This is from The Goods’ weekly newsletter. Sign up to receive the best of our coverage on consumerism and Internet culture every week.
Did you know that the cool thing for high schoolers to do right now is theatrically slap their hand over their mouth?
“I’m a high school teacher and I see all the trends now, and this is the new thing,” begins a TikTok video featuring a woman explaining to the rest of the adults what random things her students are up to. “It’s usually really hard. I don’t know why, I don’t get it,” she says. “They like, slap their face.”
Dramatic face-slapping is far from the only Gen Z facial tic that has permeated the culture. Since TikTok’s US debut in 2018, it has spawned a vast network of poses and gestures that I’ve collectively dubbed “TikTok Face,” each with its own meanings and uses.
The face-slapping thing, for instance, is all over my TikTok feed, and I have a galaxy brain theory about why: Putting your hand over your mouth in surprise or incredulity is a purely visual way of illustrating the feeling, so on TikTok, where many videos replace the original sound with a different audio, you can clearly tell what emotion is being expressed. Also, fake laughing looks awkward, and teenagers, a notoriously self-conscious segment of the population, love hiding their faces.
But I highlight these poses not to gawk at how different teenagers are from the rest of us (they’re not!) but to provide context on some seemingly strange habits you’ve seen on the internet. The first one I saw where I was like, “Oh, this is TikTok Face” was the nose scrunch, sometimes with a simultaneous wiggle. It looks like this:
Brittany Tomlinson, a comedy TikToker best known as “kombucha girl,” explained to me that this, among other “thirst trap” faces, was an expression that people do before performing a TikTok dance.
Why would someone scrunching their nose up be a thirst trap? “TikTok has such a different form of thirst trap than Instagram or Twitter,” she explained. “There’s this hyperfixation on being a cute little baby. Like, why? I don’t get it. It’s like, ma’am, you have taxes to pay.”
In the same vein of faces to make before doing a dance, there’s another one where you suck in the corners of your lip to look like a fish. Nobody could tell me why it was popular except for the fact that it is likely because of Charli D’Amelio. (Also, it makes you look like you have great cheekbones. Mystery solved!)
THANK YOU FOR 80 MILLION SERIOUSLY THANK YOU SO MUCH I LOVE YOU ALL♬ original sound - Ian Asher
Abby Roberts, a TikTok-famous beauty influencer, explained to me that a lot of these poses are endemic to the platform. “On TikTok everyone loves facial expressions for some reason, because it’s quite a young audience and you have to really be emotive and have it go with the music and stuff,” she said. “So everyone does all these crazy faces; like, sticking their tongue out is a big thing as well. I guess it’s just translated into photos.”
While the nose scrunch and fish lips are earnest attempts at looking cute, most TikTok poses share at least some degree of irony. “I thought you were gonna ask about the Facebook mom pose that we make fun of,” Brittany said after I asked her to explain a few of them. (It’s where you take a selfie from a comically high angle.) “It’s like, ‘I love my husband and guns.’”
“There’s also this one, ‘we irritating,’” she said, referring to the iconic Snap photo of two girls in matching outfits covering their faces with the caption “We irritating.” “We haven’t done that one in a while though,” she said. “That was like, last summer.”
There are so many more! There’s one where you theatrically tuck your hair behind your ear and do duckface. There’s one where you do cosplay moves, but ironically. There’s one where you pretend to be Justin Bieber circa 2012 and stroke your chin while looking like you’re trying to fart. Remember that viral tweet of the e-boy dance move where you roll your eyes back into your head while gently tapping your temple (I can’t find it, but here’s BTS’s Jungkook doing it)? That was one, for like five minutes.
It’s annoying that there’s no real word for what these movements are. “Poses” feels like the closest term, but there’s almost always action involved, and the word doesn’t really convey that. Perhaps the most accurate way to describe them is “emotes,” a common concept in video games wherein a character performs a specific action. Emotes can be anything from dances to gestures and facial expressions, and that’s what these things are: Tiny performances for the sake of comedy or cuteness, meant to add some extra flavor to a video.
Young people will always have their own slang (remember in the mid-2000s when everyone was describing themselves as “hyper” and “random?”), but the TikTok generation has created a language that’s far more visually driven, which seems like a natural result of an app designed for staring at people’s faces all day. TikTok Face might seem corny or embarrassing, but honestly, so is everything else.