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Life The femcel aesthetic

Jan. 25, 2022

Something sinister is brewing online. A renewed genre of woman has entered the digital sphere. From the ashes of 2014 Sad Girl tumblr, she rises like a phoenix. She’s beautiful yet misunderstood, self-aware yet batshit crazy. I am, of course, talking about the femcel. 

Femcels are the female counterpart to the much-talked-about incel. Online, involuntary celibates have formed a community whose members bond over their seeming inability to procure sexual or romantic relationships. Femcels, on the other hand, direct their frustration with being involuntarily celibate at misogyny and toxic beauty standards. Many find femceldom an empowering reclamation of female sexuality—but there’s no denying the misandry permeating the community. Popular threads on ThePinkPill, a femcel forum, include "most men are pedophiles," "men have no excuse to be fat," and "men shouldn’t be allowed to say they love anyone." While femcels may seem harmless or even hilarious at first glance, they reflect deeper problems—a culture bonded over self-deprecation. Femcels have invented their own internet subculture, and with that comes the femcel aesthetic: rich, conventionally attractive cis white women.

For a community that perceives itself as undesirable, it’s interesting to see how heavily its members are concerned with aesthetics—mainly the unattainable standards which femcels supposedly criticize. The femcel aesthetic is saturated with designer accessories, emaciated pale bodies, cigarettes in manicured hands, pill boxes, lingerie, red lipstick, and crimson blood—teetering between beautiful and macabre. There’s an overarching fascination with turning pain into beautiful art. One list of “femcel things” posted on Tumblr includes Black SwanThe Virgin Suicides, Lolita, Jennifer’s Body, Gone Girl, Donna Tartt, “Vivian Westwood” (sic), Lana Del Rey, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Sylvia Plath, and Fiona Apple; looking through the #femcel Tumblr tag confirms femcels have latched onto these pieces of media. Femcels have curated an image of themselves as beautiful, disturbed young women facing a hostile world that renders them weak—an idea reflected in the media they’ve chosen to represent themselves, from Sylvia Plath’s musings on beauty and self-destruction to Gone Girl and Jennifer’s Body’s tales of female revenge. It’s likely that femcels don’t genuinely see themselves as ugly, but as attractive women who are maladjusted in a way that prevents them from being sexually or romantically desired. 

Femcels strive to find beauty in the pain of being involuntarily celibate, sharing images of hyper-feminine women thriving despite a lack of sexual or romantic affection. The images themselves often suggest instability, with recurring motifs like pills, ripped fishnets, and cigarettes. Still, one could regard the aesthetic as an “elevated” state of femininity in which a woman’s suffering is at least beautiful. These images of desirable women thus come off as a coping mechanism, replacing their real selves with digital masks. Given the anonymous nature of the internet, users’ self-presentation is often idealized if not completely fabricated—as is the case when femcels post their inner thoughts while using pictures of celebrities as their avatars. 

In particular, femcels seem to love Lana Del Rey. For over a decade now, Del Rey has been the internet’s most contentious singer, with many scrutinizing her lyrics and Old Hollywood persona. She writes about desperately yearning to be loved, enjoying older lovers, and wanting to die. Del Rey essentially lives in a dream world filled with drugs, sex, and references to mid-century America. There’s no denying her appeal—especially to unhappy teenage girls. She takes her unabashed sadness and unresolved trauma and transforms them into something romantic. What’s most fascinating about Del Rey is how she constantly teeters between satirization and veneration; you can never tell if she’s being ironic. Accordingly, Del Rey seems to perfectly encapsulate the femcel aesthetic. Even while she sings about having sex and lovers, she does so in a way that deprecates herself with a tinge of regret, creating an identity built around romantic pain and solitude. Del Rey’s glamorous femininity, romanticization of past struggles, and use of hyperbole create a persona that feels at once confessional and like a caricature. 

Similar to how you can’t tell when Del Rey is genuine in her lyrics, femcels mask themselves behind a shroud of irony. The community’s humor can best be explained through its memes, often made on the Whisper app. These images almost always feature a background photo of some skinny, rich white girl and a self-deprecating thought. A quick scroll through the #femcel tag on Instagram reveals hundreds of images of celebrities like Taylor Swift, Kate Moss, and Lana Del Rey with confessional captions like “I have a horrible father,” “I hate all men,” and “I am insane and out of my mind but in a mysterious and sexy way.” While I’ll admit there’s an amusing, absurd quality to these images, I can’t help but feel that they stray entirely from their original intent of humor.

Even if femcels are being ironic, the community is still harmful. Scrolling through the femcel tags takes me back to my own Tumblr feed circa 2015. I’m reminded of the pro-ana (pro-anorexia) community, which surfaced on Tumblr in the mid-’10s: users would exchange tips, share progress updates, and post thinspo—images of “ideal” body types. What concerns me is how many #femcel posts are also tagged with #waif, #doll, and #coquette—terms commonly used in the pro-ana community. The two communities overlap in their obsession with beauty, and their pervading sense of self-deprecation. 

One pro-ana Tumblr user recently posted, “I have accepted that i can only be loved conditionally. I can only be loved once i am skinny enough.” On ThePinkPill, a user who has since deleted their account lamented, “no one truly gets it... they don't understand the obsession with beauty, social hierarchy, the crippling self hatred and daydreams of ascension, or the struggles to just try and be normal.” Members of the pro-ana and femcel communities are both fixated on a desire for acceptance; when left unfulfilled, both communities turn to digital personas and aesthetics as a means of communicating their sadness. 

Still, I wonder if femcels are expressing an extremely privileged experience of sadness. As a meme by @bodylessorgans on Instagram articulates, when people say femcel, they should “just say rebranded white liberal feminism but with vocal fry and ennui.” At the forefront of the femcel aesthetic are cis white bodies, reflecting prejudices within the communities. Lorelei Alverson has documented the racism and transphobia pervading femcel forums, and notes that women of color and visibly queer women are excluded from the community. This exclusion calls into question who is allowed to be a femcel and suffer as one. 

Similar critiques have been made of early Tumblr’s sad girl aesthetics; as one critic wrote, “You can’t use performative sadness for your gain when you are disenfranchised and your sorrow is ignored.” The femcel aesthetic is exclusive, representing a strain of femininity specific to a (cis, white) standard of beauty.

Femcels, unlike their incel counterparts, do not seem intent on causing harm to those around them. While I doubt that femcels pose any threat to people other than themselves, the rapid growth of the community concerns me; it suggests that young women are dissatisfied with how they’re being treated. There’s no denying that it’s hard to be a young girl, especially in a hostile culture which desires perfection. But an online subculture that favors thin, cis white bodies and views suffering as romantic isn’t the answer. The aesthetic’s focus on privilege, too, enforces a distorted sense of womanhood—one which seems to amplify the voices of the likes of Red Scare or the characters of My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Surely there must be another outlet for young women deprived of affection to express themselves besides shitty Whisper memes and images of Lily Rose Depp.