Back in my day we didn’t have thirst traps. People just weren’t that narcissistic.
I hear this argument again and again from boomers who believe Gen Z is the most egoistic generation yet. To them, social media has created a population of self-obsessed screenagers who will post anything to get attention. Including thirst traps.
The truth is there’s actually a long history of thirst-trapping in the Western world that dates back as far as 400 B.C., when the ancient Greeks would erect (LOL) naked statues at public events. These nude statues, like contemporary thirst traps, were made to attract people’s attention, though for obviously different reasons than today’s nudes. For the ancient Greeks, nude statues were a celebration of heroism and virtue. For the modern American, a thirst trap is a celebration of sexiness. (But hey, I’m not complaining.)
Unfortunately, in patriarchal societies every “celebration” comes with its double standards. In Ancient Greece, female nudity was considered taboo and never heroic, except for in rare religious circumstances—like when the sculptor Praxiteles carved a nude statue of Aphrodite, the literal god of sex. And even that sparked outrage.
While controversial, Praxiteles set a precedent for all thirst traps to come: “[Since then] Western depictions of nude women have maintained a similar tone,” explains Taylor Stewart, arts editor of Vassar’s Miscellany News. “Creating images that are suggestive, seductive, and not overtly sexual, while remaining packed with erotic possibility.”
Nowadays, thirst traps follow a similar trend: you want to be suggestive, but not too suggestive, sexy but not too sexy because it would be just so embarrassing (and like, kind of slutty—society’s words, not mine) if anyone thought you were trying too hard. The whole point of a thirst trap to grab people’s attention—but not so much that it raises people’s eyebrows. You’ve got to be coy enough that people keep coming back for more.
While I’m all for body positivity, the faux-coy nature of thirst trap culture bothers me because it reveals that even though we’re being more expressive with our bodies, we still have the same internalized shame about it. For many of us this shame complex stems from growing up in a patriarchal society that dictates “appropriate” expressions of female sexiness. So when posting a thirst trap, you’re thinking not just about what you find sexy, but what other people find sexy too—which is often filtered through the objectifying male gaze.
This objectification has been perpetuated by ancient Greek artwork like Praxiteles’ sculptor of Aphrodite, but also in later pieces of artwork like The Grande Odalisque by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. The painting, which was completed in 1814, depicted a odalisque—a fancy word for a Turkish slave—lounging on her housemaster’s bed. While fictional, the scene wasn’t far from the reality of the time period: it was common for these women to be objects of sexual gratification for men. This painting just normalized the exploitative relationship further, so much so that it sparked an onslaught of similar works that sustained the female body as an object for the male voyeur.
It wasn’t until the invention of photography that women could have some autonomy over this voyeuristic relationship, controlling the artistic depiction of their bodies. Instead of men painting women for other men, women were photographing themselves for whomever or whatever purpose they desired. They could demand attention on their own terms—a cultural shift that was accelerated by the introduction of the curtained photobooth in 1925 and the Polaroid in 1937.
While the photos taken in these booths were never overtly sexual, they were often fueled by the same attention-seeking behavior as thirst traps, distributed as a form of self-expression.
“In the 1970s, I [remember] a lot of teenagers spent their money crammed in photo booths taking a strip of four snaps that sealed their love or friendship, or some idealized vision of themselves,” writer Paul Gallagher noted on his blog Dangerous Minds. “The local bus stop had a large glass covered map of the city detailing the bus routes and times. Into this glass display were slipped dozens of photobooth portraits of youngsters wanting some kind of recognition for being alive, like a low-tech Facebook.”
Just like social media, the easy accessibility of photography provided people a new platform to satisfy their thirst—with the most successful thirst-trappers of the era being pin-up girls.
The OG influencers, pin-up girls were semi-nude models who oozed sexual appeal. These girls were plastered on calendar pages and magazine covers, their mass-produced photos captivating millions of viewers. Much like the Instagram influencer, the pin-up girl reaped the benefits of sexual attention—receiving fame, fortune, brand deals, acting gigs and much more—the most iconic example being Marilyn Monroe. And much like following the hottest influencers on social media, millions of people subscribed to magazines like Playboy, Funboi, Time, and Jet to keep up with the hottest pin-up girls.
Unfortunately, this form of sexual expression was highly exclusive—usually preserved for white women with the “ideal” body measurements. It wasn’t until 1965 that Playboy had its first African-American Playmate, Jennifer Jackson. It took another thirty-five years for Jodi Ann Paterson to become the first Asian-American Playmate of the Year in 2000. And even then, this racial representation was controversial.
That’s why the social media thirst trap is so revolutionary. Because it allows anyone to be that pin-up girl. For the first time ever, we have celebrities posting not just on the same platform but the same feed as the everyday girl-next-door. The fact that Kim Kardashian and I could hypothetically post the same kind of thirst trap on the same platform is unprecedented—and not to mention pretty fucking cool. While Kim Kardashian’s naked bathroom selfie, Bella Hadid’s half-nude couch lounge photo, and Cardi B’s poolside bikini photoshoot will inevitably get more likes than my wannabe-hot-girl-summer beach pic, I can at least pretend for a few minutes that I’m as rich, cool, and conventionally attractive as those beauty icons.
As social media evolves, though, so does the thirst trap. In the early 2000s, it was the oversaturated, high-angled Myspace photos that showed just the right amount of cleavage (and eyeliner, duh). This trend found its way onto Facebook after its public release in 2006 before falling out of style with the rise of other thirst trap trends: the mirror selfie, the bathroom-sink-booty-pop, the “accidental” underboob, etc.
And then in 2007, when Tumblr was invented, there was the “hipster” thirst trap: bohemian surfer girls flaunting their high-waisted booty shorts and super-tan sideboob. There were pretty pastel grunge girls with short skirts, chokers, and thigh gaps, too—like something out of Lana Del Rey’s wet dreams.
While these thirst traps still exist, newer social media platforms including Instagram and Snapchat have taken things to another level. We now have high-production poolside glamor shots, meticulously Facetuned selfies, and Snapchat booty calls disguised as casual late-night Stories. And now, with the rise of TikTok, dance videos that depict anything from 12-year-olds backing that ass up to Megan The Stallion’s “Savage” to cosplayers choking themselves out to a viral anime theme song remix.
I think that’s my biggest problem when older generations call thirst traps “narcissistic” or “attention-hungry.” Really, the modern thirst trap is so much more than a sexy photo. Thirst traps are also an opposition to years of female oppression and the policing of the female body, especially in the art world where female sexuality was taboo unless controlled by men.
Every thirst trap posted is a step away from the sexist history that has allowed male sculptors, painters, and photographers to gatekeep the depiction of our bodies. So next time you hear someone call a girl “narcissistic” because she posted a bikini pic, let them know that thirst-trapping doesn’t make us more “narcissistic”—it just makes us more empowered.
By Kiddest Sinke
Illustration by Ashley Boling