'Uglies' Foretold Our Obsession with Instagram Filters and Plastic Surgery

For the book's 15th anniversary, author Scott Westerfeld talked to VICE about its image-obsessed dystopia.
Bettina Makalintal
Brooklyn, US
Photo by the author; author photo courtesy Scholastic

With the release of Uglies in February 2005, author Scott Westerfeld introduced us to the world of Uglies and Pretties: a future society in which one's sixteenth birthday meant a compulsory cosmetic surgery to become beautiful, and where prettiness led to power and resources. Following 15-year-old protagonist Tally Youngblood, Uglies and its three sequels (Pretties, Specials, and Extras) prompted young readers to lift the veil on conformity, beauty, and privilege and to question: What's the price of beauty?


Fifteen years later, face filters that slim some parts and plump others are a social media norm, and start-ups seek to make cosmetic procedures as commonplace as a blow-out. The world of Uglies doesn't feel dissimilar to what the New Yorker's Jia Tolentino has dubbed "the age of Instagram face." For the book's anniversary, Westerfeld talked with VICE about Uglies' resonance and why he's decided to revisit its world in his new series, Imposters. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

VICE: What about Uglies do you think is the most resonant today?

Scott Westerfeld: When I first wrote [in 2003], like when it came out, it was very much a literal thing. It was about the prevalence of plastic surgery and about the fact that there's going to come a time in our species' history, fairly soon, when we get to decide how we look, in the same way we decide how we dress.

In the 15 years since then, something else has appeared on the technological horizon that's less literal and I think is more interesting, which is our presentation of our virtual selves: the way people use Facetuning or a bit of Photoshop—or whatever the latest app is that changes the way your face looks online—and the way that creates a lot of the same kinds of anxieties and performances that plastic surgery does. A lot of people respond to Uglies now as a metaphor for Instagram rather than a more literal cautionary tale about plastic surgery.


You hadn't been thinking about a social media platform where people would be editing their faces to the extent they do now, right?

There is a scene in Uglies where the two characters do edit their faces electronically, but it's very much that they're preparing themselves mentally for when they will have new faces surgically. In a funny way, what's happening in technology sort of did get foreshadowed in the book because I was just thinking about the way this would actually happen.

Has the normalizing of plastic surgery surprised you?

No, it's exactly what I assumed would happen [laughs].

Does that worry you at all?

It's definitely inevitable, and anytime a lot of people start using technology, there are unexpected consequences, health-wise and environment-wise—whether it's cars of personal communication devices. One thing that does kind of pop out at me is the idea that people with plastic surgery will become a class marker. All of those valances of power and performance and self-identity will just copy themselves from fashion to cosmetic surgery.

Do you think teenagers now are more interested in stories about social stratification?

I think they've always been extremely aware of—and interested in—anything having to do with power, to make it simple, because high school can be very red in tooth and claw in terms of the kinds of social power.

It's very raw when you're a kid and another kid has money or social status or whatever it is that you don't have, because you don't have the defenses and you have no control over it. Teenagers in general are very aware of inequities and power arrangements because so many people have power over them, whether it's teachers and gym coaches or parents.


Do you think that makes teenagers an interesting group to write for?

Yeah. Teenagers are also questioning the way the world works. They didn't build this system, so when the system is doing patently weird stuff, like ignoring climate change, they are among the most likely to say, "What are we doing here?" The weirdness of the world is still super apparent to them.

What made you want to return to the Uglies world?

The tensions in that society are resolved by the revolution that Tally Youngblood leads and so I put that world in the "solved" category. Then, as our present-day world—which, you know, had felt more or less stable 20 years ago—began to unravel in the ways that it has, it seemed like, "Oh yeah, I bet the Uglies world is unraveling too in a lot of the same ways."

What trends are you drawing upon now as you explore that question?

The book is called Imposters and it's about two twin sisters who occupy one identity. Much like the Uglies, it's about identity and it's about our insides and our outsides, and in a way, it's a metaphor for our public selves and our private selves.

With your new work, what do you want teenagers to question?

I think the main thing that binds most of my work is the difference between reality and appearances, the fact that you cannot look at someone and know their story. Knowing someone and knowing what's going on in the world—and any kind of knowing—requires more than just a glance.

In 2020, are we closer to the dystopia you describe in Uglies ?

We're closer to a dystopia. I feel like the dystopia in Uglies was really well run. It was a competent dystopia, and we are clearly moving towards a much less competent dystopia. It's much more, "This is the omnishambles dystopia."

That makes sense.

That's another reason why I wrote Imposters, because [it] is set after that system has fallen apart and in a situation that's much more inherently chaotic, whereas Uglies had that smoothed down, fairytale feel. The Imposters series is more about a world where things are shakier and where nobody knows quite what is supposed to be going on, which is probably closer to where we are now.