on the cover

A Q&A With Alice Hines on How She Reported New York Magazine’s Cover Story on Incels

Photo: Guillaume Roemaet

On the cover of New York Magazine’s May 27-June 9, 2019 issue, reporter Alice Hines looks inside the world of “incels” (involuntarily celibate men) who believe fixing their bone structure will fix their dating lives. Many have congregated around Dr. Barry Eppley, an Indiana-based cosmetic and reconstructive surgeon whose procedures (often invented by Eppley himself) offer a chance at the “male-model look:” the chiseled features and angular, sculpted face that some of his patients believe are hoarded by genetically superior alpha males, also known as “Chads.”

How did Hines first become aware of this subculture and the doctor they revere?

What first drew you to incels?
This subculture came onto my radar after incel Elliot Rodger’s mass shooting at a sorority in 2014. I browsed incel forums every once in a while and eventually found my way to Lookism.net, where incels were talking about their physical appearances and the various plastic-surgery procedures they wanted. This was fascinating to me because incels seemed to be reacting to the same punishing beauty ideals that plagued women (and many across the gender spectrum), while simultaneously blaming women for those standards. It surprised me that this common experience of discomfort in one’s body and desire for physical perfection would prompt rage rather than empathy.

How did you go about making contact with Dr. Barry Eppley?
When I started researching male plastic surgery, Dr. Eppley’s name came up over and over. Although rates of plastic surgery by people who identify as male are on the up — between 1997 and 2015, they rose 325 percent, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery — Dr. Eppley is one of only a handful of doctors currently specializing in the demographic. Likewise, his name was frequently cited on incel forums. I reached out to his office to set up an interview.

Some of the main subjects of the story are young men who spend a lot of time online. Can you tell us a little bit about how you found them, and the process of establishing a relationship with them? 
I created an account on Lookism and then started DM-ing people. Lots of users had already posted threads about their plastic-surgery journeys, so I reached out to them first. When I decided to do this story, I was worried that incels wouldn’t want to talk to a female reporter. But in fact quite a lot of them wrote me back. Many were lonely and curious to hear an outside perspective, although I can’t say with confidence that mine changed their views. The vast majority of incels I spoke to were very set in their ways and had arguments at the ready to explain away any criticism coming from non-incels.

A lot of the men you spoke to in this story, and a lot of the views expressed in these forums, are highly misogynistic. What was the experience of working on this story like for you as a woman?
At times very upsetting. Processing so much misogynistic material reminded me of what I’ve read about exposure therapy for PTSD; by the end of the story, the content upset me less because I had hardened myself toward it. Incels have their own philosophical paradigms for describing the world, and when you are steeping yourself in them, they’re difficult not to apply to various situations in your own life — noticing, for instance, the angles of a stranger’s jaw, or wondering how you or a friend would be rated on a scale of one to ten. I tried my best to be conscious of this phenomenon and patient with myself, knowing that once I had wrapped reporting, I could have a little more distance from the material.

At the same time, I also think it’s important to consider what incels can teach us about ourselves. One of the main takeaways of the story for me was how all of our sexual desires are shaped by politically charged standards of attractiveness. Chad, incels’ masculine ideal, is a buff, white, almost exaggeratedly manly model, and incels have various reactionary theories of his origin. Many people I know personally would disagree adamantly with those, yet nevertheless admit they’d be attracted to a Chad. I think we should all consider more deeply the cultural roots of this desire.

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Alice Hines on How She Reported New York’s Cover Story