It's late on a Friday, and hundreds of men are browsing the forum Lookism.net. A new member logs on and posts two photos showing the lower half of his face.
"What surgeries/implants are needed to fix this?" he asks. "As you can see I have a recessed jaw/chin."
The replies come swiftly: "It's not just your chin. Your upper lip is retruded as well. Orthognathic surgery if you can afford it. Chin implant or [genioplasty] if you can't. You should also look at jaw angle implants," someone responds. "Start saving."
It's a typical exchange on the message board, where new posts continue to pop up throughout the night with men asking other men for physical evaluation and advice.
"Rate my face." "I already know I'm ugly." "Dropped 7K on a nose job." "Candid photo of my profile reveals my subhumanity." "I don't even leave the house anymore, I don't want to be seen." "No Tinder matches in first 24 hours — is it over?" At one point, someone compares the skull sizes of Justin Bieber and Zayn Malik, carefully assessing which pop star has a more masculine-shaped head.
Unhappy with how they look, thousands of young men are joining anonymous message boards such as Lookism.net to dissect their looks and exchange detailed tips on looksmaxing — their term for enhancing their appearance. Penis stretching, eyebrow botox, wrist enlargement, "neck training," nostril shrinking and 3D-printed skull implants are among the desired procedures and "coping strategies" discussed at length on these sites.
Lookism.net bills itself as a forum for incels, or men who identify as "involuntarily celibate," suggesting that users are aware of their faults and "were born into a prison where you cannot escape." Many members are young men who say they are unable to sexually attract women because of their looks. But it's not just about sex: Looksmax forums are echo chambers for shame, hatred and entitlement. Users fixate on their perceived flaws and rage against the women who, they say, deny them sex — something they feel they are owed.
When Incels Kill
Lookism, or discrimination based on appearance, isreal. Research shows that people who are considered unattractive get paid less and have fewer job opportunities. One study found that juries are less likely to convict someone they consider good-looking.
But men and women respond very differently when discriminated against in a romantic or sexual context, experts say. While women often internalize or blame themselves when faced with rejection, men tend to lash out.
"Males tend to take rejection as a challenge to their masculinity or an insult to their perceived place in the social hierarchy. Women are likely to feel emotionally hurt by the rejection and to assume that there is something lacking in them that warranted the rejection," according to Suzanne Degges-White, the chair of Northern Illinois University's department of counseling. "Women are encouraged to 'get over it,' but men often feel the need to 'get even.'"
The urge to "get even" is widely discussed in incel groups, with radical members openly discussing a violent movement to strike back at women and their chosen sexual partners.
These men often describe themselves as the "losers of the genetic lottery." Not all members appear to hate women, but as more fanatical misogynists have flooded incel and looksmax networks with vitriol in recent years, they have pushed out less extreme men.
For radical incels, dating and sex are rife with emasculating injustice. They believe that any woman — regardless of looks — can find someone to have sex with, while an ugly man can get sex only by force or by paying. They also believe that women are interested exclusively in good-looking men.
This distorted view of women fuels violent resentment. On Incels.me, one of the more extreme incel forums that has hosted more than 1 million messages in less than a year, men routinely argue that violence against women is justified because women deny unattractive men their "right" to sex.
"Women and society have dejected us into loneliness and depression. Their obsession with looks has driven many of us who don't fit their standards to anger and homicidal tendencies. This is not the result of mental illness, it is a normal response to prejudiced behavior," one member wrote in April. "What's the incentive for incels (ugly men) to follow YOUR social rules, when our actions, good or bad, will never be rewarded?" he asked. "Why NOT shoot up that sorority full of girls that teased you?"
Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old self-proclaimed incel who killed himself and six other people in 2014, is hailed as an inspiration in incel forums. The day before his rampage in Isla Vista, California, he uploaded a video to YouTube titled "Retribution" which detailed his plan to "slaughter every spoiled, stuck-up, blonde slut" he could find in a nearby sorority house.
"If I can't have you girls, I will destroy you," he said in the video. "You will finally see that I am in truth the superior one, the true alpha male."
Posts from men who say they dream of "going ER" ― a reference to Rodger's attack ― are common in incel and looksmax forums. Since his killings, there have been other, similar attacks, including one in April this year when a man rammed a van into a crowd of pedestrians in Toronto, killing eight women and two men. The suspect, 25-year-old Alek Minassian, wrote a post on Facebook shortly before the massacre, declaring the "Incel Rebellion has already begun!" and vowing to "overthrow all the Chads and Stacys" ― an incel reference to good-looking men and women.
After a gunman killed a woman and a 10-year-old girl this Sunday in Toronto, incel message boards lit up with excitement that it was possibly the work of a fellow incel. Police have yet to identify a possible motive.
Anders Breivik, a far-right Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people in 2011 when he was 32, also expressed violent misogyny and obsessed over his looks, reportedly undergoing cosmetic surgery on his forehead, nose and chin before the attack.
Other recent mass murderers held up as misogynist "heroes" by incel communities include George Sodini, who killed three people and himself in a 2009 attack at a women's aerobics class in Pennsylvania; Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people in Virginia in 2007 after reportedly stalking two women; and Marc Lépine, who separated male and female students at a Montreal engineering school in 1989 and opened fire, killing 14 women.
By comparison, zero women have gone on murderous rampages inspired by rejection. As reporter Lux Alptraum wrote on the website Splinter earlier this year, "'Unfuckable' Women Don't Go on Killing Sprees."
Man Vs. Mirror: A Quest For Perfection
For Kyle Incel, as he's known online, every day seems a struggle. A normal-looking 23-year-old, Kyle has over the past few years posted dozens of videos on a now-deleted YouTube channel talking about his loneliness and crippling insecurities.
"I am losing the only hair that really matters on a man and it's going away very, very quickly. I don't have the facial structure to be bald," Kyle said in an emotional video, his voice shaking.
He visited looksmax forums, he said, hoping to find a community of others like him who "felt like they were being prejudiced against because of the way they look." But instead of finding friendship in the groups, he appeared to obsess over the looksmax criteria he studied there. "It's all I've been thinking about," he said. "This is just going to be on my mind forever."
Despite being conventionally handsome, as many commenters on his videos remarked, Kyle has repeatedly threatened to kill himself if his imperceptible balding continues. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
One member of Lookism.net recently wrote a long post on Reddit describing the poisonous effect the forum has had on his life. "I can't even describe how empty and dead I felt inside," he wrote after spending eight hours on the website. "I managed to destroy the rest of the little bit of self confidence that I had."
Advice for self-improvement is highly precise among the men on Lookism.net. "Chin ideally should be square and broad in a male. A round chin is acceptable however not the most photogenic. A pointed chin is highly feminine and while not necessarily a sexual death sentence or even suspicious, would need to be redeemed by other masculine features," reads a recent post there.
Preoccupation with physical appearance seems to be growing in general among American men. Statistics from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons show a sharp rise in the number of cosmetic surgeries performed on men over the past decade, and an informal poll of the Incels.me community that got responses from 292 members recently found that more than half have considered going under the knife.
Dr. Douglas Steinbrech, dubbed the "go-to surgeon for men" by Forbes magazine, said he now sees more than 10 times as many male patients as he did just four years ago, and men now outnumber female patients 4 to 1. One of his most popular procedures is his "male model" package, which includes jaw augmentation, pectoral and gluteal enhancement, liposculting and arm and shoulder enhancement. His procedures range in price from about $6,000 to $25,000.
Steinbrech said social media has triggered "a complete seismic shift in our culture." It's a significant change in the perception of masculinity and male perfection in a world where "everyone's swiping left and swiping right," he added.
Rejection And Self-Reflection
Men on incel and looksmax forums see themselves as victims of women's "lookist" discrimination, causing them to stress endlessly over what they see in the mirror. They say they despise women for being shallow, yet they routinely ridicule women on the grounds of weight, and obsessively discuss dating and having sex with beautiful women.
The man who claimed women's "obsession with looks has driven many of us who don't fit their standards to anger and homicidal tendencies" had a checklist for the physical features of his ideal girlfriend: "Relatively big lips, big [breasts], fat ass ... not white, but light skin. Dark hair is fine but she should dye it a lighter color. Pretty face because that matters more than anything." His account, like so many others on the site, displays a photo of Rodger.
"[Incels] have to find a target other than themselves, meaning they don't want to take responsibility for their actions," said Sam Louie, a psychotherapist based in Washington state who has worked with incel patients. "There's a fatalistic mentality that can perpetuate itself in these circles. The more rejection you get, the more it feeds into this belief that you are unwanted ... But there's also a sense of entitlement. They are entitled to sex. They're entitled to women liking them. And there's a very limited sense of reality."
Instead of camaraderie and support, many incels appear to have found an isolating obsession in looksmax forums.
"Legit bro I haven't left the house in 4 years," wrote a member of Lookism.net — one of nearly 7,000 messages he has published since joining the forum in 2015. The man, whose username is Defeat, said he has been following a "looksmaxing regimen" closely to exact revenge against a woman who rejected him years ago.
"I can't wait to upload my new selfies to Facebook and make sure to rub it in her face ... I'm nearly ready, so close, just need the final procedure," he wrote. "She's going to be begging for me. I can't wait to reject her like she rejected me."