Dorcas Gebb stared at her reflection in the mirror, her bare face still shiny and glistening from yesterday’s night cream. She had a decent enough face even if it lacked the actual beauty. That she had to paint on with about 28 expensive products that swallowed the lion’s share of her disposable income. Dorcas wasn’t ugly, that’s what she told herself as she applied the cleanser and massaged the suds into her patchy red cheeks. She was a good canvas, plain enough to be easily drawn on. While other girls might have to navigate obstacles like full lips, defined brows, strong noses, and long eyelashes, Dorcas had few striking landmarks. She was plain in the most basic sense: that there was nothing ultimately that notable about her.
Toner and day cream, primer and foundation. Dorcas had gotten good at the routine. Skincare was the foundation of all beauty right? That’s what the YouTubers said as they went through seven step morning processes with serums, glycolic acid wipes, face masks, and frozen spoons. Of course, the three fundamental steps towards good skin ultimately depended on sleep, hydration, and sunscreen. Dorcas didn’t sleep and had trouble drinking water, but she generally never went outside so sun damage wasn’t a notable hazard. She lived a sedentary life navigating between parking lots and buildings, sitting in windowless classrooms and tucked away cubicles under the ever present flicker of fluorescent lights. No risk of sun damage if you never see the sun.
She leaned in, pressing her long manicured finger at a zit that had cropped up overnight. She cursed under her breath, desperately repressing the urge to pinch the pimple between the nails of her index fingers. It was an intense urge. Dorcas could feel the itch inside her skin. Just a little bit of force between her long nails at the right spot, a relentless pressure insensible to pain, and that zit would burst, releasing a long rope of sebum that could be flicked away. Her fingers twitched at the thought, the satisfaction she knew she would feel as the pustule popped. Dorcas forced her hands down, barely becoming conscious in time that her nails had closed in on the pimple ready to violently pop it.
That was bad. Bad. Bad. Dorcas knew better. She reluctantly reached for the 10% benzoyl peroxide spot cream, dabbing it on with frustrated strokes. She had pretty good skin generally. Even in high school she had been unusually blessed with a good complexion that needed no skincare routine at all. But Dorcas was closing in on her 23rd birthday and she read that women began losing collagen by 25. Luck couldn’t be counted on long term. A responsible adult did responsible things like have a skincare routine and balance a budget. Dorcas wasn’t so good at the latter, mainly due to her propensity to spend a hundred dollars or more on six step moisturizers, but when you are a lonely single woman who doesn’t drink or go out, you can justify a splurge.
At least her face wasn’t covered in scars like other parts of her body. Dorcas tugged down the sleeve of her dressing gown, self-conscious despite her isolation. She did her best to ignore the tweezers kept carefully hidden in the back of her makeup drawer. There was a time when Dorcas was an adolescent, that the presence of tweezers in her bathroom would lead to a brutal confrontation with her mother. Dorcas lived alone now, but she still reflexively hid her tweezers as a matter of habit. It was for the best.
Dorcas began the painstaking process of daubing on concealer beneath her eyes, which were perpetually plagued by dark circles and puffiness. There was a certain grey tinge to her skin that had to be hidden beneath careful applications of tinted matte cream. She had the eyes of an insomniac, cavernous and bulging at the same time, red capillaries veining the skin beneath. Her ex-boyfriend once commented that she had Gollum eyes. Crazy eyes, so large and intense set that they were off-putting. He said she should squint in photos so she’d look less like a psychotic murderer.
He was also the ex-boyfriend who told her she was too fat at the time to date publicly, and that he wanted her to lose at least 30 pounds before they became official. Dorcas still felt her jaw tighten at just the memory, as she swept the beauty blender across the surface of her cheek.
Norman wanted her to be pretty. A twist of defiance made her scowl in the mirror, even as she swept a thick coat of setting powder across her complexion. Norman thought she wasn’t good enough, that she didn’t care enough about herself to stay pretty. Even when she showed him the the thin white lines that littered her stomach and thighs as proof of how much she desperately cared…
Dorcas cared. Dorcas always cared.
Be pretty, that’s all people cared about. Dorcas swept a taupe shade across her eyelid, then a subtle sienna across the crease. At the end of the day, pretty was all that mattered. It’s what mattered to her mother, when she’d force Dorcas to weigh each morning and berate her for being up half a pound. It’s why Dorcas wore Spanx at age ten. It’s why she fasted until she fainted in high school. Pretty, pretty, pretty. The number on the scale determined how much she would be loved that day. That was a fact as irrefutable as the gravity pulling every pound of her towards the earth’s core.
The eyelash curler pinched the thin skin of her lids. The mascara pulled the sparse lashes up. Dorcas cursed her fourteen year old self who would obsessively pull out the eyelashes, pull out the hairs of her brows. That had been a time when she was less judicious about where she should focus her obsessive need to pluck out hairs. She could take her sharp tweezers or ragged fingernails and rip into her raw scourged skin as much as she wanted in those hidden places that would be covered, but it was a sin to take such fixations to the face. The face had to be protected, the face had to be preserved.
Yet in other regions of her body, the surface of her skin was covered in the circular indentions where she had scoured the flesh, digging into the skin to obsessively pluck hairs. Rip them out, rip them out, the little black follicles with their fat black bulbs buried deep under the surface. She cared little that she was clawing into her skin and leaving mutilations all over her legs, stomach, and arms. She just cared about the hairs. The hairs had to be uprooted. The more ingrown, the more satisfying. She could spend hours plucking, picking, digging until her skin was raw and bleeding and her counter was covered with a neat line of millimeter long hairs she had excavated. She would study them, their width, their length, their darkness of color. She especially loved when she could get the whole follicle, with a bit of dangling meat for good measure. The pain didn’t matter. The more painful the pick, the more satisfying it ultimately was.
That had been a bad habit, though. Dorcas knew that now. She had been picking since she was four years old and even though it calmed her immensely, it had to end. People noticed. Dorcas couldn’t wear shorts without comment. It was embarrassing her mother. Dorcas only picked occasionally now, always confining it to the most hidden areas. Still, the scars remained, dark as cigarette burns. Every so often Dorcas would discover a hair that disgusted her so immensely that it had to be ripped out, but her efforts were much more limited now. She waxed and shaved instead.
She peeled her false eyelashes from the palette, pulling the brush of clear glue across the band of delicate hairs. Applying false eyelashes still required a prayer, pressing them on top of her depleted natural lashes coated with enough makeup to provide a strong enough base. Yet Dorcas was steadily improving. It had been months since the last time she disastrously glued her eyes shut. Blinking quickly, her mouth tugged up as she celebrated a perfect application. As she drew on her eyebrows in practiced hair-like strokes, she felt satisfied in how vastly improved her eyes were by the presence of lashes. Gollum certainly could not have applied falsies so well.
As the last swipe of nude lipstick was swept in careful lines across her mouth, Dorcas stepped back, smiling her practiced photo smile as she tried to determine if her teeth had been stained. She turned her head towards various angles, noting that her left side should ultimately lead in photos and conversations. Heaven forbid she ever lead with her grotesquely ugly right side which had a perceptible asymmetry on her jaw and cheekbone. She squinted her eyes when she smiled, which made her smile look more authentic, rehearsing her jokes and practicing her laugh.
Her hair came easier because it was fine and thin. Other girls might have to struggle with thick, lustrous hair that refused to surrender to curling irons and teasing, but Dorcas’ hair had long learned to bend to her will. She backcombed it aggressively, forcing it to plump and volumize with practiced ease. The hot curling iron sizzled as she wrapped the submissive strands around the 350 degree rod. Past accidents had taught her to be deft. Up until she was eighteen years old, Dorcas had never learned how to curl her hair. All through her childhood and adolescence, she would sit on a pedestal in her mother’s bathroom as her mother curled it. It was their daily ritual, the older woman styling her daughter’s hair as she talked about her expectations for Dorcas’ conduct.
Beauty hurts. That’s what her mother said as the curling iron burned her scalp or the pins dug in sharply. Dolls don’t cry, neither did Dorcas.
When Dorcas started high school, she told her mother that she wanted to do her own hair. One screaming confrontation and slammed door later, Dorcas had come back repentant of her ingratitude and recapitulated to daily styling. It was always easier to submit. Her mother’s anger could be frightening, and any gestures towards independence would be construed as betrayal. As her mother would brush her daughter’s hair, she repeated again and again that she just wanted Dorcas to be beautiful. It took years for Dorcas to summon the courage to pick up the iron herself. A few first degree burns on her face had been the price of learning.
Dorcas glanced at the dark scar on her hand, a thick line marring the pale smoothness of her skin. She remembered that burn vividly, second degree and more painful than anything. She remembered how her mother had screamed at her that terrible week after she had broken up with Norman. He was her soulmate, that’s what her mother said. He was the only man capable of loving her, especially considering the degradation of her appearance. Dorcas could almost hear her mother’s furious fists pounding against her bathroom door as she called Dorcas a selfish, evil girl who was spitting in the face of God and his will for her life.
Dorcas had curled her hair even as the tears streamed down her face then. Stupid, ugly girl. Worthless piece of shit. No one else will want you. He barely wanted you. Dorcas did not remember how she had burned herself, whether the iron had slipped or she had pressed it to her skin, but she remembered the searing pain blossoming on her left hand.
Second degree burn. Flesh curling away white and red. Her mother’s hands around hers, washing it under the sink, her voice suddenly soft and cooing. How old had Dorcas been then? 21? Her mother wrapped her hand and kissed it like a boo boo. Dorcas once again found herself on the pedestal, her hair being teased up by her mother’s hands. That had been her last year living at home, when Dorcas slipped through life as numb and powerless as a ghost, wishing only to disappear.
Dorcas brushed out the curls with her wide paddle brush, leaving her hair smooth and wavy, just soft enough to be plausibly claimed as natural and not the product of half an hour of effort. She pinned it just so, spraying it in place with finishing spray that claimed to bring shine and luster to dull damaged hair.
Dull and damaged, Dorcas giggled to herself. That would be a good self-deprecating joke. “I think my hair is a reflection of my spirit. I’m dull and damaged, but I am uplifted by the right expensive chemicals.” It was like her often recited joke about her coffee, “I like my coffee black and bitter, just like my soul.”
Dorcas took a final appraising look in the mirror. She looked effortless, didn’t she? All the brushstrokes were hidden, all the obvious tones muted. “I woke up like this,” she mumbled to herself, “No I’m not wearing makeup. I guess my hair is just naturally wavy.” Not that she’d actually say these things because people ultimately never asked. People rarely talked to her much anyway.
Gingerly she opened up her dressing gown and looked at herself in her underwear. She had lost a lot of weight in recent months. Not enough to really matter, of course, but enough to take her from a size 14 to an occasional size 6. Really, if she was honest with herself, she was a size 8 but if she skipped a few meals she could button those size 6 jeans and that’s what really mattered. Her stomach was still bulgy and her arms were fat, but she had remarkably toned legs. Clothed and carefully winched into shapewear, she had the body of a thrift-store Marilyn Monroe, all soft curves that begged to be touched. Not that anybody was touching those curves. Norman had been the last and he made it abundantly clear that her body was disgusting, but Dorcas could imagine some man might theoretically want to touch her. Stranger things happen and if the internet was any metric, enough men found her attractive enough to offer her good money for pictures after she had posted before and afters of her most recent weight loss.
Dorcas supposed that she should feel disgusted by how her DM inbox was flooded with men saying they jerked off to her rather conservative photos of herself in a tight-ish dress. She found it more gratifying than insulting when they offered her money to see her naked. The internet was filled with beautiful women to jerk off to but some rando wanted to masturbate to her. As stupid as it was, she was deeply heartened by the idea of men finding her fuckable. Norman had been repulsed by her body and any other men in her real life ignored her entirely. But anonymous weirdos on the internet said they would happily plow her mercilessly and that had to count for something, right?
Dorcas never posed nude of course, even though she got dozens of offers. She did once send a guy a picture of her feet for cryptocurrency. That made her wonder if she was technically doing sex work, but it wasn’t like very close up pictures of her big toe were inherently sexual, even if the recipient frantically messaged her how hard the calloused swirls were making him.
Dorcas had not posted in months. It wasn’t wise to put her face on the internet in that context, even anonymously. Sometimes though, she had the temptation to post herself and wait for the horny messages to start populating her inbox, men who wanted to fuck her based just on a photo of her face carefully made up and posed. They appreciated her effort at least enough to grovel for nudes.
In real life, though, despite all her careful work, Dorcas was invisible. She was always invisible. She moved through life silent and careful. Old friends, girls who did almost nothing to be pretty, complained of things like catcalling and creepers, but Dorcas never experienced those things in real life. She was skilled in the art of fading into the background. Men never bothered her. They never approached her, never talked to her. To this day, Norman had been her only boyfriend. To be fair, he had stalked her for years after the relationship ended, but that was just an extension of him and his refusal to be dumped. It had nothing to do with her own attractive quality.
Dorcas’ mother said she had an air of untouchability. No matter how pretty she made herself, no matter what she wore, outside the eye of the camera, she was nothing. She could walk down the street, made all up in a size four strapless dress and heels, and not a single person would look her way. Yet in photographs she was someone else. She was beautiful. She was perfect.
When Dorcas was in high school, at the height of her eating disorder, her mother would take pictures of her every day and post them online. She would make Dorcas do photoshoots, blow her face up in gigantic portraits that she would hang around the house. Her childhood home was covered in mirrors. You couldn’t walk anywhere without catching a reflection.
Dorcas would scroll through her mother’s feed, watch the comments roll in about her stunning beauty, and wonder what good she was outside of a screen or piece of paper. Outside her practiced pose, practiced smile, the flash of a camera, she was nothing. Unfit for love. Unfit for touch. A creature covered in scars that littered her body, only just now deflating from depression-driven obesity.
As Dorcas pulled on her clothes, slipped into shoes, she caught her face once more, her face instinctively moving to catch the light just right. How frivolous it all was, this desperation. She touched her jaw that she wished was slimmer, her lips that she wished were fuller. Her waist that was far too thick. She would never be good enough, no matter how hard she tried. She smiled once more, practicing the motion, her rote movie star smile, squinting to make it look real.
She snorted then, and bulged her eyes into all their Gollum-esque insanity. Psychotic smile like a serial killer. Hint of a girl unhinged and in agony.
Dorcas liked this one better.