The cult of the dissociative pout

Why this lobotomy-chic, dead-eyed pose is taking over your Instagram feed, and becoming the duckface of a nihilistic era.

by Rayne Fisher-Quann
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04 May 2022, 7:00am

In the early 2010s, scrolling through your Instagram feed was sure to show you an endless carousel of women united in a single pose: pursed lips, sucked-in cheeks, eyes either squinted shut or gazing up at the camera at a coy, playful angle. It was duckface, and it was everywhere. The selfie standard was the first (and most iconic) instance of a social media pose transcending Instagram and MySpace to become a universal part of the cultural zeitgeist. It was more than just a part of 2010s culture – it defined it, and in many ways, served as a microcosmic representation of the spirit of the times.

Scrolling through social media today, though, will show another pose taking over your feed. Today’s cool-girls are favouring pouty, puffed-out lips stretched into a disaffected frown. Wide eyes are either captured mid-roll or aimed at the camera in a plaintive, lobotomy-chic stare. The goal, arguably, is the performance of detachment – to look as though you just happened to be photographed whilst contemplating your abject disaffection with the world around you. It’s hot. It’s huge. We’ll call it the ‘dissociative pout’.

If the duckface’s A-list proponent was Kim Kardashian, the dissociative pout has Euphoria breakout star and rising fashion it-girl Chloe Cherry. With huge doll eyes, a tiny frame, and a truly prodigious pair of lips, she’s become a face of the chaotic fashion sense and post-ironic disposition chronicled in Allison P. Davis’s Vibe Shift article for The Cut. In the piece, trend forecaster Sean Monahan predicts we’re on the cusp of entering a new cultural and aesthetic era.

“The new vibe shift could be the return of early-aughts indie sleaze,” the article reads. “‘American Apparel, flash photography at parties, and messy hair and messy makeup,’ [Monahan] riffs, plus a return to a more fragmented culture… Most promisingly, he predicts a return of irony.”

While Cherry might just do the pout best, she’s far from alone: the pose is all over the feeds of fellow it-girls Enya Umanzor, Devon Lee Carlson, and even Addison Rae. It’s even more popular amongst the vast, decentralized network of TikTok microcelebrities, fashion girlies, and girlbloggers, where it’s often paired with smudged makeup, flash photography, and vaguely ironic clothing (schoolgirl skirts, slogan tees, and Catholic iconography all fit the bill). And listen, I’m partial to it as well – it makes my lips look great.

Like the duckface, the dissociative pout isn’t anything new. As with many of the cool-girl trends of today, it has its aesthetic roots in the messy, grungey subculture of the ‘90s and early 2000s. Today, the girls on TikTok are idolizing nihilistic teen cartoon Daria, Fiona Apple, and Chloe Sevigny as “sullen girl” icons: Apple is the blueprint for the pout (dug-up photos of her heavy-lidded signature pose spread like wildfire on social media, and her song of the same name has become a micro-cultural soundtrack); if Daria had been drawn in more detail, she’d be doing it too.

Selfie poses are self-conscious in the most literal sense: they necessitate an awareness of the self, and a sense of purpose in controlling how it’s perceived. When I was growing up in the age of duckface, it was common to practice it religiously in the mirror before daring to debut it in public. The duckface selfie was inherently admissive of its goal, explicit and unabashed in its performance. But if the poses before it were conscious of the self, the goal of the dissociative pout is to perform sullen detachment from it.

Interestingly, the dissociative pout hasn’t left behind the material objectives of the self-conscious poses before it. Like duckface, it emphasizes kissable lips and fawning eyes. Unlike duckface, its IG-ready goals are filtered through the lens of detachment and irony. This contrast mirrors the culture at large: in the viral article ‘The Smartest Women I Know Are All Dissociating’, writer Emmeline Clein argues that the predominant feminist ethic has shifted from honest, near-painful earnestness to one of detachment, meta-irony, and boredom. Our conditions haven’t changed, but it’s not in vogue to complain about them – now, we sneer, we roll our eyes, we pout. To the next generation of cool-girls, the honest pursuit of attention, whether it be through 2016-style makeup or contrived selfie poses, reads as desperate. And, as quoted in Cline’s article, writer Rachel Syme perhaps described the current social media climate best: in a review of the 2019 essay collection Sleeveless, she writes that “dissociation is always better than desperation.”

This can be observed in more than just a pose. As the “casual instagram” trend shows, honest performativity in any form has been discarded in favour of a heavily-constructed facade of authenticity. Ring-light selfies have been replaced by blurry photos which are nonetheless casually-yet-meticulously photo-dumped in artful configuration; winged eyeliner and blowout curls have been dropped in favour of carefully smudged raccoon eyes and product-laden bedhead. Effort is out, baby – now, everyone is trying very hard to seem like they’re not trying hard at all. Good thing irony is back, right?

If duckface was a girlboss who got down on the weekends, the dissociative pout is a detached feminist with an ironic meme page. She still cares about being sexy, but knows there’s nothing sexy about caring too much. And in times of discord, chaos, and fear, a cultural descent into nihilism makes sense. In ‘The Smartest Women I Know Are All Dissociating’, Cline theorizes that dissociative feminism is born, in part, from a sense of widespread fatigue. Davis writes something similar in her analysis of the vibe shift.

“I suggest that the death drive has something to do with it,” the piece reads. “Our aesthetic and behavior are certainly shaped by a sense of doom. There’s a nihilism to the way people dress and party; our heels get higher the closer we inch to death. It’s why people are smoking again, so says the New York Times.”

As constructed as they are, our posting habits often inadvertently reveal something intimate about our fears, needs, and desires, so it only makes sense that our fatigue would present itself there, too – and when the duckfacing of the optimistic 2010s proved too tiresome, perhaps it was inevitable that our lips would land in a pout.

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