June.
There are other signs, too, that Hot Girl Summer did, indeed, happen. While travel hasn’t returned to its pre-pandemic heights, a report from the U.S. Travel Association says that short-term rental occupancy reached an all-time high this June. And, travel spending, hotel demand, and the rate of airplane bookings have all spiked, even if they have not fully recovered.
Maybe these numbers mean nothing to you. Maybe you didn’t need to know them because your feeds were already smothered in tropical vacations, block parties, and all manner of youthful debauchery, confirming that plenty of Hot Girl Summers were had. But maybe you did need to know them because social media is, for the most part, a highlight reel. What’s not often documented online is failure. What is documented is the pivot and two refrains that have recently made the internet-talk rounds: “getting railed in a sundress” and “submissive and breedable.” According to Google Trends, their popularity surged as the summer progressed, telling a story of an increasingly stressed and horny discourse — a Hot Girl Summer, yes, but one tinged with anxiety and desperation.
This evolution of Hot Girl Summer isn’t one that was predicted in May. While “vaxxed and waxed” and Hot Girl Summer are sweet and naive hopes for the future, the phrases “getting railed in a sundress” and “submissive and breedable” are their painfully realistic and shamefully try-hard older sisters, suggesting that Hot Girl Summer fell short of its promises for, if not everyone, at least many people.
It’s impossible to sweep the whole of the English-speaking internet in order to shake out some overarching, objective reality. Maybe you did have a Hot Girl Summer, and were a delicious cherry-cherub that got your ass-clapped by the love of your life from March through August. Maybe there wasn’t a day this summer when you left the house without garnering an outfit compliment and a flower-petal path upon which to walk. Maybe you had a Hot Girl Summer so hot and so girly and so summery that you tore through the space-time continuum. Or, maybe, your summer was hot and smelly, full of subway rats and public urination and unsexy experiments with drugs. Maybe you had a summer so miserable you also tore through the space-time continuum.
Maybe none of the petty differences matter, since we’re all ending up in the same place anyway: the internet, where Hot Girl Summer was born in a tweet, and where it is fading out for now, probably to be reborn again next spring. It’s on the internet that we post the parts of ourselves we hope we share with others. We look to the internet for things to relate to, for things to validate us, for things to aspire to — things that no one person can give themselves and that the online world is exceptionally and frighteningly good at providing. This year of increased online activity has, if anything, given us more public declarations of loneliness, horniness, excitement — it made Hot Girl Summer 2021 possible and impossible all at once. The internet reminds us that sometimes a Hot Girl Summer is still a shitty summer, and sometimes a shitty summer is just a shitty summer. It’s a season, after all, that’s a cliché at heart — often true, but never a given, and almost always uncomfortably familiar.