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The Cult of ‘Face Gains’

Incels aren’t the only ones who want ‘Chad face.’ On fitness Instagram, men are obsessed with gaining muscle or losing weight in their face — even though it’s pretty much impossible

Like any dude looking for weight-loss hacks, I use Instagram to search for fitness tips. I follow all the typical trends: #fitnessmotivation, #fitnessjourney, #swoleoclock, to name just a few. Another hashtag, though, is a bit more unusual: #facegains.

It has more than 5,000 public posts on Instagram, and it’s usually used with two side-by-side profile shots to illustrate how a weight-loss regime has changed the look of someone’s face. “Even your face can change with a good routine #facegains #glowup,” writes JJ Gonzalez under his face gains picture. Similarly, Kevin Thomas, who goes by the handle @fatboygetsfit92, writes: “Face gaiiiiins. June 9th to July 9th. 30 days. Killed it. 12 lbs lost. Excited to keep this momentum going.” 

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6 months of keto and apparently some sunshine can do a girl some good. ? But seriously, when I look at my before pic…I want to ball my eyes out. Not because of how lost and overweight I was. Not because of how unhappy and unhealthy I was. I want to cry because that girl is a freaking ?? beast and I’m so proud of her. She said she was going to do something and she did. She made a promise to herself on January 13th that this would be her year. She was going to make changes and put her health at the top of her list of priorities. She had to say no to temptations and distractions more than ever. It wasn’t easy but she’s done it. She cannot and will not be stopped. And although she is starting to change in appearance…it took that unhappy, lost, overweight girl fighting every single day to get her where she is right now. And she’s not even close to being finished. Stay tuned for the next 6 months, friends. Big goals ahead. #6monthketoversary #beastmode

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Unlike muscle gains — a term used to describe putting on muscle — face gains reflect the opposite. “It’s used ironically,” says John Edwards, 38, from Houston, who is part of the r/keto subreddit. “Face gains isn’t really about adding muscle to your face, or even about whether your face shape changes. [The term] is used to show how the keto diet can improve your skin and your general health.” 

The term is also popular with fitness YouTubers. In a video with over 700,000 views, Amsterdam-based Merijn Schoeber explains how his training regime and keto diet (which he adopted because his “face looked bloated and chubby”) took his body fat below 10 percent. “My face is chiseled, my jawline is popping,” he says to the camera. “I’m not going to show you how to get a chiseled face — the only thing you need to do is lose fat.” 

Schoeber’s advice has been repeated by similar influencers, including Elliott Hulse, Brandon Carter and Greg O’Gallagher, who all tell their audiences it’s impossible to target weight loss to their face. So if they want “face gains,” they need to get their body-fat percentage as low as possible — and, of course, buy a subscription to their fat-loss programs. (We’ve likewise reported on more artificial methods men are seeking out to the same end — from chewable rubber balls that strap around their heads to implants and volumizing injections.)

“Most of my clients come to me because they want fitter bodies and to be more lean, but there are guys who want to change how their face looks,” says Nicholas Young, a London-based personal trainer who works at a number of gyms, including the Fitness First chain. “They want slimmer faces with more defined cheekbones.” 

It’s the men who want to bulk up that are most concerned about their faces, too: “I tell those guys that the extra weight might be uneven across their whole body, especially when they’re first starting out. They don’t mind it being on their bodies, but they do get worried when they realize that some of that weight might get added onto their faces. They worry about getting chubby cheeks or double chins.”

“[In weightlifting communities], men not blessed with good chins or foreheads talk about problems with their face all the time,” explains MEL contributing writer and powerlifter OIiver Lee Bateman. “Men like my cousin, [who used human growth hormone] and now claims to be proud of having the ‘Bateman jaw’ and ‘Bateman brow.’” Additionally, Bateman says, the face is important to serious bodybuilders because “it’s harder to change and some guys will have an advantage over others based on the genetics of their face shape or composition. It’s why some guys will spend so much money on growth hormones and surgery to get a wider jaw, a sharper chin or a specific look.”

The male obsession with the face has a long history, dating back to Aristotelian theories in which it was believed that man’s morality could be derived from his appearance — an art known as physiognomy. “The physiognomists believe that you can gauge a man’s penchant for aggression by the cut of his jib,” David Merritt Johns wrote in a 2009 Slate essay. Physiognomy developed into a pseudo science — an unsurprisingly racist one — where people claimed you could use it to determine society’s bad apples. And while physiognomy may seem outdated now, a 2018 paper details how it’s the basis for building the facial-recognition software found in security screeners and cell phone apps. 

Meanwhile, psychologists like Michael Cunningham at the University of Louisville suggest that there’s a more evolutionary reason for why men are fixated on their faces. In a 1986 paper, Cunningham proposes the “multiple motive hypothesis,” which argued that women are most attracted to male faces with large eyes, a medium-to-small nose, a strong jaw and wide cheekbones — signs of a “mature” man’s face. Cunningham controversially suggested that when it came to raw sexual attraction (rather than romantic relationships), men’s facial features often proved to be far more important to heterosexual women than the shape of their bodies, because, in Cunningham’s words, “wide cheeks and high cheekbones [are] signals of male physical maturity and strength.”

Which more or less brings me to incels, who frequently post on forums about “Chad face,” a reference to “genetically superior” men who they believe are more likely to have sex with women because of their good looks. Though the “Chad face” isn’t particularly well-defined, the incel wiki reaffirms the importance of male facial features more generally: “Sometimes the only difference between Chad and an incel is a few millimeters of bone and fat on the face.” The importance of face gains was best illustrated earlier this year when The Cut profiled incels who got facial reconstruction surgery in order to get the “Chad face.” “These [incels] wanted more than elemental improvements [to their face],” wrote Alice Hines. “More than pudgy flesh or pocked skin, they felt that it was their bones that made [them] unfuckable.”

Obviously, men in Reddit’s keto community who tweet about #facegains are unlikely to have the same toxic relationship with their face as incels. But r/fitness still contains plenty of men lamenting about the absence of a defined jawline despite years of working out or how they’ve always had a “fat face” even with a lean body. And much like incels, these men believe that a lack of face gains makes working out pointless. As one redditor posted in 2018: “I just realized that even when working out every day, and eating more calories, I’ll have a great body… even get abs, but my face isn’t changing. I’ll still be ugly in the face, and I’m having doubts about doing workout since what’s the point in the end if I’m ugly…. Tips?”