The Sickly, Skinny Kings Of Meme Prom
A Dark, Evolutionary Deep Dive Into The Preferences Of A Generation
It seemed to happen right from under our feet, slowly building in the collective consciousness of a younger generation, only to percolate on Twitter within backhanded compliments aimed at the oddest of celebrity couples. This viral optic of tall skinny white boys with the baddest celebrity you’ve ever seen started to become commonplace on the front page of E! Magazine.
As a society, we’ve almost become numb to it. But how did these walking cigarettes become walking thumbnails as we’ve reached the end of 2021?
People have tried to pinpoint the origin of the skinny, white boy heartthrob — the one who must have embedded within a whole generation of zoomers that the archetype is something desirable. Some might name-drop Kurt Cobain, Mick Jagger, David Bowie: various nicotine-addicted rock stars of earlier generations (the “starving artist” type, really). These men, at least within alt-spheres of aesthetic influence, certainly paved the way for modern skinny boys.
Kurt Cobain, for instance, became embedded within MTV, a cultural engine known for the perpetuation of the blind, sexual, media consumption that the world’s now familiar with. As this mindless sect of voyeuristic celebrity indulgence developed into the 2000s, imagery of Cobain and other skinny, tormented rockstars rose with it.
However, the ideal 2000s man seemed to be far from scrawny. Think about “High School Musical,” a movie so culturally impactful for its time that some women still have Corbin Bleu posters taped up to their walls. Regardless, the men in “High School Musical” aren’t necessarily skinny, in fact, they're rather buff. The male, television heartthrob of this time seemed to be generally athletic men with broad shoulders and good skin.
Meanwhile, in the music world, scrawny, sickly men were continuing to thrive. Emo and punk music of the 2000s was filled with pale, skinny men. From Panic! at the Disco to 3oh!3, the industry was thriving off the sickly. This was still restricted to Hot Topic fitting rooms, however, but as other musicians like Justin Bieber began to cement themselves in a more mainstream pop-music scene, skinny men were beginning to appeal to a larger, zoomer audience.
Many might credit Robert Pattinson and his role as Edward Cullen in the “Twilight” trilogy as the beginning of sickly, skinny men’s representation in modern celebrity culture outside of the music industry. However, Edward Cullen, as a character, isn’t necessarily skinny. In fact, he’s still pretty buff and broad-shouldered. However, he stands in contrast throughout the series to the tanner-skinned and arguably more built Taylor Lautner, whose character, Jacob Black, lent the pre-pubescent fans of the series an aesthetic and emotional contrast to Edward’s vampire aura.
Even if Pattinson’s body type is more buff than rail-thin, in contrast to Lautner, he is the skinny counter. There’s no doubt that he looks sickly though. They must have rubbed 10 layers of paint on him to make him look that pale. But with Edward Cullen, Hollywood and television saw a lane they could take more aggressively going forward of sparking the sexual urges in persons attracted to this vampire-type of dude.
The next logical step in sickly boy actors of the 2010s is “American Horror Story’s” Evan Peters. Besides being an obvious candidate for the next progression (because the show came out two years after “Twilight’s” release), zoomer women on Twitter even labeled Evan Peters in hindsight as the sickly boy who started it all. Twitter user @medeecine was the first one to do this, posting a tweet in June 2019 stating, “Evan Peters walked so all these other sickly looking white boys could run.” People tended to agree with her, seeing as how her tweet received roughly 5,400 likes since then.
But @medeecine wasn’t the first to utter the phrase “sickly looking white boys” or something adjacent on Twitter. The first to do so was Twitter user @rihannasgayson, whose tweet was posted two years prior on December 23rd, 2017. It featured two images of male model Hugh Laughton-Scott with text above reading, “Sickly skinny white boys kinda won with this one.” This tweet effectively labeled the archetype with the attached buzzwords “skinny” and “sickly.”
Skinny, white men, as a beauty standard, received more meme attention at the end of 2018 when iconic sickly, white man Pete Davidson began dating Ariana Grande in a shocking turn of events. The juxtaposition of the couple, in regards to their physical appearance, was an instant viral classic, garnering paparazzi and meme attention across platforms. For instance, Twitter user @heavenbrat tweeted, “what is it with boys that look like they’re a corpse that could literally demolish my heart n id thank them,” in June 2018 in response to Davidson and Grande’s relationship.
Going into 2019, “sickly skinny white men” became a notable catchphrase on hot-girl Twitter sparked by the 2018 discourse surrounding Pete Davidson “dating up.” For instance, Twitter user @BoyYeetsWorld tweeted in May 2019, “gonna start chain-smoking cigs and skipping meals so I can be a sickly looking white boy and get girls to like me.” The banger tweet received over 10,000 likes as it seemed that straight men were even becoming aware of the cliché.
Twitter user @villannelle then added onto this, tweeting in November 2019, “straight girls scare me you have the power to date almost any man you want...and you choose sick-looking white boys that look like they’re one cigarette drag away from dying.” Her tweet voiced a new correlation between these men and cigarette smoking.
However, what @villannelle failed to understand in her tweet was why these women choose these men. What she ultimately failed to grasp is that the allure of the skinny man is an ancient habit. In January 2013, freelance journalist Jarrett Bellini wrote an article for CNN titled, “Apparently This Matters: Chicks dig skinny guys.” The article cites a specific study done by Vinet Coetzee of the University of Pretoria in South Africa in late 2012.
Coetzee conducted a study on PBM, or “Protective Boyfriend Material,” measuring within a group of women what traits were related to a woman’s underlying opinion of a man’s evolutionarily masculinity in relation to breeding purposes. The study found that skinny men alluded to masculine energy because thinness was linked aesthetically to the strength of a man’s immune system. It was then concluded that women use weight, over masculinity, in their subconscious judgment of a man’s immunity.
This is the evolutionary argument, of course, but does it account for the virality of sickly, skinny men and their beautiful female counterparts? By the end of 2021, mainstream meme culture had latched onto enough of these couples to become cognizant of it. One of the most notable of these power couples was rapper Machine Gun Kelly and actress Megan Fox in mid-2021. The two went viral for their “I Am Weed,” comments just before news broke about Pete Davidson’s possible love affair with Kim Kardashian.
The optics of both these couples are astonishingly similar. Twitter users began to notice the trend more broadly once both were circulating the platform like a virtual double date across everyone’s timeline. For instance, Twitter user @mattxiv tweeted on October 31st a picture of both couples with the attached caption, “Can someone explain to me what it is about this type of man.” The next day, Twitter user @jonmelo offered a response in his own tweet. It read, “I’m convinced Kim K, Kourtney and Megan Fox are forming some sort of hot girl witch’s coven where they drain the life force from skinny white boys with tattoos and depression to stay young and hot forever. They’re all MGK’s best friends too. In this essay I will-”
Now, if that doesn’t sound like the chain reaction of Edward Pattinson’s vampire jawline being etched into the cerebral cortex of an entire generation, then I’m not sure what it’s saying. It’s probably true that these gorgeous, celebrity women are using these men for blood, and by “blood,” that’s in reference to the exploitation of the viral optics they create in juxtaposition to themselves.
Someone like Kim K is smart enough to know this — that if she dates a sickly, white boy way under her league, she not only pushes her own brand onward but carves the hung, sickly boy narrative deeper into the American psyche. Who knows if it’s truly all a publicity stunt though. As evolutionary biases allude, our memes might have just caught up with our ancestral beauty standards.
click here to read this article in the December 2021 Meme Insider issue.