21 December 2023

WTF is reverse iPhone face?

You’ve probably heard of “smartphone face”. But what does it mean when you look like whatever’s at the other end of the spectrum?

Earlier this year, it was all about the “smartphone face”. Used to describe when actors look too modern for the period pieces they act in, it’s the phenomena afflicting the cast of TV series Daisy Jones and the Six and Timothee Chalamet’s rendition of a 15th century monarch in The King. They’ve got fillers, veneers – or a smile that implies at least a bit of modern dental work – and that general look that can only come with scrolling TikTok into the early hours. Two years prior, the same rhetoric made the rounds on Reddit as the “microwave test”: the idea that if you asked certain actors featured in olden day dramas what a microwave was, they’d know the answer. Those that would be partial to heating up some soup on their lunch break were Jessica Biel’s character in The Illusionist, Dakota Johnson in the recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and Cameron Diaz in Gangs of New York.

Recently, there’s been talk of the antithesis of all that: the people with ‘reverse iPhone face’. We first saw these words in a tweet about Stranger Things actors Charlie Heaton and Natalie Dyer. According to one user, they “look like they exclusively get their news from an unwashed child yelling ‘extra extra’ on a corner of the street [sic]”. It also made the rounds in November, when people commented on the appearance of Grace Dent on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. “She’s giving the Tudors” one tweet read. Essentially, it’s the hot new lingo used to describe anyone who looks like they’re straight out of an old painting at the National Portrait Gallery. Other people with reverse iPhone faces might be Bella Ramsey or Holliday Grainger… The kinds of people that could walk down a Victorian high street and not have anyone bat an eyelid.

The people taking to X and Reddit to talk about the microwave test and smartphone face aren’t mad. There’s truth to what they’re trying to articulate. While nothing has changed in our faces evolution-wise from say the Tudor period to now, there have been significant changes in our beauty standards. Take the hollowed cheeks and sharp bone structure (hello “buccal fat removal”) that we’ve coveted of late: previously, it was fashionable to have the opposite, with plump cheeks signalling that you were healthy. Something similar goes for our complexions. While now there’s a tendency for people to want to look tanned, in the Tudor times, a snow white complexion was something that could only be achieved by aristocracy. 

There’s also something called the “Tiffany problem” at play. Coined by author Jo Walton, it refers to how the name Tiffany, though a name that dates back to the 12th century, has an intrinsically modern feel. It’s therefore hard to insert it into the script for a Victorian era drama or the pages of a novel set in Shakespeare’s times. Essentially, the Tiffany problem is when history doesn’t match our perception of history. And that’s to say that someone who looks like Riley Keough or Camila Morrone could have been knocking about in the 70s. We just don’t think that’s the case. 

But back to reverse iPhone face. If people don’t want the filler-enhanced faces associated with the opposite, can we presume that they do want olde worlde ones on their screens? It seems so. Not only does it help us believe the realities we’re seeing on screen – whether we’re misguided or not – but because it widens the parameters of what we consider beautiful right now. Rather than signalling you might need to go out and get filler of your own, those with reverse iPhone face represent a standard of beauty that’s about putting less physical labour into your appearance. That’s not to say that going after what’s been dubbed “Instagram face” is wrong. It’s just to say that a face that’s more on the “natural” side is definitely a kind of respite.

  • Writer Amber Rawlings
  • Banner Image Credit Stranger Things / 21 Laps Entertainment

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