The world can be weird, but the online world can be much, much weirder. And when it comes to notions of beauty, the multisphere of social media can be a web of nefariousness that feeds off and breeds dangerous ways of thinking. There’s no better illustration of this than the pockets of men going to extreme lengths in order to pursue their self-beautification.
“Social media scrutiny tends to be lodged toward women’s bodies,” Jenna Drenten, a professor in marketing at Loyola University Chicago, tells HUNGER. “That’s happened to such an extent that when men are the ‘main character’ for a body image trend, it seems unique.” Emphasis here is on the word “seems”. From the broad ideas around youth that were prevalent in ancient civilisations, to the physiques of bodybuilders and the 2010s himbo, male beauty standards have always been a thing. Recently, however – and thanks to their proliferation online – they’ve crept into the limelight and birthed interesting results. According to an investigation by The Cut, cosmetic surgery amongst those who identify as male has risen by 325% between 1997 and 2015 in the US alone. Between 2000 and 2020 there was also a 71% increase in Google searches for jawline filler. And that’s in part owed to phenomena called “chad facing”, “mewing” and “looksmaxxing”.
For those that aren’t chronically online, “chad facing” is the name which has been coined for the way in which men are contorting their face to exaggerate their cheeks, jawline and chin. “Mewing”, on the other hand, is the idea that your facial structure can be improved via your “tongue posture”. “Looksmaxxing” is the kind of umbrella term for all endeavours to improve a man’s physical appearance, whether it be surgery or steroids. And yes, that whiff you detected when the word chad popped up is correct: all three of these phenomena do indeed have links to incels.
Chad facing is, of course, born out of the term “chad face’, which stems from the notion of a “chad”: the sexually active, genetically superior men, or “alpha males” that incel subcultures spend their time lamenting. Paragons of chad face are models like David Gandy and Jordan Barrett. Though chad face has since made its way out of the manosphere, becoming a TikTok trend where young people try to do their best recreation of a chad or “gigachad”, it’s a whole branch of terminology that has its roots in “incel, redpill and blackpill communities, who all have a warped perception of the world around them”. For Rukiat Ashawe of internet culture specialists The Digital Fairy, something like chad facing is particularly insidious because of the way it “rehashes pseudoscientific racist ideas such as phrenology”.
What Rukiat is getting at is practices like chad facing, mewing and looksmaxxing aren’t solely about improving the appearance of whomever is practising them. For the incels taking to forums like Looksmax – a website where users weigh in on not just methods of looksmaxxing, but each other’s appearance – they’re guided by ideals of male supremacy and hypermasculinity that have seen a surge in popularity in recent years because of figures like Andrew Tate, the self-proclaimed misogynist behind male self-improvement course Hustler’s University. According to one user on Looksmax, Tate has a “smv” (sexual market value) that’s in the “chadlite- chad range [sic]”.
But what makes the incendiary discourse on Looksmax feel most pressing is how it’s leaving the online sphere. In the viral article by The Cut back in 2019, writer Alice Hines spoke to several incels who’d undergone treatments such as facial reconstruction, jaw augmentation and hair transplants in a desperate attempt to improve not just their dating prospects, but their quality of life. In Benjamin Zand’s documentary for Channel 4, the journalist even became aware of pockets of incels hammering their own faces in a bid to improve the appearance of their jawline. Something that started as a meme – and, admittedly, still is a meme for those practising chad face in a decidedly more innocent way – was now a reality. “There’s a level of irony in the fact that a filter first used to critique hypermasculinity is now being reclaimed as an idealised version of hypermasculinity,” adds Jenna.
According to Dr. Ed Robinson, an NHS doctor and the owner of a cosmetics clinic, those from outside these extremist circles are following suit too: “the average man is definitely feeling an increased pressure to enhance their looks,” he told HUNGER. In his clinic alone, he’s witnessed an increase in “people bringing up the online and app related dating scene”: “people feel like they need to mitigate the way in which these platforms facilitate snap judgments of your looks.” Even public figures like Matt Rife, the American comedian that was “cancelled” as a result of the sexist slant of the jokes in his Netflix special, seems to have fallen victim to an iteration of looksmaxxing. Rife – who is, incidentally, popular with incel subcultures – was the subject of online chatter when a surgeon implied he had given him the “greatest jawline ever”.
All things said, we haven’t just witnessed a load of incels heading to Harley Street. “Softmaxxing” has also been positioned as a remedy to the cut-throat world of looksmaxxing. Described as focusing on “more gradual and natural changes” – altering your eating and hygiene habits, for example – softmaxxing has found its way out of extremist forums and into TikToks by young creators like Dillon Latham. Though the advice of figures like Latham is, for some, just rigorous self-care, for others it’s just a wolf in sheep’s clothing. According to a journalist who tried them, they’re “inherently cruel and harmful”. When we spoke to Dr. Robinson about the softmaxxing techniques, he honed in on jaw trainers in particular: “long term use of these devices could well lead to chronic problems like TMJ disorder and migraines”. “I also suspect many of the models selling these products have had dermal fillers,” he added.
When it comes to probing these intrinsically modern phenomena, an age old question always emerges: haven’t we seen these things before? For Jenna, “we can trace the ancestry of mewing and chad face back throughout popular culture: duck face, smize, blue steel, and more.” According to the professor of marketing, something like chadface is simply “the latest iteration of cultural branding of the body: through digital culture, we give body parts a brand name and this helps solidify it as something desirable or undesirable.” For her, other examples of this are the Tumblr-era “thigh gap”, the “thunder thighs” of early 00s gossip rags, the “dad bod”, or the fairly recent obsession with men in “grey sweatpants”. Jenna sees the last in particular as a “watershed moment for men’s bodies being subject to social media surveillance”.
Groundhog day or not, phenomena like chad facing and looksmaxxing leave you with a sense of unease. Not least because of their links to inceldom, but because they hint that it’s probably about time we address the underlying issues that contribute to appearance anxieties. Looking beyond these individual trends and practices, there needs to be discussions around the societal expectations and systemic pressures that affect both men and women. To be honest, now that it’s – shock horror – men being affected, these kinds of conversations probably will go ahead. And that will usher in an era where it’s less about takes on Kylie Jenner’s face at a recent fashion show, and more about wrestling with the conditions that propagated a figure like herself to alter her appearance. “I think the overarching trend of chad face, mewing and looksmaxxing highlights the fact that the increasingly unattainable beauty standards are having huge impacts on the mental health of everyone,” Rukiat of The Digital Fairy concluded.