What Does the TikTok Trend “Boyfriend Air” Say About Gender Norms?

What seems like a harmless gripe conceals a more sinister message

May 17, 2023 8:38 am
Woman in bathroom worried about her wrinkles
Women are saying that their boyfriends' apartments are wreaking havoc on their appearance
Getty Images

There are some spaces you expect to leave dirtier than when you arrived. A McDonald’s ball pit, perhaps. A mud wrestling competition. The communal bathroom at the local public pool. For some women on TikTok, however, those spaces are much closer to home — or, more accurately, their boyfriends’ homes. A viral theory has recently seeped into the ether regarding “boyfriend air,” a phenomenon in which boyfriends (of the straight, cis variety) emit such foul particulate matter as to transform the chemical makeup of their apartments, creating a dense atmospheric fog powerful enough to clog the pores of their girlfriends (of the straight, cis, immaculately groomed variety) immediately upon crossing the threshold.

During the last several months, there’s been an avalanche of reels starring what looks like the cast of Bama Rush complaining about their boyfriends’ lack of basic hygiene. These sorority sisters say spending one or two nights at their BF’s place has caused their own skin to break out, hair to grease up and womanly instincts to panic. One TikTok user lamented taking “a full body shower” at her boyfriend’s apartment, and the next morning “waking up and being like, ‘I feel so dirty.’ My hair was getting greasy like crazy. My skin was looking different, my makeup wasn’t staying on right.” Hundreds of girls have chimed in with their own stories and before-and-afters — reels that are meant to show them defiled by their boyfriends’ auras, but are actually just bronzer-contour humble-brags mashed with clips of them looking hot but in slightly less makeup.

The boyfriend air videos all share similar markers: lighthearted giggles and some soft flirtation with the camera, maybe a cheeky smize or a tongue peeking out the side of the mouth. But the trend conceals a more sinister message — one of clinging for dear life to the harmful gender norms we should have left in the 1950s, along with racism and sideburns, and one that points to a possibly larger regression among Gen Z girls and women on TikTok.

On a purely superficial level, however, the videos might kind of have a point. Whether or not you believe the highly scientific claims that your apartment funk has the power to melt the makeup off a woman’s face, Houston-based sex and relationship therapist Ty David Lerman says the boyfriend air hypothesis raises potentially valid concerns about a partner’s cleanliness.

“There’s not an ‘air’ in the dude’s apartment that’s changing you,” Lerman says, no matter how sour and crusty his lair may be. “That being said, I think there are some legitimate pieces of this [theory] that are attached to energy, cleanliness and maturity.”

Many of the TikTokers behind the trend appear to be young, either in college or recently graduated. “And most college boys are absolutely fucking disgusting,” Lerman says. They’re living the “bachelor life” and may not have learned how to care for their own space just yet, especially if it wasn’t expected of them growing up. And though it may not manifest as a noxious gas, it’s not implausible that one partner’s dirtiness, regardless of their gender, would affect the other. If you lay your head on a pillow covered in several months’ worth of built-up oils, some oil might rub off on you.

But, he adds, as we age, we often either outgrow those nasty habits or settle down with a partner who holds us accountable for our hygiene. Research suggests that messiness can put a major strain on a relationship: one recent report said profuse household clutter led one in six respondents to consider breaking up. 

The citizens of this TikTok universe are well versed in the powerful role relationships play in helping to clean up someone’s act. Some users recently began posting about a parallel phenomenon known as “girlfriend air,” which supposedly has the opposite effect: boys who spend enough time in their girlfriends’ spaces miraculously learn to clean up after themselves. One user described her boyfriend’s transformation after sipping on some of her pristine girlfriend air. “My boyfriend now washes his face regularly, uses separate shampoo and conditioner, is the sole dishwasher, keeps our space tidy and so many more things I’ve instilled in him,” she said.

Gender Inequality Is Changing the Structure of Women’s Brains
Finally, proof that the negative effects are real

The fervor over these trends points to the strength of underlying gender norms. As a borderline-dirty girl myself — one who’s not afraid of a few germs, who washes her hair once a week and who lets a good month go between laundry days (I have, like, a lot of underwear, ok!?) — the trends have triggered some light gender dysphoria in me. I don’t have to travel to my partner’s place to be gross because I’m a greaseball in my own right. Does that mean I’ve failed as a girl?

The backbone of the air theories, after all, is the essential knowledge that men and boys are repulsive. They don’t wash their sheets, they don’t clean their toilets, they are swamp creatures that walk through the world beneath a film of slime. Meanwhile, girls are pure and clean. They scrub every surface multiple times a day with a manic glint in their eye that says “if there is even one speck of dust sullying my bubblegum pink duvet and my six rows of Anthropologie throw pillows, I will never attract the dowry my father needs to save the farm. I will have to sell my body for bread. I will die alone in a filthy prison of my own making.”

You don’t have to be a gender studies major to know that not all boys live like troglodytes and not all girls are Lysol ambassadors. Still, Lerman says there’s an undeniable difference in the messages boys and girls receive about personal hygiene and appearance. Girls are conditioned to be ladylike, constantly doing maintenance on their bodies to appear in the mint condition of a plastic figurine still in the box. Boys are much more likely to be given the grace to be careless. They’re taught not to prioritize upkeep at the expense of something more important, like the big hunt or soccer practice. “Masculine energy is not usually focused on hygiene or cleanliness or cosmetics,” Lerman says. “It’s much more primal.” No one likes a slob. But a boy is more or less expected to be dirty, while a dirty girl may as well have committed a mortal sin.

No one’s a winner when we adhere to these standards. Girls lose out on the freedom, authority and flourishing microbiome that comes with embracing life au naturale (over-washing kills good bacteria!). On average, they also far out-spend men on “self-care” and personal hygiene products. Meanwhile boys lose out on the pleasures of tending to their own bodies and spaces with intention, building habits that can be satisfying and self-affirming. Despite the 2010s-era upsurge of meticulously coiffed metro- and lumbersexuals, men who take visibly good care of themselves, their bodies and their spaces are still clouded by stigma. 

“We just assume that men are gross, [but] men are capable of taking care of and grooming themselves,” Lerman says. And though queer and gender-expansive advocacy has begun to permeate the mainstream, the culture as a whole lags behind. TikTok theories that project these outdated stereotypes read like subtle gender hysteria and highlight a social backslide fueled by certain internet algorithms and trends that repackage alt-right messaging as #lifegoals. The boyfriend air girlies are squarely in the tradwife incubation stage, prepping for a life of cleaning up after men. 

To a passive viewer, these videos seem like digs at boyfriends. But watch carefully, and they say more about girlfriends than anything else. They have a self-deprecating edge, tendering a borderline apology for failing to look airbrushed. They’re a platform for girlfriends to stake their claim to traditional femininity, even when it’s threatened by greasy hair, pimples or smudged makeup. They pin their “flaws” and “blemishes” on a third party because in order to pass as a perfect woman, any imperfections must stem from an external source. It’s unacceptable for their dirtiness to come from the feral, flawed little monster that lives inside all of us.

Could it be that undergirding the fear of dirty women is an acknowledgment that dirtiness is a kind of liberation? That a messy, imperfect, dirty girl is one who controls her own body, sexuality, time, resources and energy? For a man, maybe the opposite is true. Maybe a self-care routine is a radical reclamation of his body, of being attuned to his own needs and feelings, of learning to care for and nurture himself so he can better care for and nurture others.

Those outcomes unfortunately don’t jibe with patriarchy. And while the boyfriend air theory appears harmless, it hovers uncomfortably close to the alt-right echo chambers that wind up polluting all of our air.

Win the Ultimate Formula 1® Crypto.com Miami Grand Prix Experience

Want the F1 experience of a lifetime? Here’s your chance to win tickets to see Turn 18 Grandstand, one of Ultimate Formula 1® Crypto.com Miami Grand Prix’s most premier grandstands!