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Mounds View High School's student news site.

The Viewer

Mounds View High School's student news site.

The Viewer

Mounds View High School's student news site.

The Viewer

[OPINION] The dark origins of TikTok’s looksmaxxing trend

From phrenology to incels, the origins of “looksmaxxing” are darker than they may appear.
Image displays a phrenologist’s map of the brain.

In the 1800s, phrenology, or the practice of using the construction of the skull to determine aspects of a person’s character and personality, enjoyed great popularity in the world of psychology. Phrenologists believed that measuring the areas and contours of the skull could reveal innate talents, character traits and psychological dispositions of individuals.

While there were some merits to the theory of phrenology, such as the idea that different regions of the brain are responsible for different processes, the idea that the shape of your skull determines your personality has been entirely debunked.

Even so, the fundamental ideas of phrenology exist today, notably among far-right militias like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, facial recognition technology, and incels.


It’s probably best to start by defining the term “incel.” Originally coined by a queer female student in the late ‘90s, the term rose to prominence in the 2010s on platforms like 4chan and Reddit. Incel stands for involuntary celibate, and incels tend to be men who feel that their appearance or other uncontrollable factors prevent them from attracting women. Men involved in the incel community typically express extreme resentment and hostility toward sexually active women and men, and just women in general.

Ok, so we have a bunch of disillusioned young men who hate women, themselves and basically everyone else. But how did we get here? What happened in the 2000s that spurred so much envy and hatred among these men?

Well, let’s backtrack. Besides 9/11, the Great Recession and Michelle Obama banning McDonalds from the hot lunch line, much of the incel craze can be traced back to pick up artistry, a movement of men who seek to persuade or manipulate women into sleeping with them. Today, pick-up artistry is most commonly associated with internet personalities like Donovan Sharpe, Richard Cooper and Andrew Tate.

Neil Strauss’s “The Game.”

But these men weren’t the first to provide young men with techniques for “picking up” women. In 2005, Neil Strauss, a former investigative reporter, published “The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists.” The book detailed Stauss’s encounters with pick-up artists and his journey towards becoming one himself. Throughout the book, Strauss describes a list of stages a pick-artist must complete to secure a one-night stand, from “selecting a target” to “creating an emotional connection” to “extracting to a seduction location,” whatever that means. Strauss’s book achieved nearly overnight success as lonely young men flocked to his advice.

However, many of these men would have limited success, leading them down the path to inceldom.

In an article published in New York Magazine in 2019, one former self-proclaimed incel explains his transition from wannabe pick-up artist to nihilistic incel.

Truth4lie was 27, depressed, and living in a student apartment after a year in a psychiatric hospital on suicide watch when a friend showed him Neil Strauss’s pickup-artist guidebook, The Game. Together they practiced lines from the book, planning to use them on girls in nightclubs. […]

In real life, pickup artistry made Truth4lie anxious. […] Still, he tried the techniques for a few years, with middling success. Eventually, he stumbled on a forum called Sluthate, where anonymous men gathered to “discredit the effectiveness of pickup art.” In one post, a user described coming to the realization that it didn’t matter what he said because of the way he looked.

The user uploaded a selfie, and other Sluthate posters agreed, mocking the flaws in his face. They congratulated him for “taking the black pill,” shorthand for waking up to the tragedy of being ugly. Ugly people, especially ugly men, they said, are destined to lead unhappy lives and die alone.

Reading this, Truth4lie felt exhilarated. […] Cognition determined emotions, the counselors told him. By changing his mind-set, he could change his behavior. But what if his problems weren’t inside him but outside? Looks can’t be changed with a mind-set adjustment; neither can the cruelly superficial world that values them above all else. The realization was awful and great all at once, as if someone were finally telling him the truth about himself after a lifetime of fake validation.

Frustrated by their continued failure to attract women, even when following the guides of very prominent pick-up artists, many young men conclude that their inability to get a girlfriend is due not to their personality or lack of charisma but rather their appearance. And no community validates the insecurities of these men better than incels.


Euclid, who developed the “golden ratio,” was considered the father of geometry.

In Ancient Greece, the mathematician Euclid, also known as the “father of geometry,” discovered an interesting way of dividing a segment, where the ratio of the whole segment to the longer fraction of the segment was equal to the ratio of the longer fraction of the segment to the smaller fraction. There are a lot of interesting things you can do with this ratio, known as “phi.” Two golden triangles can make a perfect pentagon or a perfect pentagram. And if you put enough golden rectangles together, you’ll end up with this “golden spiral” that seems to frequently appear in nature.

Contrary to popular belief, “phi” was rarely observed in Greek art and architecture, and the idea that the golden ratio signifies beauty didn’t really take hold until the 1800s when Adolph Zeising began publishing books on the theory.

About a decade before the rise of online incel forums, cosmetic surgeon Stephen Marquardt claimed to have discovered perfect facial proportions, which were geometrically determined by phi. He created a “mask” used to represent these proportions, and he believed that beauty could be judged objectively using the mask.

Marquardt’s theory has been highly influential, especially in the world of plastic surgery. Social media platforms, especially TikTok and YouTube, perpetuate the idea that the golden ratio determines attractiveness, with many videos where people will photoshop the faces of celebrities and other users to fit the proportions of Marquardt’s mask.

It’s really not too surprising that incels began to adopt and internalize the ideas of Marquardt. For one, the “golden ratio” validates incels’ belief that attractiveness is objective and unchanging across time and place. And two, incels love objective, “scientifically-based” methods of rating attractiveness.

Over the years, incels have developed ways of quantifying attractiveness beyond the golden ratio. In that forum post, there is a reference to the PSL rating system, which is a 10-point scale used to rate someone’s physical attractiveness. PSL is an acronym of the PUAhate, SlutHate and Lookism online forums, which have all contributed to the development of the PSL rating system.

Different physical traits impact the PSL rating someone receives. A weak jaw, for example, makes a man a 2/10 while a “negative canthal tilt,” or downward slanted eyes, repels universally. Both characteristics, along with many more, are considered unmasculine by the incel community. They signify weakness and low SMV or “sexual market value,” the primary measure of an individual’s worth according to incels.

Notice how incels are quick to assign personality or character traits to different physical traits in a way that’s uncomfortably reminiscent of phrenology.

All of these ideas about attractiveness and individual worth are under the broader umbrella of “Lookism” — the incel theory of objective beauty grounded in both eugenics and racism. Also, according to the theory, women are far more likely than men to date “out of their league” in what incels call “hypergamy,” meaning men who are of average or low attractiveness find little luck in dating.

Incel hypergamy theory states that women are more likely to date men above their own “SMV.” (Incel Wiki)

The men who are genetically fortunate enough to participate in the dating world are considered “chads,” who are envied and despised by the incel community.

Incels tend to have a very evolutionary perspective of their… predicament, viewing the dating world like one of those David Attenborough nature documentaries. 

The idea of hypergamy is what fuels the majority of hate and misogyny prevalent on incel forums, and according to nihilistic “blackpill” incel ideology, men who are of average or low attractiveness have three options: surgery, suicide or “going ER” — a reference to Elliot Rodger, who killed six people on the UC Santa Barbara campus in an act of “retribution” against women who had rejected him. 

However, not all incels are so cynical, and many promote seemingly less-harmful methods of “ascension” — the incel term for leaving inceldom.


Anyone who has spent time online in the past decade will recognize the impact that the glow up trend has had on our culture. From 15 second TikTok videos where someone’s childhood photo transitions to a clip of them now to hour-long YouTube videos that provide a step-by-step guide to “glowing up,” we seem obsessed with finding answers to the age-old question of how to be hot.

The looksmaxxing trend seen on TikTok today is essentially a reiteration of former glow-up trends. The only difference is that looksmaxxing in particular caters to a predominantly male audience and has some not-so-subtle incel-verse undertones.

For one, looksmaxxing terminology is adopted almost exclusively from incel lingo, including the term “looksmaxxing” itself which originated on PSL forums. 

Broadly speaking, looksmaxxing is any attempt to improve one’s appearance, and these methods most commonly include things like going to the gym, getting a haircut or improving one’s style.

Looksmaxxing can essentially be broken down into two categories: softmaxxing and hardmaxxing. Softmaxxing includes less-invasive methods like mewing, a tongue posture technique aimed at expanding one’s jaw, dieting, lifting, or “liftmaxxing,” and skin care, or “skinmaxxing.”

On the other hand, hardmaxxing methods tend to be far more invasive and risky. These methods include plastic surgery, steroids and “bonesmashing” — we’ll talk more about that later. 

All of these looksmaxxing methods have the primary goal of turning you into the alpha high T gigachad of your dreams, equipped with hunter eyes, glass skin and a jawline that can cut through stone. Follow these techniques and you will mog — the looksmaxxer term for dominating with your attractiveness — everyone in the room.

That sounds… great, right? So, how do you get started?

First things first, we have to take care of the jawline. In the world of incels, uh, I mean looksmaxxers, recessed, “soft” jawlines are simply unacceptable. But don’t worry, there are a few, very simple techniques that can turn your jawline from this to this.

If you aren’t already, you need to become a nose breather. According to looksmaxxers, mouth breathing is what causes your chin to recede, leading to a narrow face, crooked teeth and a soft, “unmasculine” jawline. 

Also, you need to start mewing. This entails maintaining good tongue posture by holding your tongue on the roof of your mouth, which instantly gives you the appearance of a sharper-looking jaw. 

You could also try chewing. A lot. Many looksmaxxing influencers will recommend chewing hard gum for up to eight hours per day to strengthen their jaw bones and muscles. 

And if you’re really dedicated, you could try bonesmashing, or the belief that by breaking one’s bones, jaw bones in particular, they will grow back stronger and more prominent over time.

Overall, though, there isn’t really conclusive evidence that these looksmaxxing methods actually make a difference in your appearance. While there is some research that suggests mouth breathing can change the shape of your face, there is little evidence that mewing impacts the shape of your jaw permanently. Chewing hard gum for several hours a day can have negative side effects like TMJ which causes pain and inflammation in your jaw joints. Not fun. And need I even explain the harm of bonesmashing?

Of course, it is unfair to dismiss the benefits of looksmaxxing entirely. Watermaxxing, where looksmaxxers drink a healthy amount of water, and teethmaxxing, where looksmaxxers promote some healthy dental hygiene methods like brushing and flossing, are two examples of some beneficial aspects of the trend. What seems silly, though, is the need to completely rebrand these basic healthy practices to appear more manly and macho, as if brushing your teeth needs to be some hyper alpha activity for men to partake. 

Listen, we know that TikTok is one of the largest perpetrators of confining gender roles. I mean, just look at the “girl math” and “girl dinner” trends which promote the societal expectations that women are careless spenders and shouldn’t eat a whole lot respectively. And, this is going off track, but why are we as a society so comfortable with referring to women as “girls” but take offense when men are referred to as “boys?” 

However, the looksmaxxing trend goes further by assigning physical characteristics as feminine or masculine. And yes, some of these characteristics are sort of rooted in biology — but most are not. Men are not innately more likely than women to have a positive canthal tilt, or even a strong jaw. And yet we assign traits like “predator” or “prey” and “strong” or “weak” to these arbitrary facial features. Franz Joseph Gall is laughing in his grave!

So, young men, stop letting random people on TikTok define you. Don’t let people tell you that men are supposed to look a certain way or that to be masculine, you have to be the opposite of everything feminine. Because in the “real world,” nobody cares!

And the reason I can say all of this is because I was you.

For most of my life, I have been pretty insecure about my appearance. When I was about 11, I remember multiple times where I would look in the mirror and break down in tears. And eventually, I grew sick of being “ugly.”

I went down a glow-up rabbit hole, and most of what I came across was the typical “get a haircut” or “develop a skincare routine.” But soon enough, I stumbled across incel forums. I consumed the incel philosophy on bone structure — finally, I thought, I had a concrete explanation for why I was so ugly. As a sixth-grader, I could probably tell you all of the major bones in the face, and I could explain specifically what was wrong with mine. I had a depressed maxilla. I had a receding mandible. My zygomatic bones were sagging. 

I watched YouTube videos about changing your bone structure naturally. I researched plastic surgeons in the area. All while I was 11 years old.

And the saddest part is that I wasn’t even ugly. 

If you scroll through “rate me” forums on looksmax.org, you will find thousands of young men — most of whom are under 18 — who share photos of themselves hoping to find some validation in their insecurities. I scrolled through dozens of these posts and I can tell you that none of these men are ugly. 

And I’m not here to say that how you look on the outside doesn’t matter because “true beauty is found inside.” Because people are cruel, and I would be lying if I said that being attractive doesn’t give you any advantages in this world. 

But you need to believe me when I say that constantly obsessing over your appearance will not make you happy. Truth4lie, the self-identifying incel we talked about before, received countless surgeries and still remains unsatisfied with his appearance, claiming “The prospect of a better surgery result is keeping me alive.”

So dear young men, I understand that a lot of you are lonely. A lot of you have been bullied and feel rejected by society. But you need to realize that looksmaxxing and resurging incel lingo are infecting your mind.

You owe it to yourselves to put all of this angry energy into something more fulfilling. You could try cooking or journaling or poetry or some other creative endeavor — the possibilities are endless! If lifting or skincare is really your thing, that’s fine too. But whatever you do, do it for yourself and out of genuine passion and love, because that’s the only way it will bring you joy.

Thank you for listening, and I hope I convinced at least one of you to delete TikTok. Read more about the looksmaxxing trend on mvviewer.org in our latest in-depth piece.

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Maya Gjelhaug
Maya Gjelhaug, Print Editor-in-Chief
My name is Maya, and I'm excited to be one of your print Editors-in-Chief this year. When I'm not editing articles, you can find me mountain biking and watching Band of Brothers with my dad. Awards: Best of SNO - Mounds View Theater casting sparks controversy Best of SNO - The downfall of ELA education Best of SNO - Pro-life activists rally against Minnesota abortion legislation Best of SNO - Prince of Peace Church combats homelessness with tiny home settlement Best of SNO - Should legacy admissions still exist? 2nd-Place Gold Medallion Spread - Youth sports culture SNO Site Excellence Design Award SNO Page Excellence Award
Isabel Li
Isabel Li, Spread Editor and Online Editor
Hi, my name is Isabel, and I am super excited to be an editor this year. Outside of the Viewer, I am a member of the girls' cross country and track team at Mounds View. I also enjoy playing violin and piano, listening to music, and taking photos. Don't forget to pick up a copy of the Viewer! Awards:  Best of SNO - The downfall of ELA education Best of SNO - Our community's car dependency
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