It isn’t news that incels are incredibly fixated on appearances. The online subculture’s forums, made up of men who describe themselves as involuntarily celibate, are flooded with judgments on women’s looks and laments that none of the attractive ones will sleep with them. But they are also deeply, ruthlessly critical of their own bodies. And a lot of that has to do with, as one statistician tells Racked, a flawed understanding of math.
A HuffPost piece published this week explored the concept of “looksmaxing,” a phrase also common on bodybuilding and pickup artist forums. Looksmaxing is exactly what it sounds like: maximizing your looks by using strategies that range from the banal (diet and exercise) to the truly dystopian (penis stretching, skull implants, wrist enlargements).
Doing these things, incels think, will increase their ability to attract women, whom they characterize as “lookist,” along with society as a whole. Because the world is so shallow, they believe, any obstacle they have faced while finding a partner comes down to the genetic and social lottery that determines a person’s looks, money, and status. (Like lots of incel terminology, these three things have their own abbreviation: LMS.)
In the manosphere — the many-tentacled online space made up of forums related to inceldom, pickup tactics, redpilling, men’s rights, and, often, bodybuilding — this is simply logical thinking; the only reason you don’t agree with them is because you’ve been brainwashed by society into naively believing that a person’s kindness or quick wit or goofy sense of humor matters in any real way. (They “prove” it by posing as an attractive guy on Tinder and seeing what they can get away with.)
The belief is even embedded in the terms for subcategories of incels: heightcels (too short to get laid), baldcels (too bald), framecels (too small), gingercel (too redheaded), ethnicel (too ethnic-looking), skullcels (bad facial structure), and wristcel (wrists under 6.5 inches).
It makes sense, then, that if an incel thinks his particular brand of unattractiveness is his main barrier to sex, he’ll spend a lot of time and money attempting to correct those self-perceived flaws. These flaws include having a certain bizygomatic (facial) width or a negative “canthal tilt,” (the slant of one’s eyes) and other concepts debated on these message boards.
Some of these terms are used by actual doctors and researchers — “bizygomatic width” has been referenced in studies; the Norwood scale is one of many systems of measuring male pattern baldness. Others are purely aesthetic — canthal tilt appears to be mostly used in the context of plastic surgery. They often reinforce racist Eurocentric myths about facial attractiveness.
In the incel world, concepts aren’t neutral; there is almost always a “good” and a “bad.” Low “midface ratio”? You’re destined to be an incel forever. Going bald? You’ll never be an “8 or above.” Is your canthal tilt negative? Welp, you better be Drake; otherwise, you’re screwed.
There’s a dauntingly detailed vocabulary for these flaws, and about how, exactly, to “looksmax.” On forums like Lookism.net, and subreddits like r/Braincels or r/TrueRateMe, men trade advice on everything from proper skin care regimens to wildly expensive plastic surgery procedures.
While some are just basic grooming techniques (one Incels.me poster studiously referred to retin-A as “the only proven youthmax”), others are based on shaky science. There’s “mewing,” a practice supposedly invented by a British orthodontist that involves “maintaining correct oral posture” and chewing particularly hard gum to create a strong jawline, as well as carrot theory, which states that a healthy “beta-carotene glow” is more attractive to women than a tan, so be sure to eat at least five carrots a day.
These practices are often mocked in self-aware incel memes like “millimeters of bone.” It started with a 2016 side-by-side image of a man before and after his bone structure had been altered with the caption, “The difference between Chad and non-Chad (incel) is literally a few millimeters of bone.” (Chad is slang for the masculine ideal.) But today it’s more often used ironically like in this side-by-side of Spongebob’s Squidward and his swole counterpart:
Forums often herald certain celebrities and models as pinnacles of male attractiveness; Brad Pitt, Ian Somerhalder, and Sean O’Pry in particular are often praised for their facial ratios and “hunter” or “hooded” eyes.
But when using incel attractiveness rating systems, these men would still be considered only a nine out of 10 at best. That’s because they believe the Platonic ideal of human beauty doesn’t exist in real life — the only reason regular people rank people as 10s is because we’re too politically correct. (Naturally, there’s a conversion table that attempts to translate between an imagined version of the mainstream rating system and the more “scientific” manosphere scale.)
Looksmaxing and rating human beauty numerically are far from the only examples of incels’ fixation on the mathematics of sexuality. One of the most repeated ideas on incel forums is a particular interpretation of the Pareto principle, which theorizes that in many cases, 80 percent of effects come from 20 percent of the causes. In economics, it’s often used to predict power structures (e.g., the richest 20 percent control 80 percent of the income).
Replace money with sex, and you’ve essentially got the incel rallying cry. “OK, we’ve all seen the statistic that in a competitive dating environment 20% of the guys are having 80% of the sex,” reads one post on r/TheRedPill, which goes on to claim, (emphasis theirs):
For every ten girls who are getting laid this week, eight of them are fucking just two guys.
If you’re not one of those two guys, there’s a 75% chance that you’re not getting laid at all. Only 20% of men fall into the category of “not alpha but still getting some”.
That’s what the 80/20 rule means. You really, really want to be one of the 20%.
The 80/20 rule also merges with the attractiveness rating system when you distribute men on a 100-point scale. Here’s one example from the now-banned r/Incels forum of how men are categorized by attractiveness and consequently how much sex they’re having:
These assumptions are, at best, misunderstandings of statistics concepts that are either difficult or impossible to prove, and at worst flagrant lies packaged and memeified in a way most palatable to the manosphere.
The biggest argument against these claims, however, is the lack of research available to support them. As Rebecca Goldin, a professor of mathematics at George Mason University and the director of STATS, noted, there really isn’t all that much data about who’s having sex with whom and how often. But, she said, “There is some limited data that refutes the poster’s claims, depending on interpretation.”
First off, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 56 percent of women and 59 percent of men have had sex by the time they finish high school. And, as Goldin pointed out, “If the sexually active teen women were choosing a largely overlapping set of young men to have sex with (eight women going with two guys), one would expect many fewer guys to have had sex than women.”
And if roughly the same number of heterosexual women and men are sexually active and you apply the Pareto principle, it would work out to eight women having sex with two men, yet also two women having sex with the other eight men. If it were true that most women were choosing just a few partners, the remaining women would need to have many partners.
“In other words, the statement, ‘If you’re not one of those two guys, there’s a 75 percent chance that you’re not getting laid at all. Only 20 percent of men fall into the category of ‘not alpha but still getting some,’ is not correct,” she said.
She concluded: “If the poster meant to talk about ‘number of times’ rather than a percentage of women, it’s possible that 20 percent of guys are having sex more regularly than the other guys. It’s also possible that that the guys who have a single partner have WAY more sex than guys with 4-plus partners, since they are in steady relationships.
“But an interpretation that the Pareto principle applies to how many times someone is having sex seems undermined by the poster’s argument regarding how many girls are having sex with these guys and what percentage of guys aren’t having sex at all.”
In short, while there simply isn’t enough data to either totally confirm or totally refute these sorts of claims, there is enough to poke holes in widely believed incel logic.
Yet plenty of mainstream thought leaders have at least entertained these theories, even if they haven’t totally bought into manosphere. In a recent piece for the New York Times, columnist Ross Douthat predicted a future in which sex robots could be used on a mass scale to quell incel rage.
As Vox explained, “Douthat comes to the conclusion that while of course nobody has the ‘right’ to sex, the way we, culturally, conceive of sexual desire is so deeply caught up in the fraught and unequal ethos of capitalism (what incels think they lack, after, all, is literally “social capital”) that sex robots are the (un)natural endpoint of our cultural trajectory.”
This conflation of sex and capitalism is part of what drives incels’ outsize animosity to the people they view as the gatekeepers of sex: women. This is a problem in and of itself, not only because it has convinced some men to call for the laughably dystopian concept of “sexual Marxism,” in which every person is somehow matched with a partner of a similar level of wealth and attractiveness, but also leads to further disturbed thinking about the nature of human beings in general.
Here’s Rebecca Solnit writing for the Guardian on the matter:
Feminism and capitalism are at odds, if under the one women are people and under the other they are property. Despite half a century of feminist reform and revolution, sex is still often understood through the models capitalism provides. Sex is a transaction; men’s status is enhanced by racking up transactions, as though they were poker chips.
Under capitalism, sex might as well be with dead objects, not live collaborators. It is not imagined as something two people do that might be affectionate and playful and collaborative – which casual sex can also be, by the way – but that one person gets. The other person is sometimes hardly recognized as a person. It’s a lonely version of sex. Incels are heterosexual men who see this mechanistic, transactional sex from afar and want it at the same time they rage at people who have it.
When incels decide to view women as capital and sex as a commodity, they’re exacerbating their existing problem. It’s not that 80 percent of women are so shallow and “lookist” that they’re willing to cheat on their nice-guy partners with the nearest “Chad” simply because he’s got a good midface ratio and positive canthal tilt — it’s that women don’t want to sleep with men who don’t even have the minimal amount of decency required to consider women human beings. There isn’t a mathematical formula or a pseudoscientific theory that will draw that conclusion, but maybe that’s why it’s so difficult for these men to comprehend.