By Tee Linden
Her new face was grown in a lab.
The product was created using patented TrueYou PlasmaSkin, designed using an app on Elsie’s phone. To design a new face, the app only required a three-dimensional upload of her current face and an interactive sculpting stylus, which she’d needed to order.
There were an endless array of nose and lips base shapes, and the app allowed her to try these on, one by one, either in a filter on her phone, or by using a compatible ViewDock which would render a three-dimensional projection of her face large enough to fill a room. With the app and stylus, she could move her eyes further apart or closer together. The app offered an array of lash types, mink to human, feathers and fans to curls. Elsie agonised over eyelash choice, eventually confirming ‘wet-look type 3’. Eyelashes were important. Eyelashes frame her green eyes, and her eyes are the only thing she hasn’t edited, even though TrueYou released their new IrisColourUp product; colour-changing iris implants. All her followers on her INSPA account, @TheGr33nEyedM0nster, know her eye colour is natural and the green helps her stand out amongst the jockeying INSPA app influencers. It was her eyes that landed her the first influencing gig for GreenTeaShakez, when she was only seventeen.
Her TrueYou PlasmaSkin face was created from stem cells and microbial fungi. Elsie travelled to the TrueYou FacialDaybar to see a fleshy printed replica pinned to a silicon head. It was a surreal experience; a uniting of dream and reality. She sipped champagne and nibbled low-calorie Fekta Cheeze canapes and, with an almost disembodied giddiness, perused the product of her imagination that would be attached to her head. Elsie lost herself in the visual absorbing of it. The nose she would see in the mirror. Her nose. The cheekbones of her new reflection. Her cheekbones. Slight and artful freckling, painstakingly daubed by her own hand, across the nose and cheeks. She’d selected a heart-shaped lip type, pink and full in the middle. This face was for a wide forehead, which Elsie already had, and a pointed chin, which she didn’t. Her chin is round.
Elsie, stomach fizzy-sick with champagne, was assured TrueYou could always modify the chin size with injectable silicone, should the fashion of chins change. That was the beauty of TrueYou. You could be anything you wanted. Plump. Wide-mouthed. Monolidded. Whatever you wanted. Whatever was beautiful, whatever would be beautiful.
And of course the ‘face’ of TrueYou, a service which promises to match your in-person image to the image you’d branded online, has to have undergone the facial process. It makes sense. And if anything could please Elsie more than her new face, it would be taking the mantle of TrueYou’s representative.
TrueYou is about becoming yourself. About being happy, finally, with yourself and how you look. To make the mirror reflect a true representation of yourself. TrueYou is about radical self-acceptance.
The procedure was quick, and Elsie remained awake as specialists removed the fleshy peel of her face, sanded her bones and unhooked musculature. There was intermittent pain, a sharp piercing through the wallowing nothingness of anaesthesia. More disturbing than the pain was the disembodied pulling sensation as her skin was removed, a reminder of the fact she was flesh and bone and muscle and this was being separated from her. But though unpleasant, the experience was bearable. When asked, she talked and blinked and smiled. Movement was necessary so when the cosmetologists attached her new face, it, she, would have had the best chance of looking as natural as possible.
The specialists sanded Elsie’s round chin into a point, carved down her masseter muscles and sewed on her new face.
Elsie sits before a mirror in her dark, crowded bedroom. She studies herself in soft light that won’t aggravate her persistent headache and she is fascinated. And oddly uneasy. First she turns her new face left, and then right, daubing TrueYou’s ScarBeautification cream along the still-healing sutures which are mostly hidden beneath her chin and in the thick of her black hair.
Though headaches plague her, her heart-shaped lips sting and her face still has paralysis on the right (something she’s been assured is natural and commonplace) her reflection gives her an overwhelming sense of contentment. This feels like a fresh start.
This is everything she’s ever wanted to be.
But even as she contemplates her own joy, Elsie realises beneath this there is a feeling she’s forgotten something, the tug of leaving your home and thinking you’ve left the iron on. Something is missing from her perfect face and she can’t quite determine what that missing thing is. The feeling distracts from her joy.
Elsie focuses her discontent on the long, glossy lashes that frame her bright green eyes. They stick together in ‘wet-look type 3’; black star spokes that appear fresh from the shower. She isn’t entirely sure she likes the effect but she reminds herself this is just her base-face. Which is good, because perhaps she also needs to adjust the bridge of her nose after all, which seems too short the more she scrutinises herself. Perhaps that is what is missing. All of this work will be easier now that she’s remodelling PlasmaSkin. Easier on her body, if not her wallet. Less downtime. That’s important. Downtime means no fresh content.
Her phone pings. It is her INSPA companion engagement app notifying her that her feed’s engagement level is dropping. Her followers love all things new. She learned that early. New clothing, new haircuts, new fitness gadgets, new piercings. Her monsters, as she lovingly calls them, are hungry for her, hungry for re-imaginings of herself, for fresh looks, for the first steps of a new walk in the world. For beginnings. Endless new beginnings.
When Elsie had her natural hair, curling and red, removed years ago and her scalp implanted with the thousand grippy puckers that suit the click-in hair technology of BabydollDreamHair, Elsie reached a stunning 7% engagement rate. 7%. Her feed was highlighted on the homepage of the INSPA app, and the flood of new followers brought Elsie to heights of joy that were yet to be surpassed.
Currently, Elsie wears her hair long, straight and black. Real human hair, delivered to her door within 24 hours, which fastens into her BabydollDreamHair scalp puckers in only twenty-seven easy motions. Elsie’s current hair came from India. It brings Elsie great pride, because it is so black that it shines blue in the photos with little to no retouching. Perfect. Her scalp stings, as it does often, because the thousand grippy puckers are prone to drying and infection. She scratches her scalp, and for the next half hour, applies the BabydollDreamHair patented moisturising scalp lotion, to stave off infection and flaking. The hair implant was worth it. Now she can change her entire hair, look entirely different, all the time. Fresh content drives engagement. Fresh meat for her monsters.
But she hasn’t posted anything new since the surgery. And no content means invisibility in the INSPA promo feeds. Elsie knows this downtime will bleed her followers, her monsters, to Heidi Gutenberg, an influencer that works with the same brands as Elsie, and who, Elsie knows, is jockeying for the contract to be the face of TrueYou.
There is a pulling sensation under Elsie’s left jaw, and her scalp itches. The stinging in her lips returns and Elsie takes two painkillers with a gulp of cold cucumber water.
As she waits for the pain to blunt, Elsie gingerly turns her head, stroking her fingers over her new cheek. There is an oddness to the feel of PlasmaSkin. It is all but numb, she barely feels the touch of her own fingertips, like she is touching herself through a mask. She is disappointed with the amount of feeling she retained. This amount of retention varies from person to person, but in all truth it doesn’t matter. PlasmaSkin is the softest, plumpest, most moisturised skin imaginable. Though her cheek cannot feel her fingers, the pads of her fingers can feel the PlasmaSkin and it is better than skin. It is beyond skin. It will never pimple. Never wrinkle or pock or scar. There is no oil production, so there are no pores. She will be smooth and perfect, always. Ever since she had veneers to cover the gap between her front teeth, Elsie has been on a journey to be happy with the unfiltered reality of her own reflection.
Elsie’s reflection now matches the image she has spent ten years cultivating online. The one she brands and monitors. The image she always wanted to be.
When the pain ebbs on the painkiller-tide, Elsie rises from her vanity and exits her dark bedroom. Her hands find the walls of her tiny, first floor apartment as she walks, palms steadying her, still sore in the left buttock with an ongoing issue she had with her butt-lift procedure three years earlier. She moves into her other bedroom, which is white and very bright. The floorboards cost almost as much as the pool facade in her small yard. The boards gleam beneath fluffy white wool rugs. Curated, inspirational and aggressively tasteful artwork decorate the walls that become the backdrops to most of her INSPA posts.
A garlanded cattle skull with painted green eyes used to hang on the wall, but a brand cultivator advised Elsie the decoration made her less universal. Though Elsie offered the idea it was her outrageous style that first gained her notoriety in the crowded world of INSPA influencers, her brand cultivator advised inaccessibility becomes a problem for sponsors. Elsie removed the skull.
This white, bright bedroom has no curtains and is nearest the roads. This makes it the noisiest place in the apartment, far too loud for sleep, but it has the best lighting and best backdrop. Outside, it rains, and the cars whoosh past on the wet highway.
The bed is covered in crisp white linen and some artfully draped leisurewear. The room has floor to ceiling windows that offer views of her artificial cacti garden and empty lap pool. She can’t afford the water taxes so she just adds the water in post. Reality-water never seems aesthetically pleasing in her photos anyway.
With a great deal of pain, her left buttock implant protesting emphatically, she manoeuvres her body into her sponsor’s (BodyByBri) athletiwear. Posing before a mirror that reflects the empty pool outside, she positions herself in a chair by the window, in profile to camera with the paralysed half of her face hidden from the three-dimensional shot. She takes photos of herself, flashing her sponsored fitness band (EncourageFit) as she pretends to put on her blistering-white trainers (GurlzRun).
Elsie looks directly into the lens, as her engagement consultants have advised. This reaps the most engagement. Her eyes are the trademark of @TheGr33nEyedM0nster. Her head and left buttock are throbbing by the time she has a series of pictures and she retreats to her dark bedroom to work through the process of editing and uploading.
Laying on her side on the bed, she opens the photo into a projected workspace so the giant image of herself hovers over her mattress. An uneasiness fills her. Though the projected woman is beautiful, perfect even, for a moment Elsie feels disconnected from the image. But this is her. This is what she looks like. Elsie peruses herself, zooming in, scrutinising every lump and bump, quietly overjoyed that she needs only minimal edits to her face.
With processing done, she logs into her account in INSPA, @TheGr33nEyedM0nster (followers: 5,988,766) and sets her phone into her sponsored ViewDock. She puts on her virtuosity glasses and all around her, her various streams of photos roll like old film, rising from the ground to the floor. With a gesture, she dives into the feed of Heidi Gutenberg,@GuteForYou (followers: 6,567,998). @GuteForYou is Elsie’s main competition for the TrueYou contract but her latest photo is from three days before. Elsie smiles. Heidi’s engagement rate will be dropping and when it does, Elsie has all but signed the contract, her dream, the face of TrueYou.
Elsie edits her captions. “Feeling great after my facial at @TrueYou! You are #miracleworkers. Time for a run!” She adds some emojis. Prayer Hands. Running Woman. Cartwheeling Woman. Thinking Face. She tags in her sponsors and adds the purchasing links to the items. And then, of course, three Green Heart emojis; her usual sign off.
Next, she spends a great deal of time determining which of the twenty five hashtags she should use, pulling up the metrics and trending items, and using her engagement app to investigate which will have the most investment return with her followers. There are a few givens, #loveyourself, #truebeautyisinside, as she has discussed with her brand cultivator.
There is always a vibrant, primal fear when she posts, the fear that no one will notice, that no one will see her. That her followers will not like her facial. That she will be ignored. That her offering will be lost within the rushing roar of the content storm. She is reduced to that same unhappy existence she inhabited as a teenager, the feeling of disconnection as she huddled within the protective ribs of the art room at lunchtime, painting, listening to lunchtime laughter echoing on the walls and pavement of the school grounds. Alone, Elsie would feel her classmate’s disembodied laughter like a sensation on her skin, as if the sounds of their happiness and togetherness vibrated through the very air to fizz over her in cold shame. The sound mocked her. Made her so trivial and forgotten. Elsie’s body is a stretched by that same fear, she is a pulled rubber band, a tortured expression of tension.
Elsie’s head throbs, her headache fed by the pounding blood of her galloping heart. The sponsored fitness tracker looped around her wrist buzzes, drawing her attention to ask her if she’s stressed. It prompts her to deep-breathe and she does.
Then the likes begin, a trickle, and relief bleeds through her. The likes then flood, and as she watches her rising engagement level, she is overcome with a full body experience of emotion, that she feels even in her PlasmaSkin. She feels joy. Her headache reduces. Her heart slows. And all the pain, all the discomfort, the uneasy experience of seeing her new face in the mirror, it is all worth it.
Happiness is worth it.
Elsie manages a usual approximate 5% engagement rate. Plagued with headaches since the surgery, she’s been unable to engage with the community and her engagement dropped to 3.5%, which is unacceptable. Most of Elsie’s likes are performed by engagement bots she pays a monthly subscription for (there’s no way anyone can view millions of photos per day, let alone enter a like for each into the public consciousness) but Elsie finds if she spends time adding a personal touch it helps her brand and her engagement. So Elsie swallows more pain medication to dull her headaches, and begins interacting with the glowing feeds that scroll around her, swiping likes through projected pictures of sunsets, smiles and puppies.
All the while, notifications of approval conjure in her phone toolbar. Wow they’ve done a great job! I’ve heard of TrueYou, wow, are you in a lot of pain? You look so beautiful! <3 <3 How much? Your eyes are stunning – are those IrisColourUp? She responds, she always does to the first hundred or so comments. They really have! No pain at all, #blessed #lucky. Awww you’re so nice! It will be different for everyone – Make your appointment today (link)! Thank you, but these are my natural eyes not IrisColourUp.
Her TrueYou app flashes an advertisement for IrisColourUp, offering a twenty percent saving because she’s had a recent facial. She pauses, looking at the beautiful eye colours in the adverts, and then dismisses the advertisement. Elsie already has beautiful eyes, and she almost has to remind herself of that. Elsie returns to responding to her monsters’ comments.
The engagement bot flags a notification as a possible negative interaction from a trusted contact. Help ‘engagement bot’ in future by letting us now if this is a negative interaction. View comment?
Elsie frowns, the expression not penetrating the PlasmaSkin. She flicks through to view the comment.
@Zhivagogogo: You don’t look like you.
She blinks at the name. Zhivagogogo. This is Irina. Her Irina, one of her only friends from school. When Elsie first joined INSPA, when @TheGr33nEyedM0nster first came into existence ten years previously, Irina was there. They were the weird girls. They were the unpopular girls. Irina with her flat braids and cringeworthy intensity for Russian literature, and Elsie with her frizzy red hair, gappy teeth and esoteric interest in surrealism. They’d fallen out of touch, but Elsie remembers going on hikes with Irina after school, and laughing with her during sleepovers when they weren’t invited to parties.
The engagement bot pings her to confirm Is this a negative interaction?
Strangeness fills Elsie. She ignores the bot, her mind floats away from the photo and video streams that rise like steam from the floor. Aggrieved somehow, Irina’s comment splinters into Elsie’s mind and festers.
Is this a negative interaction?
Elsie grabs her phone, physically tapping out the response Of course not, I’ve been to TrueYou but before she posts, she deletes, snuffing the words from existence.
What does Irina mean? Elsie doesn’t want to affect her engagement scores with a negative response if it’s unwarranted. However, if a trusted contact is dissing her on public record, and she doesn’t respond, then how will this affect how her monsters see her? How will it affect her engagement scores?
A prickling ache accompanies memories of Irina, like Elsie is coming out of a deep sleep to find her arm completely numb. Irina reminds Elsie of a time best forgotten. But drawn, Elsie sets her phone back into the ViewDock and navigates to Irina’s feed, highlighting her photos among the glowing noise.
Irina still bushwalks and most of her content is sunset lookouts, lushly overgrown trails or fire lit campsites. Elsie searches for recent depiction of Irina amidst bushlands and soft-feathered birds, and when she does (a selfie of Irina on a rocky summit overlooking a vast red valley) she finds, with some surprise, that Irina still has the same shoulder length mop of dirty blonde hair. That hair, which could be stunning with some treatment and the proper tools, is pulled sharply back in an unflattering way. In the picture, Irina’s face is pink and sweaty with exertion and joy and perhaps sunburn. Wrinkles edge her eyes, and she is summer-freckled.
Elsie remembers bushwalking with Irina, in the small town where they grew up. The two girls were close, but after the death of Elsie’s mother they entwined. Inseparably. If not for Irina, Elsie would’ve drowned in the shock of the loss. Irina believed in the healing beauty of nature and she always dragged Elsie to a lookout over the river. It was a hard climb that always had Elsie struggling. Irina believed happiness was found through physical exertion and hard work. When they summited the lookout, huffing through blistering lungs, Irina would beam triumphantly at Elsie. It was impossible not to be swallowed up by her happiness.
In the picture, Irina has that same victorious air. She exudes wonder and though Irina is sweaty and red, Elsie smiles at her. It is a reflex. There is a beauty about Irina, though not one that could be utilised by any sort of influencer. People don’t want to see red and sweaty women and accordingly, Irina has barely any followers, mostly just friends and family, and some of the names Elsie doesn’t recognise.
Elsie presses her lips together, very tightly, and frowns deeply enough the expression penetrates the PlasmaSkin. The TRUEYOU app flashes a notification, reminding her to keep her features neutral while her new face is settling. She releases her expression, letting it evaporate from her face. She takes a deep breath.
A notification rises from the floor and hovers before her face. Accept DM from trusted contact @Zhivagogogo?
Grabbing her phone, she accepts the DM. It’s a picture with the caption Remember this? An old picture. From when Elsie first started the @TheGr33nEyedM0nster account, when it was only for Elsie, Elsie’s family and Elsie’s very few friends, of which Irina was one. Irina has sent her a picture of the two of them, sitting before Elsie’s twelfth birthday cake, with Elsie’s mother in the background.
In the picture, Irina is beaming and has her mop of blond hair pulled sharply back from her forehead, while Elsie’s natural red hair is an untamed halo aglow from the cake’s candles. Elsie’s freckled face is cracked with laughter, baring her teeth.
It is like looking at someone Elsie used to know. It is like looking into a distortion filter. Or a mirror, cracked. Realising she is looking at herself startles Elsie.
The feeds keep rising up around her, fresh glowing smiles and sunsets but Elsie is transfixed. Elsie uses two fingers to zoom into her old face and cringes as this highlights that horrible gap in her front teeth. How she hated that gap. A gap, huge and ugly. Dark. An all-consuming abyss in the middle of her face.
When she created the account, her feed was targeted by INSPA, she knows, to show advertisements about veneers, about healthy, happy smiles, giving her information that gaps in teeth were less desirable. Elsie didn’t realise at the time that there are formulas running in the background, searching pictures and applying templates to people’s faces and bodies, to help discover who deviated from the norm. Behind the engagement scores, INSPA worked helpful algorithms to match providers with people, to match solutions to issues. It was easy enough to understand; people with overlarge ears were targeted with the feeds of INSPA influencers who’d had their ears pinned and with surgeons who would offer services. Gap toothed smiles were identified the same way flat and undesirable butts were; AI image libraries. INSPA used artificial intelligence to comb through millions of photos to compare and contrast subject against the norm. It offered users the ability to assess themselves against others, to connect with others who didn’t like certain things about themselves; their ears or their weight or their hip to waist ratio. INSPA works with providers like TrueYou to offer users the happiness that comes with modifying their less desirable features.
If the users choose, of course.
But who wouldn’t choose to be happy?
Elsie considers her gappy smile and then looks beyond herself, seeing her mother. Her mother died shortly after that birthday, and as usual, Elsie feels a pang of loss, a sinking of razored teeth into her heart. She realises her mother has a gap between her teeth and frowns, conjuring another notification from TrueYou to keep her face neutral. She doesn’t remember the gap, it doesn’t stand out in her memory of her mother. Her mother had a beautiful smile that would light up her entire face, all the way to her green, green eyes.
Her mother’s wild red hair is partially shadowed but it is the same as Elsie’s own. Wiry and coarse looking. Without curls or treatment. Elsie absently strokes her slippery, jet-black hair and considers how similar she and her mother seem in the photo. The red hair was obvious, of course, but after spending months looking at TrueYou facial constructions, she is terribly aware of faces. The structure of their faces is similar. They have the same broad foreheads, the same cheekbones. They each have round chins, the soft glow from the candles lighting them like the curve of fragile eggs. Their jaws are square. And their eyes, their eyes are green. But all these features combine in her mother’s face in such a beautiful way. She looks like no one else. Elsie feels a terrible tug within her at this, like she is being pulled underwater to drown.
Looking at this photo is like looking at ghosts. These people no longer exist, in multiple ways. Except maybe Irina. Irina looks the same. Elsie regards the photo and then enters her response into the DM bar.
@TheGr33nEyedM0nster: wild huh? Haven’t seen this in years. I look so weird. That gap in my teeth!
Dots flicker at the bottom of the screen, signalling that Irina is typing. Then the dots stop and disappear. Irina has deleted her text.
Elsie feels a tug of disappointment, of judgement, but she just sniffs and puts her phone screen to sleep.
With some pain, she has been sitting still too long, she stands and goes into the small kitchen. Elsie sets her hands on the cold granite countertop and tries to stretch out her left buttock, feeling the shifting implant with her fingers, all but resigning herself for another surgery to fix it. But afterwards, she will be happy. She will be finished and whole.
She moves like an old woman, and this reminds Elsie vaguely of her grandmother, until she glances her reflection in the mirror shine of the fridge and sees herself looking back. Green eyes blink, and she holds her own gaze. She accepts she looks so different from the photo Irina sent. She doesn’t look like herself, and so she doesn’t look like her mother.
A strange tightness seizes within her chest and she absently palms her sternum.
With as minimal motion as possible, she prepares and drinks a chalky-tasting protein shake. She drinks this though a washable metal straw, staring at nothing in particular.
After a long time, she opens the INSPA app again, placing the phone in her kitchen ViewDock so she can see the scrolling feeds of her monsters, of her competition, of anyone important at all. But something is tugging, worrying at her.
She pulls up Irina’s DM conversation so the glowing panel hovers over the sink and she opens the old photo again, seeing her mother. Herself. Her old self. Sadness crowds her heart, her ribs suddenly too small to contain all of her emotion. She gestures to zoom in on herself, sees herself laughing, baring that horrible gap in her teeth. Elsie stands before the projected picture, feeling like she is looking through a doorway into some other, unknown world. This is not how Elsie looks anymore. For the first time, Elsie wonders what happened to her face, this face, her old face. Is it in shreds? Discarded and flaccid in the bottom of a medical waste bin? The face with it’s features so similar to her mothers?
A terrible feeling splits Elsie like an axe cleaving into a tree. Looking into this strange mirror is infecting her with something awful, a slither of doom grips her organs, and she is panting like there is something about to attack her, something she can’t quite see. Can’t focus on. She feels suddenly very alone, like the girl she was at school had been, listening to the echoes of lunchtime laughter outside the art room.
The conversation dots begin flickering again. Irina formulating her thoughts. Elsie sips at her protein shake and her hands are shaking so much the metal straw rattles her teeth.
From the corner of her eye she sees the rising steam of INSPA scrolls carries a video of the smiling Heidi Gutenberg. Elsie’s head whips to it immediately and she frowns. Her heart pounds. Her TrueYou app pings a notification to quell her expression but Elsie ignores it.
Heidi’s smile grows as she tips her head back and forth in the video.
Heidi’s eyes are sunburst yellow. No, more than that. They flash like a fire. They are the deep red-orange of glowing coals, then the blue flame of a butane torch and then they shimmer to become the cruel gold lick of a flame.
Elsie’s breathing increases. The gulp of chalky protein shake suckers to the back of her throat like drying cement. She reads Heidi’s caption.
Cat’s out the bag! (Cat emoji), but I’m happy to be the new face of TrueYou! #FireEyes #IrisColourUp #TrueYou #loveyourself
Likes and comments flood Heidi’s feed, far more than for Elsie, the numbers ticking up so fast it is like watching a tiger pouncing on a sick antelope. There is so much love for her. More than Elsie could ever dream. Elsie feels very far away. It is noisy in her small apartment, she can hear the sound of cars on the wet highway outside like a roar.
In the DM conversation with Irina, the flickering conversation dots are replaced by text but Elsie doesn’t even notice. Her attention is on the advertisements that pepper her streaming INSPA feeds. Advertisements for IrisColourUp, people with flashing, colourful eyes. Heidi’s smiling, perfectly joyous face. Noticing Elsie is viewing content about iris implants, her TrueYou app flashes another advertisement.
Eyes are the windows to the soul! Become the best version of yourself! Make your appointment for IrisColourUp today!
Elsie navigates through to the TrueYou website and begins to browse the IrisColourUp selection, her DM with Irina forgotten completely.
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