This article was originally published in Post Grad Survival Guide.
While the precise definition of a hot mess varies, the usual meaning is:
A person, inevitably female, who is disorganised, messy and a bit all over the place. But still attractive (that’s the important part), with an appeal that is only heightened by their messiness.
If you openly proclaim yourself to be a piece of shit, so the theory goes, that glimmer of faux humility cancels out your piece of shitness. So you can continue being a piece of shit without feeling the need to change or take any responsibility for your actions.
No one can judge you for being a terrible person if you know you’re a terrible person, right?
When someone calls a woman a hot mess because she has chipped nail varnish or a pasta sauce stain on her white t-shirt from the kids’ department or she leaves bobby pins everywhere it’s…kind of sociopathic. They might as well hold up a big neon sign saying I Have Never Been Near A Woman & Am Basing My Entire Mental Model Of 50% Of The Population On Riley Reid.
I came across one man online describing a hot mess as a woman who is ‘confusing, odd, complex and yet, the way I see her, she’s very simple and easy to talk to’ in what should be satire but probably isn’t. If we were playing a game of ‘guess the source of the out of context quote’ I would have pinned that on Carl Tanzler.
I digress. Regardless of whether other people slap that label on you or not, please don’t label yourself as a hot mess.
Please don’t treat it as a badge of honour. It’s not. It’s lazy and immature. A toddler is allowed to shirk responsibility for their actions because they don’t know any better. An adult is not.
Calling yourself a hot mess is just perpetuating the idea that a woman can be *insert literally any negative trait* and it’s all okay as long as she’s still attractive.
Failed out of school? Buried under mountains of avoidable credit card debt? Passed out drunk in the street? In trouble with the police for something stupid? Stabbed your boyfriend for liking another girl’s Instagram pictures? Don’t worry, as long as you’re young(ish), thin, white and clear-skinned it’s all okay. Society will forgive you.
Some people describe the term as a liberating way of acknowledging that they have flaws and aren’t ashamed of it, but they’re also confident in their looks.
Again: why are we elevating appearance above all else? Why, like an investment bank that cares more about upholding appearances in the wake of a financial crisis than preventing another one, should this cancel out preventable and/or solvable negative traits?
Calling yourself a hot mess is turning something probably meaningless and temporary into a part of your identity. (Yes, you got drunk and walked home barefoot, we’ve all been there. That is not a permanent stain on your life.)
You may have, at some point, been in a bit of a mess compared to your usual self and/or whatever society expects of you. That does not mean you are an irredeemable bundle of chaos in human form, contractually obliged to tell everyone you encounter about it, Zooey Deschanel ‘I’m sorry I’m so fucked up’ style.
I remember watching this happen again and again at school. One of my peers would get drunk for the first time in her life, make out with someone else’s partner and then be off school for a week with a hangover. And then suddenly everyone would label her as a hot mess. Or whatever the equivalent term was at the time. ‘Mother slut’ was in vogue for a while, god knows why.
And then she had to uphold her official status as the class hot mess. Which meant an immediate spiral into hanging around outside shops asking people to buy her alcohol, picking up weird men in car parks on school trips and getting ying-yang tattoos in basements. Or at least, claiming to be doing those things. Twitter, back in the day, was a game of Chinese whispers where one lager stolen from your dad turned into a 3 day bender.
We all obsessed over whoever held the position of designated class hot mess on any given week. They were an inexhaustible source of amusing stories. Nothing brightens up a dull science class like listening to the person sat behind you claim that she’d spent Friday night in 50 Cent’s hotel room and had his number.
We all got to feel reassured about our own lives, but we were secretly jealous.
I spent my Friday nights lurking in the local graveyard dressed as Mrs Havisham, writing articles under pseudonyms for any site that would accept them, and searching for a voodoo spell that would enable me to resurrect George Harrison. I wish that were a joke. I wish the 50 Cent story were a joke too.
So the official hot messes were both a source of comfort and an aspirational ideal of what life can look like if you’re hot and don’t give a damn. Part of me wanted to be like them. Part of me wanted to be Tavi Gevinson.
Ah, that classic teenage inability to recognise that identity is not binary. I ended up miles from either. Still, I see the appeal and why, as Jessica Wildfire puts it, we all secretly love a hot mess.
Calling yourself a hot mess is a reflection of the delusional assumption we all seem to have that everyone else has their life perfectly together and you, with your goddamn human flaws, are a mess. Of course you are. Everyone is, at least sometimes. If they look like they’re not, that means they’re just better at hiding it.
And I do understand why people use the term — it’s a way to preserve some self-esteem during rough times. You go through a miserable break-up, cry a lot and behave irrationally. But then you think of yourself as a hot mess, because when everything else is going to shit, you can at least feel good about your appearance.
It’s okay. Sometimes that does matter. If it wasn’t for winged eyeliner, I would have never survived my teens. The act of dragging myself out of bed and spending 20 minutes painting my eyes black,- no matter how I felt, even the time when I ended up accidentally ripping an IV out of my hand doing my makeup in A&E, was a source of comfort.
But that is not the entire basis of a person’s value. And it is not an excuse for digging yourself further into a hole because, ya know, that’s your identity now.
It doesn’t matter that you look aesthetically pleasing to other people if you’re miserable and feel like you’re losing control of your life. You shouldn’t surrender responsibility by turning it into part of who you are.
Yes, maybe you’re in a mess right now. I’m sorry about that. You are not lazy for being unable to just shrug it off and it is not your fault if things are going wrong. But please don’t buy into the belief that everyone else is perfect and you should just give up.
Calling yourself a hot mess equates to shrugging off any responsibility for improving or changing yourself. You’re not saying you’re ‘in a mess’ you’re saying you ‘are a mess.’ You’re not. You’re human.