All my most body horror experiences are because beauty. Like once i was idly picking at my aged pink pedicure, and i absently peeled off an entire toenail (the second smallest) along with the polish. The quick jolt of pain was annoying, sure, but the shock of it was the worst. It felt way too easy to pick off a part of myself.
The more trangirlish the beauty treatment is, the more it resembles an unfortunate kink, which is funny because that’s what transphobes think being trans is, but THAT’s funny because it's cis people with all the most unfortunate kinks (truly!). Electrolysis, a word i’m doomed to mispronounce, is the only guaranteed way to get rid of facial hair. It’s kind of like getting a tattoo except the needle also zaps your pores with a laser. The one true way to kill a goddamn hair follicle. Cis girls do this for their moustaches sometimes, but they’ll never equal us trans for sheer magnittude of forresty. Dysphoria itself is a body horror sensation. It sometimes feels like i’m inhabiting a corpse, like my body itself is already dead and it’s waiting for the rest of me to catch up.
Which is all to say i was immediately smitten with Dhonielle Clayton’s The Belles, because we just have so much in common. It’s a novel where a revered class of magical beauticians can provide any kind of bodily transformation a person could wish. Including, it’s mentioned in a newspaper headline, sex changes (newly legal in this world), and i guess i appreciated the shoutout, minor as it was, when so many fantasy novels will involve shapeshifter magic and not even mention the massively obvious tran possibilities. These sorcerer beauticians are celebrities. The fanciest and best are basically royals.
But their powers do more nasty stuff than the cosmetic touch-ups they perform on people’s facial bone structure. Although there really isn’t much difference between the two, which is kind of the point of the novel. It’s all magic where people’s bodies undergo painful changes in compliance with an authoritative power structure. There’s an evil queen involved and everything.
When you're living in a society, subversive beauty is difficult to achieve.
I usually don’t enjoy thinking about my skeleton parts altering their shape. Even so, I daydream about reshaping my face’s bone structure on a fairly regular basis. I haven’t decided if I want to, and I probably never will decide. I’ll probably die before I know what kind of skull I want to live with, and I’m a little resentful that the choice even exists. I should be stuck with my skull, like what a marriage is supposed to be.
Marriage is awful though, so i guess i’m actually glad to throw myself in whatever kind of torture will make me more into my own body. I can admit there’s something horrific about this specific pursuit of an uncanny ideal. But horrific in a cool way.
I love how The Belles includes gore. Feels to me like YA has gotten gorier over the last ten years, which is different from more violent. Dystopia stuff like The Hunger Games where Katnis kills whoever with whatever weapon, that's more like basic violence, but weird and epic transformations of a body is gore, like in Melissa Albert’s The Night Country where, spoiler kinda, the patchwork girl falls apart near the end. Or the way teens are utterly diced in slasher movies, always way more artistically than how a psychopath would truly stab someone to death.
But going back to The Belles, most of it is sweetly descriptive, with memorable passages devoted to cute, petite finger foods. The novel practically smells like macaroons and floral perfume. Violence, or hearing about violence, happens unexpectedly. The effect is like hanging out in an extremely posh spa where every now and then someone throws up and dies, but the snacks are great and adorable. Which actually is how i imagine posh spas would be like in real life. Every spa is already a body horror spa, but full disclosure, I’ve never really spaed. I don’t want to give away too many of this novel’s surprise grisly details, but i will say there’s a memorable mention of a failed attempt to improve a dog. Wings are involved. It’s one of the more brutal dog deaths i think i’ve ever read. All of my favorite gore has an element of beauty to it, and this pup’s end is most startling for being kind of gorgeous and wondrous.
I recently read the sequel, The Everlasting Rose. That one feels less like a body horror spa and more like a political thriller where there’s a torture garden prison. No dogs die, but there is a miniature elephant that wears nailpolish.