In the Pursuit of Hotness

How one sub-Reddit community is defining our beauty standards — and then striving for them at all costs.

Illustration: The Cut
Illustration: The Cut

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Imagine tallying the hours that, over the last two years and change, you’ve spent staring at your own face. Two thousand? Five? Ten? In the mirror, sure, but I’m also talking about the mirrored screens of our video calls. Our faces, as moving images on a Zoom call or static pictures in an online profile, were tasked with representing us in spaces we couldn’t physically access — offices, schools, birthday parties, and dates. And the results weren’t all that surprising.

We picked at ourselves more than ever, a symptom of our growing self-scrutiny. We ordered Pelotons. We online shopped for skin-care products.

Then vaccines ushered in the post-pandemic beauty boom, in which months of quiet self-beautification journeys culminated in a deluge of overbooked salons and aestheticians. Today, our looks are responsible for helping us make up for lost time.

By the end of 2021, Google’s Year in Search trend report found that not one, but two of the five top-searched questions beginning with “how to” were about looks. In second place you had “how to be more attractive” (after “how to be eligible for stimulus check”) and in fourth place, “how to be a baddie.” (For context, 2020’s top “how to” inquiries were followed by words like “donate,” “make,” and “help.”)

Historically, women’s magazines monopolized the beauty-advice economy. Then came the influencers: YouTube beauty “gurus” especially piqued a hunger for peer-to-peer beauty advice. But with more beauty ads than content on the newsstand, and enough sponcon and brand deals to fill our social-media feeds and then some, consumers have been left to look for new sources of trustworthy information: each other.

And if you’re among the growing number of people who use Reddit as if it were Google, any beauty query will land you smack in the middle of “Glow Up” Reddit.

With over 12,000 members, r/HowToBeHot describes itself as a place to discuss “objective beauty tips.” In r/HowToBeHot, hotness is an end unto itself. It’s not about coming to terms with your looks or learning to change your self-perception (though there is room for that too). Instead, the focus is on achieving the kind of hotness that is ostensibly indisputable.

For women, mainstream feminism gives us three options: fanatical self-acceptance, defensive-choice feminism, or destructive self-hate. In r/HowToBeHot and adjacent communities, it’s simply not that deep. The r/HowToBeHot intro page reminds redditors: “We know beauty and beauty standards are a real thing! Just remember it isn’t the MOST IMPORTANT THING ABOUT YOU.”

Some redditors post almost every day, asking the kinds of beauty questions we typically reserve for intimate monologues in front of the mirror or conversations after a few drinks with close friends. They range from the harmless (“how to combat facial puffiness/bloatedness?”) to the intimate (“how to hide your plastic surgery from family?”) to the theoretical (“Is it possible to go from a 4 to an 8?”).

The sub-Reddit was created a little over a year ago, but it became a bustling community of beauty enthusiasts almost overnight. This is largely because this community — with its rules and discourse — already existed. The sub-Reddit is an spinoff of r/vindicta, a forum that centers femcels, or involuntarily celibate women. Unlike incels, who blame women for their lack of sexual activity, femcels channel their anger and frustrations toward the patriarchy and its oppressive beauty standards. On Reddit and beyond, femcels have adapted incel terminology (such as looksmaxxing, meaning a beauty transformation that maximizes your looks) in their quest to understand and wield objective beauty.

r/HowToBeHot is distinctively not a femcel sub-Reddit, but, according to the intro post, the founding moderator valued some of r/vindicta’s “helpful posts” and “glowup advice.” The sub-Reddit has three moderators (who declined to be interviewed for this story), and community rules are established collectively.

To distinguish itself from femcel spaces, r/HowToBeHot avoids their terminology when possible. Looksmaxxing, for instance, is instead referred to as a “Glow Up.” There are Soft Glow Ups (softmaxxing) and Hard Glow Ups (hardmaxxing). Posts labeled “Soft Glow Up” are all about makeup, skin care, and style, and they have titles like “Lengthening your eyelashes without using serums?” Posts tagged “Hard Glow Up” are all about radical (and often expensive) measures, including plastic surgeries, and users exchange insights on things like the best places in the U.S. for ethnic nose jobs. You can go for a Hard Glow Up and fine-tune your results with a series of Soft Glow Ups. Or you can start small with Soft Glow Ups and cap off your transformation with one final Hard Glow Up. Along the way, you might be interested in refining your social skills (Social Glow Up), your health and lifestyle (Fitness Glow Up), or your love life (Dating Glow Up).

The forum attracts a lot of casual redditors looking for straightforward beauty advice, like what colors to wear or what treatments to bring up to your dermatologist. But for many of the more active members, the sub-Reddit is more like a hobby, something to return to regularly to either contribute to or consume or both. For some, it’s an entire lifestyle. 

Helen, a 30-year-old consultant who has been a part of r/HowToBeHot since its inception, tells me it’s socially unacceptable to say out loud that you’d like to be better looking, even though, as she points out, “attraction or certain types of beauty get you more social advantages.” Not just in dating, she says, but at places like the doctor’s office. “When I go to the doctor, he won’t assume I’m a drug addict,” because of her appearance, “like he did when I was 20,” Helen says. (That’s the age she says she looked her worst.) More insidious is the way obese patients are subjected to inferior medical treatment because doctors can’t “look past the fat.” For Helen, this prompted her to reflect, and “you start asking yourself what you want to do in order to improve how you are perceived.”

It’s very uncool and unfeminist to admit that you changed your appearance so others find you more attractive. Helen offers her recent nose job as an example. Plastic surgery, she says, “is supposed to be something you do for yourself, but there’s the underlying inference of: for myself so I can be perceived better in society.” This sub-Reddit and a spinoff community on Discord (an instant-messaging platform similar to Slack) she’s a part of are some of just a few online pockets where she can admit that.

Glimmer, a 30-year-old from London who works in finance and asked to be identified by her screen name, moderates that Discord server. She says that outside this group, people assume an interest in plastic surgery is a cry for help, a sign you’re in a deep well of self-hate. “When really,” she says, “it’s like my body is my avatar in the game of life; it’s not that deep if I customize it.” She sometimes posts on r/HowToBeHot and has been around that extended network of beauty sub-Reddits for little over two years.

Glimmer is slowly approaching the hardmaxxing phase of her glow up to-do list:

  • A nose job (this year or next).
  • Fat grafting (at some point).
  • Or filler in her face (maybe).
  • And then Botox, maybe in the next month or so.

That’s all in addition to her everyday maintenance: “Growing out my hair, keeping it dyed and getting it cut — very simple stuff.” Her skin-care regimen includes tretinoin and azelaic acid — prescription topicals — which she names with the authority of a career dermatologist. Oh, and sunscreen. Last but not least, she says, “I need to sort out my wardrobe, and then I work out almost every single day, so I’ll continue to do that, and I eat a pretty strict diet. And then there’s makeup.”

Because the Discord she moderates is private, it fosters a more supportive sense of community, enough for members to share photos of themselves and welcome critical but invaluable feedback — it’s a group of women who will really tell you if your nose is crooked or if your hairline is weird, like a premium version of the sub-Reddit. This is simply not possible on Reddit, where photos of women — especially ones accompanied by text asking if they’re attractive — often trigger traumatizing harassment campaigns. The r/HowToBeHot moderators recently asked members if they wanted to facilitate photo-sharing and the group decided against it, citing safety concerns, with some adding that there are private Discords for that. The sub-Reddit, on the other hand, is for public discussion and general advice. Glimmer says the group on Discord encouraged her to look into microneedling (“so I’m doing a course on microneedling currently”) but talked her out of considering liposuction (“because I just don’t need it, and it would be a waste of money”).

For Glimmer, it was her casual interest in attractiveness studies — psychological and sociological research about physical features and aesthetic beauty — that brought her to the Reddit beauty community. On r/HowToBeHot, someone started a discussion of a 2006 paper published by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons’ peer-reviewed journal about the four cues of facial attractiveness. The sub-Reddit also hosts frequent conversations about things like the infamous Kibbe body-type test and how to tell if you have a low-trust or high-trust face — all things that can help you assess how hot you really are and how to be hotter. As a teenager, Glimmer fell down an online rabbit hole of attractiveness studies, and it’s still one of her interests. “I felt like I had access to cheat codes,” she says, which was both a depressing and empowering realization. “If I want people to treat me better, I can just look better and that’s not a reflection of me morally.”

Here’s what r/HowToBeHot considers hot: a symmetrical face, harmonious features (all your features should be proportionate to each other), good facial contrast (how your eyes, nose, and lips contrast against the plane of your face, a trait some say is an indication of youth), healthy-looking hair and skin, a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7 (more Sophia Loren than Kim Kardashian). Leora, a 20-year-old from New York whose name isn’t really Leora, describes r/HowToBeHot’s idea of beauty as “an Instagram baddie, pretty, TikTok girl in her 20s.” Figuring out which combination of features and attributes is considered most beautiful by the majority of the population is a collective task. This practice is called Looks Theory — a term borrowed from incel subcultures — which refers to the study of what it takes to look good to the majority of people. The sub-Reddit seems aware that the beauty ideal varies across cultures and time periods — which makes nailing down the specifics of the perfect body all the more challenging — but the goal is to figure out what looks the hottest to the highest number of people.

Looks Theory conversations ask which objective beauty “shoulds” are worth pursuing, and ideal forms for everything from forehead shape to philtrum length to hair color are up for debate. Ameerah, a 20-year-old student from Ottawa, says these discussions of what she calls “the science” are what makes r/HowToBeHot special. In Looks Theory posts, people share everything from peer-reviewed papers and surveys to pop science and folk knowledge. Ameerah knows the science is questionable, but it helps jump-start the big-picture discussions: As she puts it, she likes “understanding why things are the way they are.” How much of beauty is socially constructed? How much of it is biological? How much of it is subjective? Thanks to the beauty industry’s frenetic trend cycle, ideal beauty can seem like a moving target. On r/HowToBeHot, it’s about cracking the code to hotness and getting as close to the metal of the beauty standard machine as possible.

Here, science isn’t invoked to prove what’s real or true; it’s used as a tool for articulating a pattern. Why are certain faces consistently deemed beautiful? Why certain bodies? More often than not, the patterns of objective beauty reinforce harmful biases, even if there is “a study” that proves it’s “true.”

Like when blondemaxxing — maximizing your looks by going blonde — was trending in these circles. “I tried breaking down the stereotype that blondemaxxing is a thing,” Helen says. “I don’t believe that being blonde is better. That’s racist.” She adds that studies about people finding blondes more attractive are insufficient and that if anything, what matters more is how shiny your hair is. But even then, different hair textures reflect light differently — shininess is just another hierarchy that puts textured hair at the bottom.

Ameerah has learned to take all the beauty advice and science shared on r/HowToBeHot with a fat grain of salt. She knows that for all the racism, ableism, and classism baked into our society’s idea of beauty, there’s always a “study” to back it up. Still, she values how in these groups, “you’re allowed to say the things you’ve always thought.” She says they’re a place where you can vent to people who relate to you and will spare you the “you’re beautiful the way you are” speech. Instead, they’ll simply acknowledge your feelings: “You could say it out loud on the sub-Reddits, and I feel like it is, in a sense, a safe place.”

It is profoundly unfashionable to admit that you want to look like the people on Instagram. You out yourself as an unevolved feminist if you say you wished you looked like a Hadid. As the moderator of a private Discord server that hosts these conversations, Glimmer knows her pursuit of objective beauty replicates some of society’s ugliest parts. “Some people don’t want to become a warrior for this moral cause,” she explains. “They just want a happy life.” But for Glimmer, it’s better to pursue objective beauty with a critical and pragmatic approach than to pretend looks don’t matter. To the extent that pursuing hotness doesn’t make you miserable, wouldn’t living a hotter life mean living a happier one?

In the Pursuit of Hotness