Trigger warning for eating disorders (level: mild mention, location: paragraphs 1-3)

Shifting her feet on the uneven floorboards of City Beach, a curvy, pale, 14-year-old girl tugged on a bikini. Summer body dread had begun.

She sucked in her stomach before turning to face the changing-room door and began to breathe again, deciding in silence that bikinis were not made for her body type.

In subsequent summers she would shrink from a healthy size 14 to a size 10, and would be ecstatic — not because she had worked for it, but because it was easy to treat a bottle of water as a meal. Because she only knew one model for what summer beauty was supposed to look like.

Then the ‘rats’ arrived: a subversive call on June 4 this year from an American TikToker to turn beauty expectations on their head and embrace what she described as a “rodent energy”.

“We’re scurrying around the streets, we’re nibbling on our little snacks, and generally finding ourselves in places we have no business being in. Embrace the rodent energy,” said TikToker Lola Kolade.

So far, 30 million ‘girls’ have used the #ratgirlsummer hashtag on TikTok. The ground vibrated beneath their scurrying feet, and the girl — now a young woman — could smell their cheeky snacks, hear their elated snickering, and would think it was the most wholesome sound; she would feel excited for summer.

The rat was not always hot: that is, not before 2023. Before, hot was their older, prettier sister ‘Hot Girl Summer’.

The 2019 phenomenon’s official title was coined by American rapper Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘hot’ track “Hot Girl Summer”.

Sociology lecturer of genders and sexualities Gabriela Loureiro said trends like this usually experience a natural death.

“What eventually happens is that it usually generates interesting conversations and it generates new ways of doing things,” Loureiro said.

“But that usually hits some other boundary of limitation or repeats some other one that hasn’t been taken into consideration before.”

And that’s exactly what happened.

Among the lyrics about female empowerment are discreet phrases which would soon feed the expectations of women promoted by the social media phenomenon ‘Hot Girl Summer’ regarding appearance (“Hot Barbie Summer” [before the 2023 film’s release]), values (“Who unfollowed me? Like who don’t follow me?”) and sexual lifestyle (“Eat that d**k up even when I’m going vegan”).

The requirements to be a ‘hot girl’, accumulated by endless popular culture references, outline a specific physical appearance which excludes other body sizes, shapes and abilities: hairless, spray tanned, fresh nails done, injected botox, dyed and styled hair, dressed for male validation in uncomfortable shoes and a big smile – either polite or sexy, no in-between.

The list became endless, and this narrow image of a ‘hot girl’ filled the social media feeds of the young woman, now 15.

“What are the conditions for sisterhood?” Loureiro asked. “You can be a sister as long as you don’t call out someone else’s behaviour. Then you become the troublemaker, and you’ll be excluded.”

An anthem about female empowerment sung by a successful black woman in a male-dominated industry unintentionally planted the seeds of a gender-stereotypical image of women. After reaching a global audience on social media, this inevitably turned into expectations from within the male gaze, and insecurity within the female gaze.

“This idea of the male gaze has been circulating in feminist theory and activism since the 70s,” Loureiro said.

“You can be snappy and you can be quirky, but as long as you’re still cute in a way that you can be patronised. The concept is not new at all, but of course it is always going to be new for people who haven’t come across it before.”

The same pale girl had been fed these expectations in the lead up to her next summer, and was triumphant to shop for swimwear without limitations, in stores that catered to her previously curvy size: Big W, Best&Less, CityChic, Kmart.

Yet, it would be one more year until she truly triumphed. Until she saw size 16 and size 10 models posing for Seafolly and thought: they’re so hot, and so am I.

Four years after Thee Stallion’s song, Hot Girl Summer’s little sister emerged from her home within social media’s plumbing. Earlier this year, a video popped up on the TikTok feed of the girl — now 19 — by American TikToker Lola Kolade, captioned with her refurbished ‘Rat Girl Summer’ phrase, outlining the principles of the ideology: spend time outdoors, eat what you please, don’t be embarrassed and do not overthink. Appearance was not a factor.


🐀🧀 #ratgirlsummer #rodentenergy #summervibes #summer2023 #weoutside #selfcare


The video soon gained traction over social media and the ripple-effects began to hit locally and internationally: the rats had awakened.

The Australian fashion industry has jumped on board with the trend’s body-positive ideology, breaking down the wall of pressure millions of girls — like the 19-year-old — face to prepare a perfect summer body, as if following a recipe for a crème brûlée. A list of brands with online accessibility is growing in Australia, encouraging all women to fulfil their confidence and their style when dressed in a manner so vulnerable as swimwear. And to crack the surface of the créme brûlée with unapologetic malice.

Australian swimwear brand Seafolly hired its first non-binary ambassador in March this year, to detour the traditionally sexualised avenue of swimwear advertising and to promote how people do not need to be assigned as a female at birth to wear swimwear designed for women.

So then, who is ‘Rat Girl Summer’ targeted to?

‘Rat Girl Summer’ is inclusive of all ‘girls’ who don’t conform with previously ‘hot’ images in popular culture. The young woman — now a newly-converted rat — saw her body shape represented on social media pages under the #ratgirlsummer hashtag, as she did not have an hourglass waist but rather had a pear shape, and did not have 2019’s desired ‘booty’, but instead had visible hip-dips. A safe space without male expectation or judgement had been created for her, and for millions of other women.

UOW Women’s Space president Edwina Cooke said some current students are embracing this change in self-image.

“The whole world is a safe space for men,” Cooke said.

“I know that I get quite intimidated by men at times, when there are too many men around or even sometimes in classes. I do like this idea of using ‘girl’ because a lot of times it’s been used to infantilize women, so reclaiming that is quite a powerful thing. I think one thing that I am noticing more is women embracing their sexuality.”


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by The City of Dating (@thecityofdating)

The trend is allowing women to reclaim their identities and, while they’re at it, to explore and celebrate their sexuality. It is not frowned upon for a ‘rat’ to enjoy sexual attention or activity, but rather, it is simply not a prerequisite. The 19-year-old rat-girl downloaded dating app Hinge, because why not?

A race to win?

‘Hot Girl Summer’ unintentionally perpetuated an ideal feminine aesthetic which favoured white/caucasian women. This not only contradicts the phenomenon’s original creator Megan Thee Stallion who is an American woman of colour, but also the ‘Rat Girl Summer’ creator Lola Kolade, another American woman of colour.

“I think the problem for me is to think that this is doing feminism, because it’s not,” Loureiro said.

“It’s appropriation of black women’s labour. Even ‘Hot Girl Summer’ came from a black woman, so there’s this spark of creativity and women with more conservative values will turn it into something else.”

After the appropriation of a black woman’s idea of ‘Hot Girl Summer’, the discourse created by ‘Rat Girl Summer’, as well as the UOW Women’s Space, is aimed to be anti-racist and non-political.

“We actually have Labour left, Labour right, we have the socialists, we have the Liberals,” Cooke said.

“If you feel like a hot girl, you’re a hot girl.”

So, is this approach effective?

“[The trend is] kind of trying to transform activism into some form of womb, that it’s de-political, it’s de-politicising the space,” Loureiro said.

“That’s not what activism is for, it’s not to make you feel better about yourself. Was it something initially aimed at being feminist, or was it just someone trying to say that they’re tired and exhausted in this world? Does it need to become the new #MeToo?”

So, ‘Rat Girl Summer’ is not powerful activism in the grand scheme of the feminist movement. And that’s okay.

What is powerful about the phenomenon is its impact on a few girls. The girls who’ve skipped their hair-wash days and are swapping out tanning oil for swimming goggles. The one girl—now 20—who has eaten three meals today, with snacks in between and dessert afterwards, too.