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The enduring, endearing cult of gray sweatpants thirst

Gray sweatpants season, explained.

An illustration below the waist of men in gray sweatpants.
Ah, the joy of men in gray sweatpants.
Sarah Lawrence for Vox
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

Over the course of the past year or so, everyone got horny online.

To be fair, people have always been horny online; that’s sort of a big part of being online. Plus, it’s been a weird time. Things are bad, and maybe getting worse! So it only makes sense that in the past 12 months alone, an aquarium had to apologize for calling one of its otters “thicc,” and people decided they wanted to have sex with a certain duck and a Pixar animated character, and also wished for Rachel Weisz to top them.

At the Daily Dot, Ana Valens explored the phenomenon and how social media shaped it. “Twitter has developed a language around horniness that makes thirst less objectifying,” she wrote. “Suggestive photos are just ‘thirst traps.’ Obsessing over your gym crush’s cute bod is just ‘thirst posting.’ ... Putting online horniness into a coded language makes it feel like a shared experience, making it less taboo to express one’s sexuality on the internet.”

And there’s perhaps no better emblem in the world of coded online lasciviousness than gray sweatpants. Gray sweatpants, of course, are just sweatpants that are gray. But online, “gray sweatpants” are the equivalent of a simpering wink between the digital thirsty.

To be completely frank with you, fellow adult, here is the actual allure of gray sweatpants on the internet: It’s that you can sort of see the outline of a guy’s dick when he wears them. That’s it. Much like the cultural fervor about 10 years ago over how yoga pants (back when they were called “yoga pants” and not just leggings) made a woman’s butt look good, gray sweatpants have lasted as a thirst phenomenon because there are not a lot of ingredients one needs to achieve the look. As long as you’ve got a) gray sweatpants and b) a dick, you’re good.

They are also not exactly difficult to procure. It is the rare person who doesn’t own a pair of sweatpants — unlike a suit, which can cost hundreds of dollars, a pair of sweatpants can go for 15 bucks — and they might as well be gray. That they must be gray in order to be “gray sweatpants” likely has to do with the shadow effect: It’s more difficult to see the lumps and bumps on a person’s body when the person is wearing darker colors.

Just as there is sundress season, which Bossip deftly described as “the perfect time for women to smuggle their hams in flowy-yet-tight pieces of fabric sewn by the gods themselves,” there is also gray sweatpants season, which begins and ends around the same time that sweater season does.

But the greater “gray sweatpants season,” or rather, the time in which gray sweatpants have been an object of desire, is more nebulous. People have discussed them on Twitter and Tumblr for at least five years; podcaster Tracy Clayton’s 2015 BuzzFeed piece “Gray Sweatpants Are The Most Important Things A Man Can Wear” served as one of the earlier chronicles of the phenomenon.

And searches for “gray sweatpants season” spiked for the first time about six months later, at the start of that year’s actual sweatpants season.

The highest peak, however, was in the fall of 2016, when the “gray sweatpants challenge” went viral. Like most, the “challenge” here involved little more than taking a photo of oneself, and was quickly overrun with irony, where men took photos of themselves with brass instruments, televisions, and an actual Christmas tree.

But eyeballing men in gray sweatpants goes back much further than Twitter. Nichole Perkins, a writer and co-host of the podcast Thirst Aid Kit, says her earliest memories of the inside joke were among friends in high school and college, until an early online black community helped bridge the gap between those disparate friend groups.

Even before MySpace, there existed a social network where people lusted over gray sweatpants: BlackPlanet, which launched in 2001. Perkins remembers going on the site and finding that people would post pictures of themselves. “They would be very casual, just hanging out in gray sweatpants and girls were replying, ‘Do you see what I’m seeing?’ Other women would be like, ‘I see it,’” she says. “It picked up and became a way of laying out a thirst trap without being too obvious.”

For men, this is the true allure of posting a gray sweatpants photo: It’s the dude version of “no-makeup makeup.” You’re showcasing your hotness without looking like you’re trying to; in fact you’re trying so not-hard that you’re literally in pajamas. (Unlike simply putting on a pair of sweatpants, however, “no-makeup makeup” actually does require substantial effort — or requires your skin to be the kind that only exists after untold sums’ worth of treatment.)

“It’s the safest way of sending a dick pic without the social stigma of it,” Perkins explains. “Even if you don’t have a body like Chris Hemsworth, It’s a way for men who have different body types to still get the attention they want. They know what they’re doing, and they can get away with it. It’s a very casual flex.”

The low-key nature of the meme is also a benefit for the people who thirst for men in gray sweatpants. “I can say, ‘You look good in those pants,’ but that doesn’t mean I want to be with you in any way at all,” she says. “I think that’s something that’s particularly hard for straight men to understand, because sometimes you catch eyes with a guy just because you’re looking around the room and he thinks, ‘Oh, she looked at me. She must want me.’ No! What? How did we get there by just looking around?”

But the gray sweatpants phenomenon has required many men to figure out how to be objectified — without assuming that everyone doing the objectifying is actually planning to have sex with them. Women, of course, have for so long been objectified that to comment publicly on a woman’s appearance is practically expected. Talking about a guy looking good in his gray sweatpants, on the other hand, was once the stuff of private jokes and group chats. Now that it’s far more socially acceptable for women and gay men to perform our desire in public online spaces, it becomes a form of entertainment — an almost subversive one — that we finally get to enjoy together.

Gray sweatpants, as a thirst phenomenon, are almost endearing in their mundanity: While you could theoretically argue that they just show how low the bar is for men, gray sweatpants are also perfectly innocent as clothing items. It’s nobody’s fault that everyone can sort of see the outline of your genitals through them, and in fact, the sweatpants-ification of men’s pants (joggers are just fancy sweats!) proves that the look is a desirable one. Being attracted to dudes is hard enough, but when men wear gray sweatpants, everyone wins.

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