On TikTok, millions of people are exposed to seamless images of what modern beauty is supposed to be. Instead of round, full faces, we now see chiseled jaws. Hollow cheekbones. Defined chins.
“A common beauty goal is to mimic a model’s look,” said Dr. Steven Pearlman, a board-certified facial plastic surgeon, says about the latest fad. “Models tend to have high cheekbones and narrow, sculpted cheeks. Makeup artists spend a lot of time modeling or showing on social media how to contour below the cheekbones to achieve that sculpted look.”
However, not everyone can achieve this naturally angular appearance, which is why many turn to plastic surgery to remove their “mouth fat”, located in the lower cheek and jaw area.
If you haven’t heard of buccal fat (pronounced “loop”) until now, you’re not alone. Beauty expectations are becoming more and more niche, even psychological Elizabeth Daniels, who has been studying body image for more than two decades, was unaware of the existence of such a body part.
“It’s interesting that something as specific as the fat deposited below our cheekbones needs to be changed to meet a beauty standard,” says Daniels, an associate professor of developmental psychology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
The surgery is nothing new: Model Chrissy Teigen hopped on the trend in October 2021. But a recent photo of Lea Michele sparked social media interest in the cosmetic procedure. Michele has not commented on speculation about her appearance.
It’s a stark contrast to the previous trend of fuller cheeks popularized by injectable fillers, but ever-changing beauty standards come as no surprise.
“We see these messages about beauty that are quite narrow, repetitive and inaccessible, and this prevalence is what regularly exposes people to new insecurities.”
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So what is “mouth fat”?
Buccal fat refers to the natural fatty tissues in the middle and lower face, which are responsible for the soft rounded shape of the jawline. Functionally, it serves as a cushion between two of the masticatory muscles: the buccinator and masseter muscles.
Remove it by surgery, which takes approximately an hour, is purely cosmetic, resulting in a slimmer, more chiseled appearance for many. A surgeon will create “a small incision on the inside of the cheek, below the salivary duct…so that the buccal fat pad is gently teased into the mouth,” Pearlman describes.
Social media is a big driver of its sudden popularity as more and more users document their experience and results, without properly warning them of the dangers and caveats of a permanent procedure.
The obsession with creating a “tighter, slimmer figure” may also stem from “selfie culture”, in which people constantly stare at a distorted reflection of their appearance.
“When you’re kind of cropped or zoomed in on your face, it makes sense to alter your face in a specific way, in a way that looks fashionable,” Daniels says, comparing the elimination look from buccal fat to a “duck face.”
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Unlike lip fillers or BBLs, buccal fat removal is not reversible – a cause for concern as more and more young people are opting for the controversial plastic surgery.
“As we age, we tend to lose volume in the middle of the face,” says Pearlman. “So if that’s reduced at too young an age, you might look too skinny and push forward the aging look of your face.”
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For this reason, Pearlman says he only performs buccal fat removal for patients over the age of 30. But on TikTok, some as young as 21 are documenting the procedure for millions of people.
Possible complications although “rare”, says Pearlman, include prolonged postoperative swelling, hematoma, muscle weakness, and rarely but not unprecedented, damage to the salivary duct if the incision is too high.
“People in their 19s or 20s don’t have the full brain development to really think about all the possible, long-term side effects of this procedure now,” Daniels warns. “The fact that even teenagers undergo a permanent procedure in pursuit of a standard of beauty worries me.”
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Now is the elimination of buccal fat. But ‘what’s next?’
In the age of social media, it’s hard to resist the new wave of insecurities we didn’t know we were meant to have. Look at BBLs marketed to those not born with wide hips and small waists. Or fillers posing as solutions to what TikTok called a “gummy” smile. And now, mouth fat is taking over social media.
These endless cosmetic options are often heralded as ways to achieve society’s definition of “perfection.” The reality is that ever-changing but still unattainable ideals of beauty often “take advantage of dissatisfactions” by creating more imperfections to constantly improve themselves.
“And after?” Daniels asks. “Is that going to be a cuticle on your little toe? All of this goes to show that nothing, no part of the body, is out of the question.”
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