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“Tinned fish is the ultimate hot girl food,” Caroline Goldfarb, co-founder of the tinned fish company Fishwife, recently told Nylon in a piece about the internet’s conservas obsession. “There is no food that will make you hotter than tinned fish. Straight up. Do you know a hot girl who doesn’t exist on protein? I don’t.”
To be clear, Goldfarb wasn’t the first to make this specific observation. Back in March, a tweet from Nylon editor Layla Halabian claimed: “Hot girls are always like ‘tinned fish is actually really good.’” Halabian’s comment was niche by internet standards, garnering about 5,000 likes, but in circles like mine, in which sardine recommendations are a common point of conversation, screenshots of the tweet continue to make the rounds in many Instagram stories, including my own.
One risk of spending time on social media in the post-Megan Thee Stallion world is an affectation to describe everything as an extension of “hot girl shit.” (The stroll you take to clear your mind? A hot girl walk, for example.) As many people have written on the subject, a “hot girl summer” and the “hot girl” descriptor are now more than indicators of attractiveness, but an invocation of confidence and ownership over one’s place in the world. “Hot girl shit” is both something anyone can do and something anyone can aspire to. So what does it mean for something as sexless as sardines to now be “hot girl food”?
Anchovies, smoked trout, and the like may be the “ultimate,” according to Goldfarb, but they aren’t the only “hot girl food.” Per references on TikTok, the category includes pickles and McNuggets, but simultaneously acai smoothie bowls and avocado toast; it’s pictures of spaghetti bolognese, or of penne in vodka sauce, or of sushi, set to audio of Emma Roberts saying “I’m rich and I’m pretty, so it doesn’t really matter.” “Hot girl food” can really be anything, according to Twitter: oatmeal, coffee and a croissant, buttered toast, the Crunchwrap Supreme, red velvet cake, “ice cream and vape,” oysters, lentil soup, gnocchi, and so on. “Hot girl food” seems to suggest an appreciation for eating, but not in a complicated way, or an unconventional way, or a way that’s particularly concerned with “wellness.” It’s more Alison Roman than it is Gwyneth Paltrow.
Indeed, Nylon writer Sophia June attributed the current tinned fish trend, in part, to “embattled hot girl” Alison Roman. (Though people were certainly eating tinned fish before that, Roman’s shallot pasta, which requires a can of anchovies, was the New York Times’ top recipe of 2020.) Part of Roman’s allure is that she appears more chill and carefree than many cooking stars; until a recent move, she was known to cook in an imperfect Brooklyn kitchen using minimal tools and dishes, yet turned out perfect-looking food. What she sells is replicable, unfussy recipes, but also hints of a life that audiences want to attain.
June posits that the tinned fish moment fits into a larger aspirational lifestyle “which falls somewhere between European tapas and a Jewish deli aesthetic.” This lifestyle is minimalist, simple, casual, and lends itself to “sensual” eating experiences, like sitting outside with wine and a baguette, Fishwife co-founder Becca Millstein told June. We all have “main character energy now,” as the New Yorker recently proclaimed, which leads to a tendency to turn even the tiniest moments into “vicarious spectacles.” Curating moments in this way sells a specific, chosen image to the people perceiving our lives.
“Hot girl food” is about a sense of romanticizing simplicity; like the act of cracking open a can of smoked fish, “hot girl food” is seemingly effortless. But of course, even the things that are portrayed to us as “effortless” require effort; this is the myth of “no makeup” makeup, or the “effortless dinner party” that can be flung together with barely any notice. What “effortlessness” tends to mean is to make an effort but without the appearance of trying “too hard”—a metric used particularly to scrutinize women.
“Hot girl food” feels like an extension of this idea: It’s trying but not trying “too hard,” whatever that means, and it’s accessible, but still out of reach enough to feel aspirational. In a 2018 episode of the show Alone Together, main character Esther, played by comedian Esther Povitsky, buys a green herb detox and spirulina crisps at a shop in LA after seeing an attractive woman buy them. “It’s hot girl food,” Esther says, though she isn’t quite sure what she’s buying.
For similar reasons, the manifestation of “hot girl food” on TikTok rankles me a bit. I know it’s in jest, but when thin, conventionally attractive people post pictures of, say, cheese-laden pasta accompanied by that “I’m rich and I’m pretty” audio, I can’t help but think of the “cool girl” trope: the one that allows some women to talk freely about how they love to eat and how much they love “junk,” but without the scrutiny that would be imposed upon women who veer outside societal norms of appearance and body size. I think also about that meme that says: “Is it fashion, or are they just skinny?”
I want to believe that “hot girl food,” just like “hot girl summer,” is a state of mind that we can all own, but I’m not convinced. Is it “hot girl food,” or are they just conventionally attractive?