Water Bottles Have Long Been the Unexpected Status Symbols of High School

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If you spend any time on TikTok, you’ll have seen the VSCO girl. If you don’t know who she is, here’s a good explainer of the pseudo-outdoorsy, effortlessly bed-headed trope of modern girlhood. But watch enough videos mocking her and you’ll notice one accessory that, unlike the scrunchies and oversized tees, can’t be found at most malls: no VSCO girl is complete without her Hydro Flask water bottle.

To those of us older than 19, the VSCO girl probably feels familiar. Gen Z didn’t invent scrunchies, wearing big t-shirts over short shorts, or reminding you to stop using straws to “save the turtles.” Besides, teens have always loved a status symbol, only now Juicy Couture has morphed into Brandy Melville, and Lip Smackers has been replaced by Glossier. And for the past few decades, having the right water bottle — oddly, but not unfamiliar to those of us who’ve attended high school in that time — has been a big part of the semiotics of adolescence. From Nalgene to Klean Kanteen to Hydro Flask, the right water bottle says you’re hydrated (or snuck a White Claw to band practice), you’re eco-conscious, and you’re low maintenance enough to be down for hiking at any moment. Oh yeah, and you’re rich enough to own a $30 water bottle.

I sent out an informal Twitter poll about trendy water bottles in high school. Some said it was all about refilling a Fiji water bottle, with its tropical backdrop, over and over when they were growing up. Some said their school had no such thing, and others said they weren’t even allowed to have water bottles on campus. But the consensus was that in the early 2000s, the bottle-du-jour was a Nalgene. The plastic water bottle with its wide mouth and scientific measurement markings (often covered in stickers by their teen owners) is now in its 70th year. Nalgene began by developing lab equipment, but according to product engineer Fernando Galiana, “there were rumors floating around about scientists taking the smaller, more convenient bottles out of the lab and using them on hikes and excursions.” They began to brand themselves as a camping supply company.

Most teen girls who had one dangling from their backpack weren’t trekking on the regular. The mainstream popularity came from a confluence of trends, says Galiana, from the popularity of drinking on the go (thanks, Starbucks), to the cultural pressure to stay hydrated, to the rise of “athleisure.” “That’s when we went from being a camping/hiking/rock climbing product to more of an everyday bottle,” he said. “We added colors to our products in 2002, and the combination of colors and the macro trend to consume more water exploded our business.”

Nalgene held strong through the early 2000s, challenged somewhat by CamelBak and their easily-chewable straw top. However, things change, and though Nalgene phased out their products that contained BPA, teens began to migrate away from plastics. Enter Klean Kanteen, which in 2004 introduced the first stainless steel reusable bottle on the market. It immediately inspired a slew of knockoffs, but where Nalgene was clunky and clearly smacked of the outdoors, Klean Kanteen was sleek and smooth. It came in pastels and wouldn’t show scuffs as easily. By 2016, S’well had taken over the teen market, a thoroughly urban option with absolutely nowhere for a carabiner to attach. It became an integral component of many a promposal.

Hydro Flask was similarly started as an outdoor brand, using vacuum technology to maintain the temperature of whatever liquid is in the bottle, hot or cold. “Hydro Flask was started as an outdoor brand, and our core consumer remains active, on-the-go individuals who love and care deeply about the outdoors,” the Hydro Flask team told me over email. “With this in mind, we have not directed marketing specifically toward [teens], which has happened naturally.” They became aware of the trend about two months ago, and say they love when anyone wants to use a reusable water bottle, and when they are “having a little fun and expressing themselves in the process.”

Part of any status symbol is money. Though you can get a Nalgene for around $12, Klean Kanteens and Hydro Flasks can cost between $30 and $50. But given that most of these bottles are made by companies that explicitly sell camping supplies, flaunting one feels different than showing off your new Tiffany’s bracelet or Tatcha face spray. They emit the promise of the wilderness, that any moment you and your photo editing apps — VSCO among them — will be wandering through the trees, floppy-haired boyfriend in tow. They say you are somehow above the materialism that’s driving the trend, that this is just a practical investment, and that you’d rather cover your bottle in stickers than shill for a brand (even though everyone knows what brand is underneath those stickers). It’s one-undering the competition. It’s pretending this isn’t about status at all, when of course (tsktsks) it really is.

No matter what the status symbol is, the coolest thing anyone can do has always been not caring about being cool — and embracing camping equipment may be the most aggressive way to broadcast that. Hydro Flask will inevitably make way for the next water bottle trend (I’m crossing my fingers it’s those old-school round canteens), but pretending to not care about the brand while buying the brand? That’s eternal.