Skin care tutorials, fashion channels, and exercise influencers — when it comes to enhancing your appearance, TikTok is bursting with advice. Much of it should be taken with a grain of salt, but more often than not, there’s a trend taking off that prompts greater concern. In recent weeks, a supposedly beneficial type of self-harm known as “bone-smashing” has started to trend, with doctors warning teens against trying it.

That term isn’t euphemistic: Impressionable and insecure people have entertained the idea that by pummeling parts of your face with your fists, or even hitting areas of the skull with a hammer, you can fracture bone so it heals in a more aesthetically pleasing shape, leaving you with a more defined chin or sharper cheekbones. As emergency room doctor Josh Trebach told his followers Tuesday on X (formerly Twitter), in a post that included images from TikToks of young men who claim to use the method, this is both wildly unsafe and obviously ineffective. Osteopaths and orthopedic surgeons agree.

What may be less immediately evident to those just discovering the practice, however, is that it already had a period of TikTok virality in March and April of this year — and dates back to at least 2018, when it circulated in the toxic subculture of men who describe themselves as incels, or “involuntarily celibate.”

Across incel boards — which are often given over to misogynist attacks on women as a whole, collective self-loathing, and junk theories of gender and attraction — there is a clan that follows the philosophy of “looksmaxxing.” This entails pursuing any number of means — some more ridiculous than others — to boost one’s sex appeal. Better grooming, working out, and a healthy diet are the usual first steps, though some men may move on to plastic surgery. Then there are unproven techniques, like “mewing,” a tongue exercise based on the widely dismissed work of two British orthodontists that can allegedly strengthen the jaw line.

Bone-smashing falls into the same category, though unlike mewing, it appears to have originated as a trollish suggestion rather than a worthwhile experiment in facial modification. In this case, the “science” is based on a misunderstanding of Wolff’s law, a principle identified in the 19th century by German anatomist Julius Wolff: Bones under higher strain (like routine heavy lifting) will remodel themselves to become denser and stronger. For at least half a decade, incels have argued that this means you can also reshape your skull by applying acute stress.

“[A]nyone tried bone-smashing,” asked a user on the board in September 2018. “I’ve been punching my cheekbones 50 times each side daily for half a year now and i can notice a big difference also it improved my fist lately i’ve been smashing my jaw but it hurt my hand so i should go easier.” Tellingly, while he received some support, other users replied that this wouldn’t accomplish anything, with one arguing he was only “torturing” himself. Another posted, “That was supposed to be a meme.”

A razor-thin line of irony separates the earnest and satirical content in this kind of online community. It’s possible that the patently dangerous recommendation to hit yourself in the head with a hammer was offered as somewhere between a taunt and a dare — incels have gone so far as to openly encourage suicide among their ranks — and perhaps with the nihilistic hope that someone else would be gullible and desperate enough to trust the specious reasoning behind it.

Since that time, some people have attempted an actual bone-smashing routine. The incel forums are full of threads announcing that “BONE SMASHING IS LEGIT,” courting comments to the effect that chin implants are the better alternative, a criticism that in turn provokes maybe-sarcastic responses like “bonesmashing is free.” For every incel who argues that the “technique” works — a member of once cited the case of a man kicked in the head by a horse who thereafter had a protruding cheekbone at the site of the fracture — there is another mocking the very concept. “I did try smashing the back of my skull with a very small hammer in the hope it would get flatter, but I think that bone smashing it actually made it grow larger,” wrote a Looksmaxxer in 2019. “Try with a bigger hammer,” urged a second forum user.

The latest wave of videos, like the forum posts, probably come from a mix of trolls and true believers, with virtually no one actually demonstrating how to do it — at least not with a hammer. (TikTok doesn’t allow users to “share content depicting them partaking in, or encouraging others to partake in, dangerous activities that may lead to serious injury or death,” and various clips shared on the platform earlier this year have been removed.) But even if the spoofs far outweigh the serious guides, the prospect of a kid buying into this “trend” is troubling.

If there’s a valuable takeaway here, it’s that the internet isn’t just rife with misinformation capable of causing real-world damage — this material also typically surfaces out of fringe subcultures that aim to sow pain and pessimism. Incels may have invented bone-smashing for their own twisted purposes within an insular society, but they may well be amused to see it escape from containment into panicky media headlines. For the true cynic, there’s nothing like convincing people to take your nonsense at face value.