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Updated: Mar 20, 2023

What are they, and what does it have to do with body image?

I recently read a fascinating article about femcels.

If you’re curious, you can read the article here, but for now all you really need to know is that a femcel is a female incel, and an incel is someone who is involuntarily celibate, because they are unable to attract sexual/romantic partners.

I had heard plenty about incels and incel culture before– they’re an online community made up mostly of young misogynists who feel entitled to sex, and are angry at all women for being so “shallow” that they only have sex with conventionally attractive men– but never femcels.

That said, it makes sense that femcels exist. After all, violent and entitled right-wing misogynists aren’t the only people who crave intimacy, or struggle with loneliness, longing, and a feeling of being excluded.

To be honest, I’ve often thought about making content about male incel culture before, because it has some really interesting overlap with my work. But I’m going to leave that alone for today, because it’s a huge (and infuriating) topic, and today I want to talk about femcels.

The first thing I noticed after reading the article and going down a femcel rabbit hole is that female incels don’t seem nearly as angry at men as male incels are at women. They don’t seem to feel entitled to sex or intimacy the same way male incels do, and I saw no talk of violence against men. And to my knowledge, no femcel has gone on a revenge shooting to kill as many men as possible.

Instead, what I saw of femcel culture was a lot of grief, shame, frustration, and longing.

  • These women are frustrated at the patriarchal system upholding superficial and unrealistic beauty ideals for women.

  • They’ve internalized blame for failing to meet those ideals.

  • They’re angry at men for being so toxic and shallow.

  • They’re suffering from a deep and painful longing for touch, intimacy, and connection.

  • They feel deeply and unjustly excluded from the one aspect of life they’ve learned to associate with worthiness, value, success, and happiness.

All of that is valid, of course.

But as I was doing my research, I was imagining women who really might find themselves excluded from sexual or romantic opportunities, due to the fact that people with bodies like them are marginalized– disabled women, transgender or gender non-conforming women, elderly women, or women with very fat bodies, for example. After all, I work with clients in this situation all the time!

The majority of images of women in the femcel community I was seeing, however, didn’t seem to fall into this category at all. Maybe they didn’t look like supermodels, but they weren’t disfigured or marginalized, either. In fact, rather than looking like a person who would be “barred from” sexual and romantic experiences, many of them were white, able-bodied, young, and relatively thin, which is to say: they actually checked a lot of boxes for conventional beauty ideals.

And this is where I started thinking about the role body image issues might be playing here. Because a lot of these women seem to consider themselves so undesirable (to men, usually) that they believe themselves to be literally excluded from all potential romantic and sexual opportunities.

Like with so many of my clients, this is an illusion. It’s based on a distorted and hyperbolically negative self-image, which is to say: it’s the result of body dysmorphia.

This makes sense, because body image issues and dysmorphia are the result of a person giving an inappropriate amount of significance, meaning, or power to their appearance. And what more power can you give your appearance than tasking it with the ability to “earn” or “block” access to sex, love, marriage, and family?

That brings me to a question.

How do we understand an entire community of people who are bonded by body dysmorphia, and whose community beliefs reinforce the idea that their bodies are the problem?

On the one hand, I imagine the label and the community might offer an incredible source of validation, belonging, connection, and value to a woman in this situation. On the other hand, I worry about the potential for increasingly negative body image, self-image, and agitation.

And more importantly, the femcel community is based around two false ideas, both of which are seen in the male incel community as well:

1. An overestimation or misunderstanding of the role “biology” plays with regard to gender. Incels tend to hold a gender essentialist view of people, which means they believe traits are inherently and permanently either male/masculine, or female/feminine. They believe a person’s gender is determined exclusively by their sex, and that gender determines who they are, what they want, and how they act.

This is a highly problematic and transphobic perspective on gender, and it’s also blatantly false. But more importantly (for this conversation), it leads to despair and hopelessness for the people who believe it. After all, if men are inherently and biologically shallow, superficial, and sex-crazed, then there’s nothing a non-conventionally-attractive-woman can do to access intimacy with one, right? Femcels believe such traits are fixed and unchangeable, which means their loneliness and longing are fixed and unchangeable, too. This belief in gender essentialism is important to understand, because believing that nothing can change is the defining characteristic of the incel community.

2. An overestimation or misunderstanding of the importance a person’s appearance plays with regard to attraction and desire. Incels believe a person’s appearance is the only relevant factor for attracting someone sexually or romantically. They’re wrong, of course, because attraction and arousal are made up of so much more than visuals and beauty ideals. (They’re made up of pheromones, familiarity, compatibility, relatability, smell and taste, connection, availability, reciprocity, openness, interest, and more!) Haven’t you ever had the experience of seeing someone you know is conventionally attractive, but not feeling attracted to them? Or feeling attracted to (or turned on by) someone who wasn’t conventionally attractive. Of course you have. Because what makes a person attractive to others isn’t the structure of their face or body, it’s the energy that animates them: their personality, their energy, their spark of aliveness. But again, because incels believe appearance is the only thing that can attract someone, they believe people who don’t naturally conform to conventional beauty ideals are stuck and helpless: permanently excluded from all sexual and romantic possibilities.

These two beliefs lead incels to feel incredibly powerless; they believe nothing can change.

It seems to me that this powerlessness defines the incel experience. After all, if they thought things could change, many incels might be fighting for body liberation or social justice instead. Because the injustices they perceive are accurate on some level– they’re just the result of systems of oppression, rather than biology.

I also find myself thinking about the non-marginalized incels who believe themselves permanently excluded from sex and romance. Why? And more importantly– would body neutrality change anything for them?

Whew! Just some stuff I’ve been thinking about this week.

Hit reply and let me know if you want to hear more about this topic, or have any questions or thoughts. There’s so much more to explore. Maybe I’ll make a YouTube video on it, if enough people are interested.

Big hug,

Jessi Kneeland

PS: I’m putting together a few small coaching groups on body image! The groups are only 3-5 people (so it’s a very intimate experience), we’ll meet weekly over zoom for 12 weeks, and it costs $550/month. Hit reply if you want to join a group!

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