This is probably the worst moment in human history to be ugly. Not that looking busted ever helped anyone; I’m sure the hottest serfs in Prussia got better plots of land and the sexiest Mesopotamians landed extra hunks of goat at the feast. But now, in our overwhelmingly visual and virtual culture, the pressure to appear camera-ready has reached a new level of intensity. Cosmetic procedures are no big deal. Weight loss injections are a full-blown fad. People meet their partners by taking a glance at their photo and swiping yes or no. A long-running reality show’s whole gimmick is that judges rank musical artists without seeing them, since it’s so obvious to everyone that how we look determines how we’re treated. The shrugging attitude so many people have toward beautifying body modifications have made homeliness feel downright antisocial. If it’s easier than ever to change how you look, well then—why don’t you look better, huh?
The dominant beauty ideal of this era is the Instagram face. Poreless, polished, Kardashianesque, it is at once almost within reach (give or take several syringes of filler and several thousands of dollars) and completely unattainable (nobody actually looks like they do on the internet, even Kim Kardashian). Instagram face seems a natural subject for contemporary body horror, in the same way that so many new slasher flicks are now set at Airbnbs. It’s chilling on a conceptual level—conformity through consumerism, the commodification of self, and all that—but it’s also a forthrightly gory, Cronenbergian undertaking. So many of the procedures, programs, and treatments undertaken to get this look involve needles, blood, hunger, and pain.
Two recent debut novels have tapped into the Gothic side of beauty and wellness culture, prime examples of a new literary trend: Goopcore body horror. Both stories follow women enthralled by Svengali-like figures who encourage them to take extreme measures to embody beauty standards, with horrific results. Allie Rowbottom’s Aesthetica, released late last year, imagines a washed-up Instagram influencer in Los Angeles named Anna, who is preparing to undergo an experimental surgery called Aesthetica. She so yearns to return to a more natural form that she is willing to risk her life to recover an earlier version of herself.
Aesthetica opens on Anna in the present day, on the eve of her surgery. In flashbacks, we see how Anna gets her start as a social media star. She meets a slick himbo named Jake, who pays for her breast implants, insists that “bad vibes had the potential to manifest bad realities,” and pressures her into gigs where she’ll be exploited and worse. Rowbottom captures the vapid “DM for collab?” vocabulary of the #spon set, which makes reading Aesthetica both an authentic and unpleasant aesthetic experience. (A representative excerpt: “He drove, I sang ‘Vegas Baby’ to the camera, and posted. 200 likes, 427, 600.” Ew!)
Filtered through Anna’s narrative voice, all the bodies in Aesthetica are appraised harshly, as though un-airbrushed flesh is automatically gross. Before her procedure, she is startled looking at her own “dimples, ripples, reminders of masks and knives and wrist ties.” Her cancer-addled mother Naurene is “yellow as an Easter egg” when she’s in the hospital; her old friend Leah has the “furred” forearms of an anorexic. She observes a group of strangers and thinks about what she would suggest they do to look better: “Rhinoplasty, I diagnose when I look at one. Brow lift, I silently suggest for another. Buccal fat pad removal.”
Some of the writing reminds me of K. Allado-McDowell’s 2022 novel Amor Cringe, which was written with ChatGPT. Like Aesthetica, Amor Cringe also focuses on an influencer adrift in Southern California. Both novels use deliberately cringey language to convey the gale-force banality of this lifestyle. While Amor Cringe reads like a language experiment, Aesthetica has a heart beneath its layers of hyaluronic acid and silicon.
Anna’s relationship with her mother is vexed and tender, as is a friendship she renews with a childhood pal; their disappointment in the lifestyle she’s pursuing underlines how much potential others see in her. She is tethered to her influencer life, but also often more thoughtful than what people see on the screen, and her great error is her inability to see her own capacity for depth.
Even in dire real-life circumstances, like when she’s visiting her mom in the ICU, Anna cannot help thinking about what’s happening in terms of how it might look on Instagram. In one of the book’s most unsettling scenes, she records herself tending to her ailing mother, hoping she can harvest content from the encounter to make herself more likable; she ends up deleting the video after her mother begins to vomit uncontrollably. There’s nothing supernatural afoot in Aesthetica, but when Anna slurs “I’m a star” while high on Percocet, staring at her phone, proud of her own worst impulses, it’s as terrifying as any tale of a woman in thrall to wicked powers.
In Ling Ling Huang’s debut novel Natural Beauty, out this month, the beauty world’s menace is even more intense. Huang’s narrator is a musical prodigy in New York, raised in poverty by two kind parents who immigrated from China; she is unnamed for most of the book, but eventually adopts the moniker “Anna,” too, after she’s encouraged to pick a name that is easy for white shoppers to pronounce. After her mother and father are severely injured in a car accident, Anna stops studying piano and takes a job in a restaurant to pay her bills. She stumbles upon an opportunity to work at a wellness startup called Holistik, where affluent customers indulge in beautifying treatments like vernix facial wraps, stoma vacuum sealing, and pubic hair transplants, where human pubes are upgraded to mink fur.
While Aesthetica’s Anna has the preening, narcissistic Jake as its FaceTuned Mephistopheles, Natural Beauty’s Anna is lured into the treacherous, gleaming world of Holistik by a preening, narcissistic woman known as Saje. Just as Aesthetica’s Anna is cajoled into body modifications, Natural Beauty’s Anna is pressured to use Holistik’s products and procedures, including a number of bizarre and invasive treatments. (On her first day, a team in lab coats subjects her to a full-body scan and brusquely asks if she’s “afraid of worms.”) She starts to look like an entirely different person. Just as Aesthetica’s Anna is initially enamored with her medspa-assisted looks, Natural Beauty’s Anna marvels at what Holistik does for her. “Whatever I have been taking is buffing away the grime of an ordinary existence from the outside in,” she says.
Of course, she isn’t ever quite sure what she’s taking. Or how it’s working. Or what the side effects really are. Natural Beauty spirals into a nightmare, complete with unethical animal experimentation, toxic potions, and piles of corpses.
Like the beauty elixirs Holistik sells, at times the novel seems like it would work better with fewer ingredients. Saje is the company’s public face, but Holistik really belongs to a shadowy man named Victor Carroll. His twin niece and nephew, Helen and Henry, enter Anna’s life at the same time and in an odd way. Anna matches with Henry on a dating app; after they have sex, she then encounters Helen taking a bath in the siblings’ shared apartment. Not only does Helen not mind that this random girl has interrupted her bath after sleeping with her brother, she then decides to be friends with her—and doesn’t bat an eye when it turns out that the random girl also works for her incredibly wealthy and powerful uncle. Henry never emerges as more than an unnecessarily complicated plot device to bring Helen and Anna together; his presence in the novel comes off as a leftover plot point from an earlier draft.
Quibbles aside, Natural Beauty is a delightfully baroque grotesque. It can achieve a folkloric power in its creepiest moments—a scary story you’d tell in a posh spa’s sauna instead of around a campfire.
These aren’t the first spooky stories exploring how horrifying our pursuit of beauty can be. (Remember the 1993 major motion picture Death Becomes Her? An early classic in the Goopcore body horror canon!) But read in tandem, Aesthetica and Natural Beauty illuminate just how extravagantly repulsive the “grime of an ordinary existence,” as Natural Beauty’s Anna puts it, is right now, so much so that people will ignore all sorts of ethical hideousness in order to appear superficially polished-up. In their finest moments, these books exhume old wisdom for the social media crowd: What makes us feel beautiful should also make us feel afraid.