the bella swan hair tuck is a coded language
welcome to strong feelings! Essays by writers we love, in which they share their most impassioned opinions on a given subject. If you love our usual advice column — don’t worry it’s not going anywhere. This month for strong feelings, culture writer and author of the newsletter Embedded, Kate Lindsay, explores the wonderful, weird world of physical language born online.
The first party I ever went to after the COVID-19 lockdowns was at a bar on July 4, 2021. A lot of things were different: The gathering was outside, attendees were masked, and there was a hovering, present uneasiness from being around a group of people again. But somehow, these remnants of a worldwide health emergency weren’t the most jarring thing about the event. It was that everyone I met seemed to be mirroring aspects of behavior, style, and speech from TikTok.
Everything from their clothes (low-rise jeans and bandana tops) to their mannerisms (clawing their hands in front of their mouths to mock-scream) were familiar. Not from real life, but from the exclusively online culture we had built around ourselves for the past year and a half. It was bizarre to see it out of the context of a six-inch screen, but this IRL infiltration made sense: TikTok had more than doubled its users between 2019 and 2021, becoming a central hub for socialization that pandemic restrictions otherwise prevented.
In 2023, most people have resumed various degrees of integration into the physical world, but TikTok’s chokehold on culture has remained—from fashion to music to, more subtly but enduringly, our physical language. These movements that started as an earnest translation of our new digital culture have lingered as tongue-in-cheek nods to an internet in-joke. Now, they’re a somewhat cringe holdover from years of online isolation that we power through anyways.
When my sister, for instance, would like a little treat, she points the tips of her two front fingers together with the thumbs pointing up. “Should we order fro-yo?” she’ll ask with pleading eyes, an anime calling card that made its way onto the clock app. Or when I’m in conversation with friends, and realize I’ve accidentally said something extremely dark or earnest, I’ll soften it by briefly rolling my eyes up to the sky and darting my tongue out the side of my mouth — a real-life manifestation of the 🤪 emoji. The people we speak to in this self-referential physical language don’t need the Duolingo Owl to help them understand it. In a world that often feels desperate for levity, these expressions become a way to add humor to moments that otherwise feel humorless.
But this kind of colloquial choreography long predates social media—well-known gestures like the high five and finger guns, while now deeply embedded in our lexicons, first originated within sports culture of the 70s and 80s. Various pop culture fandoms have also ushered in their own insular physicality. Fans of k-pop groups like ONEUS and NCT have dedicated hand signals, and Taylor Swift fans similarly use hand hearts held to the sky to represent her Fearless era. Let’s not forget TikTok, which, more so than any other platform, is all about physicality. It’s a video medium, for one, but it also began as a dancing app. Fueled by trending audios, choreography like the “Renegade” dance was created, and movements like “the woah” were popularized.
Much of this digital-to-physical language, unbeknownst to the everyday user, is pulled from the heightened, cartoonish movements in video games and anime. Naruto’s Hinata, Touhou’s Kawashiro Nitori, and K-On’s Yui, for instance, are all characters who helped popularize the two-finger twiddling. The theatrics of these illustrations provide a veritable grab-bag of physical gestures that have, anecdotally, already proved to be infectious.
“I've noticed that after having watched anime frequently for the past 6-7 years that now whenever I apologize I do a quick, short, hardly noticeable head bow,” a Reddit user wrote in a 2015 thread about mannerisms people have accidentally picked up from watching anime. “It's a subconscious habit that I can only assume I developed from watching too many cookie cutter slice of life shows.”
In another thread, this one a 2019 discussion of the ways video games can mess with real-life perception, one user wrote, “for YEARS after [Final Fantasy VII], I would randomly pump my shoulders up and down, like how Cloud does in certain points in the game.”
These mannerisms then made their way to TikTok—one of many ways video game and anime culture shows up on the app. From cosplay transitions to the “select your character” trend to, most recently, NPC creator Pinky Doll, these phenomena have found mainstream success thanks to the mesmerizing nature of their physicality that, it seems, we can’t help but mimic. Rinsed and recycled through social media’s fractured game of telephone, the person now using 👉👈 when asking a bashful question IRL may have no idea they’re actual mimicking a longstanding anime trope.
Which is one of many reasons the physical language of TikTok can be so, well, cringe to witness. When I found myself surrounded by my FYP come to life that July 2021, the primary feeling was one of embarrassment, for no real reason other than the fact that the internet origins of everyone’s outfits and behavior was so transparent. Despite how online we all are now, there’s still some lingering shame about it.
Touching fingers, silently screaming into your hand, the Bella Swan hair tuck—each of these internet mannerisms all require a grossly exaggerated performance, perhaps as a way to communicate an awareness of the cringe they would otherwise induce. It’s also possible, however, that the people doing the gestures just don’t care.
In 2022, Kaitlin Tiffany marked the peak of online cringe culture in The Atlantic, when something warranting the label of “cringe” amounted to a criminal offense. Perhaps that’s why, that same year, TikTok began to turn on the concept itself. “You have to desensitize yourself to being cringey,” TikTok user @dahmin454 said that March.
There will no doubt be a day, months or years from now, when we can think of nothing more embarrassing than innocently pointing our fingers together to ask a question, the same way we’ll wonder why we ever thought a bandana counted as a shirt. But for now, these internet gestures serve a different purpose: They’re a wink to a broader community, a shared language among the extremely online, finally together again after years of isolation. Really, what’s cringe about that?