A few days ago, YouTube auto-play brought me to a video about “mewing”. Not the noises made by kittens, but a set of practices named after Professor John Mew and his son Michael which involve sustaining a very particular tongue posture. Having since fallen deep into the tongue posture rabbit hole (though, apparently, that is not possible according to YouTube) there are a few things about the practice itself – and the way certain people talk about it, and integrate it into other practices – that I’d like to wheel on for a bit.

First, some background.

Mewing is a kind of sub-practice within orthotropics, an area of study and “philosophy” theorized by the Mews as a response (though, as the elder Dr. Mew argues,by no means a challenge) to orthodontics, which is mainly concerned with the extraction and straightening of teeth. Orthotropics takes as its focus not just the teeth but the entire face, the set of largely behavioral factors which – in this philosophy – leads to its shape, and given that shape: potential health risks. It outlines a set of non-invasive practices which are aimed reshaping one’s head-bones to mitigate the need for surgical intervention.

I make no claim as to the effectiveness of orthotropics (Mike Mew was recently ejected from the British Orthodontics Society fwiw) but a certain community of Internet Men have taken it to suggest if they put their tongue in the right place for long enough they’ll reshape the front facing bits of their cranium and get smokin’ hot thus attracting … *ahem* … “females”.Mewing has become a candidate for inclusion into a regiment that also includes – as Natalie Wynn recently discussed – “skinmaxxing” and other deeply uncomfortable bizarroverse simulacra of self-care which are means towards the end of ~obtaining~ others and not, y’know, caring for the self.

This is the stereotypical lot of the incel: the involuntary celibate who cannot attract a female partner and who seeks to possess the also stereotypical qualities of men though romantically successful. “Chad” names the incel’s imagined alphamale: a caricature of some false ideal of masculine allure defined by muscularity, sexual prowess, financial wealth, blonde and coifed hair and a chiseled jaw. Ever striving towards His image, enterprising incels found orthotropics, and mewing. 

A brief interdiction: “incel” reflects a constellation of outlooks and circumstances. Entitled PUA wanna-be’s and violent misogynists, yes. Vitriolic bio-truthers and transphobes, absolutely. Also those adrift in the troubled waters of maleness or romance. Those of all genders uncomfortable in their body, despairing of their lack of experience and earnestly seeking advice or camaraderie in their perceived struggle. Some fall prey to the worst tendencies of the community. Some do not.

The complexities are well documented

I say this not to excuse the worst of that community’s behavior. Far from it. And unthinkable given the number of murders committed by self-described incels. Feminist and writer Jessica Valenti has been clear about the difficulty in finding sympathy here, drawing out a clear line from entitlement to misogyny to terrorism. Toronto based sex-worker Olivia Grace told MacClean’s that the impetus for one incel terrorist to kill ten people in her city “wasn’t really about sex. It’s about hate towards women.” Current and former incels have corroborated this read on some of the more visible portions of the community.

I bring all this up in an attempt to shift the criticisms which follow away from a hazy label and towards a toxic attitude and discourse of many people who bear that label. We’re gonna call it the “maximizing” discourse.

Mewing involves suctioning the rear of one’s tongue to the top of their mouth so as to lift the neck and jaw muscles. One swallows in this position, exerting upward force onto the palate thus, over time, apparently raising the cheek bones. Mewing also involves “tongue chewing”. Instead of using the teeth to chew, one mashes their masticatory material (like say, gum) against the roof of their mouth, likewise – it is said – lifting the palate and building out jaw muscle.

Mike Mew has been clear that the aim of “mewing” is not primarily aesthetic, but health related. He admits it does just so happen that a healthy face has many of the same characteristics as a traditionally attractive one, especially for men. But he seems clear in a preference that the orthotropic framework be considered for its quality-of-life impacts first, over and above the potential – and potentially remote – chances it’d make one a Total Dish. 

Mewing could take months – or even years – to shift the structure of ones face noticeably towards Chadliness.

It’s this fact that really sinks my battleship. Months. YEARS. Portions of the incel community are well documented for their dedication to some strict idea of self betterment, as long as that idea doesn’t include emotional and interpersonal concerns (thus, in one view, rendering the “involuntarily” portion of “incel” inaccurate). It is the months-or-years figure, for perhaps a few millimeters of bone migration with luck, that speaks clearly to me as a symbol of Maximization.

To read posts on self-styled incel forums, one gets a crash course in the apparent mathematical basis of beauty. The nose should be this width and this distance from the brow, which should protrude not more than this. The angles of the jaw should be as such, and here are the procedures you can undergo to attain them. There are backs-and-forth between those who have undergone surgery, or who are currently practicing some regiment, detailing the adjustments they await before they will become, finally, a Chad.

These maximizers seek to augment their attractiveness through a metrics driven understanding of appeal. It is a system of benchmarks which “objectively” delineate the point at which one goes from zero to Total Dime. Mewing, surgery, body building and conversational wargaming are treated as buffs to a kind of skill tree: a set of meters which one might fill and upon doing so, level up. 

Implicit in maximization is the idea that the un-measurable isn’t worth attempting to improve. How would you ever show how far you’ve come, or how close you are to your goal? The aspects of the self which aren’t clearly maximizable are not viable for consideration. Any idea of personal advancement without clear criteria is met, it seems, with suspicion and refusal. 

Maximization can also help shift the responsibility for “success” in one’s self-improvement to other people. If one is able to identify the areas in need of attention, quantify the delta between current and ideal states, and then through repeated adjustments and measurement show how they have reached that ideal state … when their romantic or interpersonal difficulties continue, the matter is out of their control. The maximizer has done everything they were supposed to. And so blame can easily be shifted to others.

I see maximization as the result of larger, more distributed anxieties that we’ll call “efficiencies”, and with which we’ll conclude.

Efficiencies, here, are thought to result reliably in some outcome. They are “efficient” only in that they ostensibly remove doubt, not in that they are easy. They plague Late Capitalism and are themselves the result of a widespread obsession with convenience (a topic for another time). But to sketch out a few examples: if beauty is about shape and symmetry, then tongue exercises and medical procedures which give me that shape and symmetry will make me beautiful; if success is productivity, these apps will help me feel at the end of the day like I’ve done enough; if the YouTube algorithm likes regular uploads, I’ll make a video every week and will surely get promoted; etc; etc. These courses of action, and tools which facilitate them, are efficiencies.

They are things you can do, and in so doing, maximize: reach the metrics which represent (but are not actually) one’s goal. Efficiencies are not attitudes, but they may foment an attitude or precipitate some belief. In performing them, one may back into some outlook which justifies the continuance of the efficiency, its value and the value of maximizing, staying focused on action and measurement first.

As actions, efficiencies concern the body. They turn the person into a thing which may be tuned, adjusted, guided and controlled. The body becomes a platform for a set of practices which, if followed correctly, should lead to the desired outcomes. And when desired outcomes are not met, it is up to the practitioner to try harder, doubt less, maximize further. 

If only one were this much taller, this much more productive, this much more up to date with the news, or television, this much more lightweight Dyneema composite tactical fabric clad … … … one would be a more effective agent in the world, and be visited upon by that much more success or happiness. And so we adopt one weird trick here and there in the hopes of maximizing some outcome, often without first wondering: from where do I derive my values concerning height? productivity? pop cultural savvy? lightweight and durable design? And informed in that regard, determine if the impulse to maximize in some such way is reflective of the values one holds.

Mewing is an efficiency, for maximizing beauty, constructed upon the value that beauty is found not just in jaw shape and cheekbone height, but in a very specific and knowable position of those things. And if that position is attained, beauty (or a portion of it, towards some whole) is unlocked. Maximizers assume there exists a kind of universal appreciation of these values and engage in a “sure” process which involves a bounded sort of effort: do these exercises, for this long, get these results.

And to be fair, in the right hands and bracketed by the right attitudes – efficiencies can be effective. The step counter, productivity app, creative schedule, surgical facial reconstruction … may all have positive and intended impacts. But they are not the solution to any problem alone; they are accessories to ways of being, to a complex of attitudes and orientations far beyond that of maximization. 

It’s that kind of work – emotional, self-reflective, fundamentally un-measurable – which is missing from the maximization discourse but which would, arguably, be most impactful to the maximizer’s broader goals. And if they really wanted to: they could do that work while suctioning their tongue to the roof of their mouth.