Zoe Strimpel: 'Our hot-or-not dating culture is turning men into basket cases'
One night last week, exhausted from a long day at work, I lay in bed. Rather than turn immediately to Call The Midwife's interminable Season Five, as I normally do to wind down after a busy day, I found myself on Facebook Messenger, the instant messaging app, where two male friends and I had been discussing incels.
Incels are involuntary celibates, a group of sexually desperate men who hate women. Women, in their diseased view, wantonly dole out their bodies to other, better-looking men (who they refer to as 'Chads'), meanly and cruelly withholding it from the incels.
In some cases, incels set out to get revenge on women and the world through mass murder, successfully in the case of Elliot Rodger, who killed six in 2014 in Isla Vista, California, and Alek Minassian, who went on a spree killing 10 in Toronto in 2018.
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The discussion with my friends had revolved around the latest exposé of online incel forums, published in New York magazine last week, which revealed that more and more of them are going under the knife, often spending their life savings on cosmetic surgery, in the belief that all their problems will go away if they can have their jaws made wider, chins stronger, brows more jutting and shoulders broader.
Scrolling through the incel discussion, my eye was snagged by a weird picture: an "attractiveness scale" produced by incels that had been doing the rounds. The scale shows two columns, each with 10 pictures of different men and women; ranked from 10 (most attractive to the opposite sex) to one, (repellent).
Using incel-speak, which prioritises harsh binaries ("hot or not") and biological terms ("females" and "males", instead of women and men), each headshot on this "scale" is helpfully captioned.
In the incel view, the world is as cruel as it is simple. Men who are "10s" are "considered attractive by 99pc of females", have a "square face with masculine features and hunter eyes", while "an eight" is "objectively good-looking, but looks suffer from three or more mild flaws". Male "fives" will struggle to find a "spouse", but "fours" will struggle to even pair up with female ones or twos - "some are called 'soyboys' because they put up with cheating to get laid".
The women's column reeks of sexual jealousy and loathing: the female "six" will "use your charms and your above-average looks to cheese your way through a career", whereas female fives will turn down her male equivalents "in favour of a chance with an 8 or 9".
Incels largely hate women, but they are also raging at a society obsessed with the "hot", in which men like them are made to suffer life-destroying "lookism" (discrimination based on looks). Their "attractiveness scale" is a crude exaggeration, of course, but it's also true that the most superficial forms of beauty alone can now determine the wildest forms of financial, professional, sexual and social power, even fame. Take Kim Kardashian, worth $350m, or the scores of other millionairesses whose business plan is essentially looking "hot" on social media.
What the incel story really highlights is just how much men have become basketcases about their appearance.
Boys as young as 12 now hit the gym, rates of men with eating disorders are soaring, and there are far more non-incel men opting for cosmetic procedures.
A new study by Harvard has found a strong link between users of dating apps like Tinder and Bumble - which rely on split-second assessments of attractiveness - and extreme dieting behaviours. According to the survey of 392 dating app users, men keen to look trim were far more likely to fast, take laxatives or vomit than women.
But even in Tinder world, there is still some room for manoeuvre, for humanity, for letting someone grow on you with top-drawer banter or a fascinating discussion. But in the diseased outlook of incels, what's inside doesn't enter the equation. This is a hideous irony, of course, since for all the superficiality of modern mating, no amount of engineered good looks can make up for an internal void of decency and charm. Yes, "hot or not" applies - but so does "nice or not".