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Cherubs, detail from the Sistine Madonna by Raphael

Buccal fat removal: are we not allowed to have cheeks anymore?

Everyone is talking about cherub cheeks and buccal fat removal – but why?

I already knew what buccal fat was before the discourse around it kicked off this week on social media. I knew because a few years ago I started googling around to see if the buccal fat removal procedure was something that I could have done to my face. I wanted to have cheekbones. I wanted to be beautiful. Years of watching tutorials full of contouring, of industry messaging around being sculpted and lifted, of faces with high prominent cheekbones being held up as the aspirational standard had taught me that, if I wanted to be beautiful, I had to have cheekbones. Removing my cheeks seemed like the way to achieve that.

It’s so exhausting to simply exist in our culture right now. You can’t have a body without being criticised for it. You can’t have the natural features that come with having skin and organs and a working nervous system. We’re not allowed to have pores or “strawberry arms” or stretch marks or fat or laugh lines. Now, we’re not even allowed to have cheeks.

The buccal fat pad is a rounded mass of fat between your cheekbones and your jawbone. Everyone has it, but the size will vary from person to person and it affects the shape of your face. The more buccal fat you have, the more rounded your face.

Buccal fat removal is a surgical procedure where the buccal fat pads are cut out through an incision inside the mouth. This creates a hollow and accentuates the cheekbones. The result is a face that looks more angular, severe and, crucially, more ‘high fashion’. Because of this, the procedure has quietly become a go-to in celeb land over the last few years. However, it came to public attention a few days ago when Lea Michele posted a selfie where her cheeks looked noticeably absent of buccal fat.

The picture kicked off discussions on social media around the procedure, as well as the increasingly unbearable pressure of current beauty standards. “What the fuck is buccal fat how are they still inventing new flaws for us,” wrote music supervisor and writer Jules Zucker on Twitter, receiving over 104k likes. “I am literally running out of limbs and features.”

What also resulted from the discussions, more positively, was a sense of unity: everyone came together to celebrate and champion “cherub” cheeks and baby faces. “No more buccal fat removal. Baby cheeks girls must unionise,” tweeted @immaterialgirlz to 128K likes. “I cannot believe buccal fat removal is a trend rn. You are telling me that my exact type in women is currently being slaughtered day by day and I have to just sit here and know about it,” wrote Michaela Okland, the creator of podcast and platform SheRatesDogs, to 37k likes. 

Many people pointed out that as we age, we naturally lose some of the plumpness in our faces, which means that those people who have undergone the procedure will become even more hollow when they are older. “Removal of the fat may cause the face to look more gaunt with age,” as the American Society of Plastic Surgeons puts it.

“My excessive buccal fat may be unchic at the moment but the tables will turn once we’re all in our 60s and I’m the only bitch in town who looks jolly,” Dazed 100-er Rayne Fisher-Quann tweeted, while Vox writer Rebecca Jennings wrote, “‘buccal fat’ this, ‘jaw filler’ that, us cherubic round-faced milk-fed girlies are playing the long game’”.

If the thousands of likes and retweets received by these posts are anything to go by, many people both have and love full, rounded, milk-fed cheeks. So if you’re out there feeling insecure about your cheeks please know, just because runways and social media feeds are full of angular bones and high cheekbones, it doesn’t mean that you have to look the same way.

In the end, my buccal fat removal research never amounted to anything. Maybe if it had, I would right now be capitalising on the societal benefits that come with meeting an on-trend beauty ideal. Or maybe I would be lamenting the baby face that once caused the man at an off-license to laugh in disbelief when he saw the age on my ID. Either way, I’m happy with the decision I made: none of us should feel like our body parts are a trend. I’m certainly not the first to say this, and I won’t be the last, but our bodies are not something that we can take on and off like a Diesel micro skirt. BBLs being ‘in’ or ‘out’, heroin chic thinness coming ‘back’ and replacing the ‘slim thick’ look, boobs jobs being all the rage then not – it all creates a culture where people are scrambling to keep up with the trends, constantly having to modify their bodies, never succeeding to achieve beauty ideals and having their self-esteem destroyed.

As writer Imogen West-Knights so eloquently pointed out, “this whole cheek removal thing is so stupid because in nine months time there’ll be a TikTok girlie who invents chipmunk core or cherub mode or some shit.” The carousel will probably never stop turning, so at some point, we are all going to have to make the decision on our own to get off.