Degrees of Beauty
Art by Jason Arias


This story is over 5 years old.

Degrees of Beauty

The age of vanity, biohacking, and lifestyle blogs takes its ultimate fashion victim.

In the age of lifestyle Pinterest and streaming reality tv, the beauty industry has never been more savage, self image more under siege. Today's dispatch is a razor-sharp look at a future ruled by vanity, biohacking, and fashion vlogs. Enjoy. -the editor

Pretty but not pretty enough, Bai Ling thinks, looking over to where her daughter lies sleeping, knees to breast, a whimper between her teeth. Around her throat, a necklace of bruises, teeth-marks on the nubs of her shoulders, battle-scars of the 22nd century.


Bai Ling tours an armada of glossy brochures, ricocheting between clinics, circling procedures, underlining discounts. She has a plan.

Blepharoplasty to divide the monolid, sharpen the epicanthic fold. FDA-approved tinctures in the iris: indigo with constellations of hypoallergenic gold, all to tempt the camera's attention. And eyelash transplants too, of course, Mediterranean-thick, so much more appealing than fine Asian hair.

On a notebook, she pencils more radical suggestions: dilation of the orbital bones, deepening of the sockets, modifications to manufacture the illusion of vulnerability. Fashion craves victims, vestal virgins to hang in garlands of silk.

These will have to be discussed, but Bai Ling already knows she will get her way.


The surgeries are a triumph.

The media adores Bai Ling's daughter: "feral" fox-child, inkstroke lines and no meat at all, only bones to dress in satin. Her eyes, inhuman, carrying galaxies; jewels in a cross-continental setting. Utterly novel.

If she occasionally falters under the strobe of the cameras, if she winces from the spotlights, haunted or hungry, no one is crass enough to comment. Art is pain, everyone knows that.


It's still not enough, of course. The accolades refine to critique: how the eyes fail to match the face, the thin-lipped smile, the nose like soft dough squashed against bone.

"Just a little longer," Bai Ling whispers to her daughter, their fingers twinned.



The mouth is easiest to correct: a quick injection of synthetic collagen, perfectly rote, uniquely uncontroversial. They return Bai Ling's daughter in hours, tongue drooling between white teeth; her clothes vacuum-packed, a note between the fresh-washed fabric.

Introducing mild overbite may improve recognition profile.

Bai Ling does not think twice. She sends her daughter back immediately.


They are mesmerized. Tabloids and fashion rags, gleaming as a lie, stitch a prophecy for Bai Ling's daughter: a lifetime of cover shots and television appearances. Who is this nymph that's been extracted from reality show drivel?

Still, pity about that nose. And the breasts. All so flat, like paddy fields and rural economies. A farmer's child, surely, river silt running thickly through her veins. Or so Bai Ling trembles through every article, knuckles bleached white by hate. She has come so far and they have achieved so much. And her daughter. Ah, her darling. So much she has sacrificed, so many nights consecrated to alcohol and curious fingers, to smiling at nameless men with black shoes and black gazes, polished to the shine of a shark's dead eyes.

They've given so much.

How can they stop now?

The body is a truth that can be bent, the new media an instrument to be played by the wise.


The next surgeries are harder.

The nose is broken, reset; the nasal bridge lengthened, nostrils rotated to a respectable elevation. Scarlett Johansson's nose, down to a keratin fibre.


The breasts are engorged. Saline, not silicone. Pliancy must be preserved.

And the hair. There's nothing that can be done about that straight, lank hair. Nothing, at least, that might take effect in weeks. But Bai Ling will not be dissuaded. She drags her daughter through a gauntlet of hairdressers. She drenches her in dye, cooks her hair into stately spirals, too crisp to stay, but nothing that the proper creams cannot disguise.

"You're beautiful."

Bai Ling's daughter trembles under her touch.


Bai Ling drinks for the first time in her life when they announce her daughter as a breakout phenomenon, three years too late, Hollywood's best next thing. Framed in the mouth of the television, she is unrecognizable, silk foaming at her hips, a ruff of tulle coiled like a noose at her neck. Untouchable, impossible, a wet dream poured into four-inch stilettos. Not a peasant's daughter, a goddess.

Her daughter does not speak during the presentation, but no one comments—they are too impressed with the husband revealed on the stage. Now, there are two perfect people, gorgeous as no other, triple-tested to ensure an absence of disease. Adam and Eve, crowdsourced by tastemakers.

One blog notes that Bai Ling's daughter fails to smile, eyes vacant. Nerves, they write, of the ghost-bride on stage, probably.



Bai Ling strokes fingers across her daughter's waxen cheek, cool but not rigid, still closer to human than not. Her throat is bruise-ringed, indigo-kissed; the rope had pulled tight, cut deep and ragged. Beautiful still, Bai Ling thinks. Like one of those anatomical Venuses.


She does not ask the corpse why. Instead, Bai Ling picks up her phone. The body is a tool. Flesh is malleable. Flesh is a tool. Bai Ling's daughter, eyes rolled up in her head, could be mistaken for sleeping child.


She is in recovery for nine weeks.

They pump nutrition through a venous catheter, install a palette of esters below her tongue. It is important to keep the saliva glands operational.

Twice, she is returned under the scalpel. Once to adjust the distribution of saline in her breasts, the second time to cull a rash of necrotic tissue. The doctors hybridize stem cells, hers and hers, a careful tessellation of genomes; they wedge the replicator behind her ribs. Pray.

It works.

Twelve weeks later, Bai Ling emerges from the hospital, dressed in her dead daughter's skin. They have never been so beautiful. Fawn-legged, she totters into the paparazzi's arms, signature smile still brilliant. If the bridge of her nose appears a little straighter, if her voice seems deeper, no one says so. As long as she is beautiful.