Inside Men is a new Broadly column where we embed in male communities, to report back on the inner workings of men's relationships to better understand masculinity today.
I was taking a break at my desk when I saw them: The feminized faces of straight men were streaming into my timeline like the Glacier Freeze Gatorade I was in the process of pouring into a cup over ice. Blue beverage splashed onto my workspace. I looked to my colleague in astonishment and she nodded slowly. "I've seen it, too," she told me. Men have been digitally feminizing themselves.
The trend was spawned by the emergence of FaceApp, which reconstructs any face into its opposite-sex equivalent. Though the service, which became popular in the United States earlier this spring, can also make you look young or old and even make you smile, creating a morbid and unnatural grin, the app's ability to transform the user's gender is what has really turned it into a phenomenon.
It would have been easy to scroll past these men, but I couldn't look away. We are experiencing a gender revolution, but as women race forward, men are being left behind, clinging to the remnants of dated social roles. Even men who feel confident in their sexuality cannot fully wake from the nightmare of masculinity. FaceApp seemed to offer them a glimpse of what the world might look like if it weren't obscured by huge muscles and crippling performance anxiety. I thought this obsession with FaceApp could tell us something about men today, so I set out to interview some about it. Some of the guys I encountered had feminized themselves already. Others I would have to feminize myself.
My search started at home. Taji, Peter, James, Lance, and Alex all work at VICE, and they had all feminized themselves already. Some had shared their feminized faces on social media; others kept them secret.
"I just wanted to find out how I looked as an older person," Lance told me, obviously lying, "but then I found out how it made me look as a girl." Some of them had seen FaceApp on social media and were curious. Taji and James had been participating in various male-bonding activities—skateboarding and drinking at a bar, respectively—when they decided to feminize themselves.
They were calling the app "hilarious" a lot: It was "funny," and that's why they did it. The humor of the experience seemed to be an attempt to hide something. So I pried, interrogating them about why they had wanted to feminize their faces, and how they felt sharing her with other people.
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At first, their responses were defensive. "Same reason you do a Snapchat filter to turn yourself into, like, a mouse?" said Peter. But then the boys began to open up. Taji told me that many guys have reservations about being feminized. "This other skater we were with was like, 'Oh, don't do it to me!'" he said. The skater got upset and rode away. "I guess he had done it to himself before, and he just thinks it's a little much."
Taji passed his feminized image around the group. "You look pretty hot, Taji," Alex said. Someone else confessed that this is something all men think about: What would I look like as a girl?
James explained that some men may be comfortable digitally feminizing themselves, but would draw a line at wearing makeup or women's clothing in real life. FaceApp images can be deleted, he explained, but although makeup can be wiped off, "it takes longer than just hitting the delete button." The thing that makes digital feminization more palatable is that it doesn't require a physical act.
That was enlightening, but what the guys told me next was horrific: Physically feminizing a man doesn't just take longer, it also permanently sullies the slate of his manhood. It's not just the act of putting on lipstick—it is the unchangeable reality that you once put on the lipstick. A real man can look back on his life without feeling fear, shame, or guilt, knowing that he'd never done anything to compromise his masculinity.
I felt deep compassion for men in that moment; they live their lives with every act recorded in the undeletable browser history of their manhood. "It's not even the act of doing it once," someone else said, "it's just the fact of I'm someone who's never done X and I have to remain someone who's never done X."
We actually did have a problem with it, innately.
Earlier in the conversation, Peter told me that some of his friends had wanted him to put on makeup in college. He had played it off as nothing, and claimed that it never happened. But now he was feeling more confessional: He had, in fact, put on makeup in college, and had been afraid to admit that to me.
"It's still this mentality of, someone will find that; someone will screenshot it; someone will be like, 'Oh, shit. Did you know he once put on makeup?'" Peter said.
While this conversation was illuminating, the VICE guys admitted they were all pretty progressive, and likely couldn't be considered a representative sample of the average American male. I had to agree—there are other men who are living even deeper below the delusion of manhood. My colleague Leila Ettachfini and I decided to seek them out in the East Village, at a dive bar I'd never been to but had always been repulsed by.
At 5 PM on a Thursday we descended to the dark, dank space. Several normal-seeming people texted on stools. Four men wearing khaki and puka shells played beer pong in the back. After ordering sodas and nervously chatting between ourselves, Leila and I made several failed attempts to convince men to let us feminize them. As predicted, it was harder to find willing participants here. But then a tightknit group of four college-age guys—Andy, Brandon, Corey, and Kevin, names all changed—trotted down the stairs from 2nd Avenue.
Andy was really nice, and really pretty when I turned him into a girl. I asked him if it made him uncomfortable to see himself feminized and he said, "Nah, because I know that that's a filter. At the end of the day I've still got a penis. I could have sex with women. It means nothing to me."
Although this was similar to what my colleagues at VICE had said, these guys quickly pivoted the conversation toward sexuality. Would they have sex with their feminized selves? "Being as she's me," Andy said, "probably. Because I fuck with me heavy." They ordered shots of tequila and seemed disappointed when we didn't join them.
I guess I'm one of those—one of those people that would wife a tranny.
Andy told me that if he met someone who "was him" he would consider that person his soulmate. He stared at me for a bit as if expecting to see fragments of my blown mind blast past him.
"Wait, honestly, I didn't look at her," Andy said, looking more closely at his gender-swapped image on the screen. He stood back, raised his arms, and declared to us all: "I would not fuck with her."
I was struck by this sudden change. Why not? I asked. "Because she's ugly," he said.
Brandon, who was 6'4" and really hot, had been sitting on his bar stool observing Andy and me. "What's your agenda?" Brandon said, tilting his head toward me. "My agenda," I replied, "is to see how you feel about your faces." When I feminized Brandon, he totally transformed—from a pretty masculine-looking dude into a full-faced angel.
I asked Brandon how he felt about seeing his face mutate into that of a beautiful woman. "Listen," he said. "Put it in perspective of, like, Oedipus: I like girls that look like my mom."
Andy and his friends had heard of FaceApp before—but they hadn't used it. They said that if they were to share their feminized images on their social-media accounts, "seven out of ten comments would be: 'You're a fag,'" Andy explained. "Nine [times] of out ten, it would be hurtful stuff," Brandon said with a sad shrug of his broad shoulders.
At some point, Corey took the phone we were using to feminize him and his friends. We noticed him sitting in the corner staring at it. "This my daughter," Corey said, looking at the feminine image of himself in amazement. It didn't surprise me; many men had already told me that they see a familial resemblance to their feminized selves.
Eventually, the guys steered their conversation toward transgender women. I knew that might happen, and had wondered from the start if they'd notice that I am trans. Normally I wouldn't mind if they did, but I hoped they wouldn't because I felt that if they knew, it would color the entire discussion. While many of these guys looked pretty with feminized faces, some felt that without seeing the full package, so to speak, it was hard to determine whether they'd be attracted to themselves. A pretty face is never enough.
Brandon and Andy started talking about whether they'd date a transgender woman. "What about the trannies that you can't tell?" Brandan asked the group. "Honestly I don't know if I could say that I wouldn't," Andy said, surprising everyone. "I guess I'm one of those—one of those people that would wife a tranny."
His friends stared in disbelief, but Andy was relentless, trying to get them to see where he was coming from. "You meet a girl," he told them emphatically. "She's fire! You hit it off; she's got all the jokes, right? She sends you memes. You end up cuffing, right?" Right, the group nodded. "And then a few weeks later you find out she's a dude—or she used to be a dude," Andy said.
If I were to fall in love with a woman who used to be a man—tough life for everybody else! That's who the fuck I love
"I'd be highly disappointed," Kevin said.
"But what would you do?" Andy asked him, practically shouting at this point.
"Not tell anyone, and be highly disappointed!" Kevin replied.
"I'm not gonna love a man," another said.
"What do you mean you're not gonna love a man?" Andy replied. "I love my dad and all three of y'all. If I were to fall in love with a woman who used to be a man—tough life for everybody else! That's who the fuck I love," Andy said. I stood there in that shitty, sticky bar amazed as this group of young men spoke passionately about one of our country's greatest taboos.
The guys ordered one last drink for the road and told me and Leila that they had to go. They'd come to Manhattan to hook up with girls, and cheat on their girlfriends, and this was just one stop on that journey. "Honestly, I like your pitch," Andy said, referring to the way that I had approached him and his friends. (I had told them we'd be using an app that "can change your appearance.") On his way up the stairs, Brandon turned to look at me. After a pause, he offered his interpretation of what had just happened.
"You guys could say that it's such a deep-rooted issue that it brought up deeper issues [dealing with] men and transgenders," he told me. "We actually did have a problem with it, innately." The guys agreed: They probably do have a problem with seeing their faces feminized—one they're "not even aware of."