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Incels

Are incel forums the new pro-anorexia groups?


TextClementine Prendergast

How the dark world of incel forums are mirroring the subjective rating systems and arbitrary formulas seen in pro-ana communities in a bid to quantify perfection

Last month, The Cut reported on the dark online world of ‘incels’, involuntarily celibate men who mostly believe their lacking good looks are responsible for their inability to get laid, their lacklustre careers and their general sense of unhappiness. The article explored the extreme lengths these men are willing to go to enhance their physical appearance in order to change their circumstances. In particular, it found that a community of incels are visiting top surgeons to have invasive surgery that will supposedly make their faces more archetypally attractive and traditionally masculine, in a bid to solve their personal and professional problems. 

I wasn’t all that shocked by the content of the article or the incel forums. Having struggled with an eating disorder for the past decade, I am all too familiar with striving for aesthetic perfection and the ways in which our psychological yearnings manifest in the physical. In fact, upon discovery of these incel forums, I was struck by the ways in which they mirrored the pro-anorexia websites (online forums which endorse and advocate eating disorders) I frequented during my teens. While precise behaviours and core motivations of these incel forums do not directly map those of pro-anorexia websites, (for one, unlike incel forums which are male-only, pro-anorexia websites can be mixed gendered, although they are largely female-centric) the lengths to which anorexics are willing to go to achieve physical perfection is shockingly similar. 

Among the most extreme of the incel communities is lookism.net. The lookism community is premised on the notion that humans are ‘lookist’, discriminating positively towards people who are more physically attractive (symmetrical faces, even distribution of fat and muscle) and negatively towards people who are not. One of the central mechanisms of the community is a rating system, whereby group members award each other a number out of ten based on how attractive they appear. 

At the top end of the spectrum are the Chads. Chads are like high school jocks, alpha males with stereotypically masculine features (big muscles and strong jawlines) whose looks score between six and 10. Incels who score less than four on the scale believe they must transform themselves into Chads, doing everything from taking aggressive steroids to undergoing drastic plastic surgery to do so. 

"At their core, these groups are reflective of an existential striving for meaning and purpose, a logical explanation for imperfection"

Like incels, many pro-ana groups have arbitrary rating systems, where users provide images of themselves or give their height and weight measurements and ask each other to rate their bodies, give feedback on whether or not a person has lost or put on weight, or just simply provide an answer to the question: Am I fat? Where incels have Chads, pro-ana groups have ‘thinspiration’, images or references of people who embody their ideal body types. For some, it’s Victoria’s Secret models and for others mere contemporaries; as one user comments, “my real thinspos are fellow short girls who are skinnier, more petite and more childlike.” Also providing inspiration are images of rib-cages, hip-bones and clavicles which feature as profile pictures for many users. 

As well as being there to judge each other seemingly objectively, incels and pro-ana members also provide each other with tips and tricks to attaining their ideal level of perfection. To help each other with their transformations into Chads, incels take to forums like ‘looksmaximising’, an open discussion board where, across over 4,000 threads, they explore everything that constitutes the perfect masculine look, offering tips on everything from penis stretching, hair transplants, and aggressive plastic surgery (jaw and cheekbone reconstruction, shoulder widening, rib removal) to drinking pomegranate juice to increase testosterone levels, the best gym routine to broaden shoulders and mewing techniques, an oral posture technique which involves keeping the tongue at the roof of the mouth in order to create a more defined jawline. There are also countless references to academic studies detailing the symmetry of beautiful faces. Members even photoshop each other’s selfies to show what they would like if transformed into Chad. References the poster can then take to the surgeon.

Over in pro-ana forums, users give each other advice on how to achieve everything from prominent collar bones to the infamous thigh gap. Focused largely on self-starvation, these communities have a primary goal to control the ‘unruly body’ with forum advice centred around dangerous and restrictive dieting. Topics include: how to distract yourself from hunger, how to avoid eating when staying with friends, and how to avoid eating in general. 

Built on the false promises that if you are thin like a supermodel or masculine like a ‘Chad’ you will be beautiful, desirable, and successful, both forums are full of arbitrary formulas and subjective rating systems that attempt to quantify beauty and objectify perfection, effectively rendering true attractiveness as an attainable pursuit. At their core, these groups are reflective of an existential striving for meaning and purpose, a logical explanation for imperfection, pain and misfortune, embodied in the search for physical perfection. But though extreme in their approach to physical perfection, these behaviours are indicative of a wider cultural phenomenon; the heightened value we place on the individual and in this case, individual appearance.

"If we want to challenge the existence of these kinds of online communities, and prevent others from forming, we must look to a broader cultural climate that exists offline"

“We live in an increasingly competitive society ushered by the recent shift to individualism,” explains social and personality psychologist Thomas Curran. As a result of this shift, Curran argues, we’re seeing a rise of perfectionism and with it, a rise in Body Dysmorphic Disorder, an anxiety disorder related to body image that is commonly associated with anorexia and seems to resonate greatly with the warped mindset of an incel. Curran believes body dysmorphia is “baked into the capitalist model" because if we were content with how we appeared, then we would not need to consume and consumption is like oxygen to markets. Members of both of these forums are equally obsessed with their body flaws and united by a fundamental desire to embody the image of perfect beauty we are sold.  

While their pursuit of physical perfection is undeniably disturbing, there is an argument that sees these online communities as a means of providing a degree of emotional support for mental health issues which are increasingly present but equally challenging to talk about IRL. In fact, a controversial paper was published last year which explored the potential benefits of pro-anorexia websites. Wooldrige, the paper’s author, explains how one of his patients experienced the sites as a place where she could “withdraw from overwhelming emotional pain.” 

But while pro-anorexia websites offered Wooldrige’s patient a “psychic retreat”, there is no denying the harmful effects of these communities. In fact, a few years ago, new laws were introduced to criminalise pro-anorexia websites with the legislation arguing these forums encourage dangerous behaviours for vulnerable people suffering from eating disorders. According to Dr Bryony Bamford, Clinical Director at The London Centre for Eating Disorders and Body Image, while these sites may seem helpful in the short term, in the long term, “they serve to promote behaviours and thought patterns that can have very serious consequences”. In the very worst cases, pro-anorexia websites can encourage self-starvation to the point of death. Likewise, buried amongst the ‘looksmaximising’ forums of Lookism are dark conversations radicalising members and encouraging misogyny, rape and extreme violence. Alek Minassian, the main suspect of a van attack in Toronto that killed 10 people, posted to Facebook shortly before the attack: “The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!” Elliot Rodger, who killed six people before shooting himself in the student town of Isla Vista in California, also frequented incel forms. While no such legislation yet exists for forums like Lookism, it is something which should seriously be considered. 

But beyond that, if we want to challenge the existence of these kinds of online communities, and prevent others from forming, we must look to a broader cultural climate that exists offline. This means not only finding ways to challenge beauty standards and widen representations in media but also questioning fundamental assumptions around selfhood and what it means to be an individual. Only when we challenge the environment-at-large can we expect to see a reduction in mental health issues like eating disorders and subsequent disinterest in pro-anorexia websites and forums like Lookism. 

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