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Updated: Oct 26, 2023

A plain-looking woman tries to live a normal life in a society where women must be beautiful to get jobs, and the unattractive are persecuted.

Pamela put on her black silky wig, stepped into a pair of stilettos, and headed for her job interview at the neighborhood high school. I’m a damn good teacher, she thought. They’d be idiots not to offer me the position. But when she stepped into the office and the interviewer greeted her with pursed lips and narrowed eyes, she knew the deck was stacked against her, despite the CV that had gotten her in the door.

“You mean my PhD and references count for nothing?” Pamela asked the interviewer, a petite blond high school principal with a kewpie doll face.

“That’s not what I’m saying. But we have to weigh all the factors. And we know that students learn more from attractive teachers than unattractive ones. The research is indisputable.”

The kewpie doll principal tapped her leg impatiently, but Pamela was not one to give in easily. She pulled a batch of student testimonials out of her briefcase.

“When you weigh all the factors, don’t you take past performance into account?” She handed the packet over to the interviewer, who glanced at the top sheet and handed it back.

“Very nice,” she said condescendingly, “but we’ve interviewed several other candidates with PhDs and rave reviews. And all things being equal…”

All things were not equal. Last year, the Supreme Court had ruled that companies could use physical attractiveness as a major component in their hiring practices, since studies showed that beautiful people brought in more money for their employers, were more productive, and were often more intelligent than their less attractive counterparts.

At thirty-one, Pamela didn’t need to be reminded of her physical shortcomings.

Just the other day, she had uploaded her most flattering photo to an attractiveness calculator app and leaned forward as the program superimposed her image on the template. The app would compare her features to the template of the perfect face as defined by the Golden Ratio, a configuration that occurs repeatedly in nature and art and is considered to be universally pleasing to the eye.

Pamela had followed the instructions on the screen to mark the contours of her face; she moved yellow arrows to the outside edges of her right and left eyes, a red line to the bottom of her chin, blue lines to the right and left sides of her nose, until she’d marked the position of every feature. Then she clicked Submit. Earlier versions of these calculators had been accompanied by warnings, the gist being: “If you have issues of low esteem and lack of confidence, do not take this test.” Nowadays, women were urged to use the tool as a starting point on the path to perfection. Even the President had weighed in: “You are responsible for the way you look. If you haven’t done everything to make yourself beautiful, it’s your own damn fault.”

The calculator had rendered its judgment in searing red letters: You are ugly! On a scale of one to ten, she’d scored a two. Just one notch above “very ugly.” The score was accompanied by a long list of specifics, but she stopped after reading the first six:

  • Poor facial symmetry

  • Poor face shape

  • Eyes too close set

  • Mouth too small for nose

  • Nose too wide

  • Chin OK

The blistering words on the screen were like a judgment from the Almighty, a final grade of F on her permanent record.

Women using the site could get an idea of what they’d look like after surgery by manipulating the arrows and lines to match the template; then they could contact the cosmetic surgeon sponsoring the website, confident that they were just a nip and tuck away from going to sleep a two and waking up a nine or ten. And all of it covered by insurance. No copays, no deductibles. Perfection on the cheap. Many women she knew had already gone under the knife, and the rest seemed to be making plans. But not Pamela. She and her sister Alice had sworn to each other that they’d never give in to the “beautocracy,” a term Pamela had coined in her dissertation. Alice liked to say that their rough oyster-shell exteriors were nothing more than protective covers for the precious pearls hidden inside.

Attractiveness had always been a valued commodity. Over the years, more and more studies had shown that the more attractive someone was, the more he or she was paid—the so-called “beauty premium.” But now women were now paying a much heavier penalty for not living up to the standards set by men in power. It was becoming harder—sometimes downright dangerous—for women who looked like her to walk the streets. Which is why she had worn stilettos and covered her frizzy hair with a wig for a job interview.

But despite Pamela’s two best features—great legs and a photogenic smile—the principal was unmoved. She stood and crossed her arms, effectively ending the interview.

“So that’s it?” Pamela said angrily, stuffing the folder back into her briefcase. When she stood, she was several inches taller than the little Barbie, which gave her a fleeting sense of superiority.” She strode to the door, then stopped. “Your loss. I have more to offer than a dozen air-headed… Oh, hell. Never mind.” She slammed the door behind her.

Fueled by anger and frustration, Pamela strode briskly toward the bus stop, brushing past women swathed in gauze wound around necks, stretched over chins and foreheads, wearing their bandages as casually as accessories. She barely missed bumping into a woman who had stopped to admire herself in a store window, gazing down at her chest in awe, as if her enhanced breasts were shiny new toys. The female body as playground.

Pamela stopped short when she spotted two men in identical black leather jackets up ahead. The monster-face insignias embossed on their jackets and the black leather boots and aviator glasses identified them as self-styled “Streetcleaners” on the prowl for beasties. That was the new catchword for women like her. Pamela turned and race-walked in the opposite direction, her high heels tack-tacking against the pavement. Damn stilettos had become a de facto fashion standard, and anyone wearing heels lower than three inches faced ridicule. She thought it ironic that she needed high heels to maintain a low profile.

Pamela was breathing hard by the time she caught up with a group of young girls, their heads buried in their electronic devices, looking up periodically to communicate with each other. Their long silky hair bounced as they strode confidently in their high heels. Pamela could only see their backs until one of them turned to look in a store window. The girl wore bandages that covered her chin and nose. The kid couldn’t have been older than fourteen, but according to conventional wisdom, it was never too early to get started on the road to perfection. Pamela followed close behind on the chance that someone in the crowd might come to her aid if the vigilantes decided to rough her up. Not likely. People had become less tolerant of beasties once they no longer had to pay for plastic surgery. If you’re still a beastie, it’s your own damn fault. She took a quick look behind her. No leather jackets in sight.

Pamela’s anger was still burning white hot when she got to her apartment, so she called her sister. Alice had been the youngest member of the House of Representatives until being voted out in the last election. She’d been enormously popular—a passionate advocate for her constituents and a tireless spokesperson for women’s rights—until the beauty cult got a stranglehold on the neck of the American public. Pamela had watched the televised debate, cringing when Alice’s opponent pointed a finger and said, “Look at her. Why would anyone vote for someone with a face like that?” A majority of her constituents apparently agreed, because she lost the election.

“What are you planning to do, now that you can’t teach?” Alice asked.

“Beats me.” Pamela paused. “I’m sure I’ll find something. Otherwise I’ll have to leave Philly…” Silence.

“You still there?”

“Mmm. Alice, you remember how the President said we’re responsible for the way we look?”

“How could I forget that piece of… You’re not thinking about…”

“Plastic surgery?” Pamela hesitated “No.” Then vehemently, “Never. We promised to fight it.” She could almost see the ghost of their great-great grandmother, Alice Paul, giving her a thumbs-up. Her sister was named after the famous woman’s rights advocate. Resistance was in their blood.

“I’m thinking of moving, too,” said Alice. “Out of Virginia. It’s too damned expensive here when you’re voted out of office.”

“Where would you go?

“Oregon,” said Alice. She explained how she was working with a group of fellow activists to set up a sanctuary city in Portland for women like them. It was going to take a few months to get everything set up, at which time Pamela could join her. For the first time, Pamela dared to imagine the possibility of a future; but meanwhile she had to find work or she wouldn’t make it to the end of the year, and jobs were becoming scarce for people like her. Companies were hiring beautiful women for everything, even research positions and back-office jobs that didn’t involve interaction with the public, claiming that the presence of unattractive women had a negative effect on the morale of co-workers.

Whenever her resolve flagged, Pamela would break out the family photo album to remind herself why she stayed the course. Paging through the gallery of black-and-whites, Kodacolors, and Polaroids going back four generations, she was once again struck by the family resemblance—the close-set eyes, the large nose. None of the women had been conventionally attractive, but the intelligence and determination that shone through those less-than-perfectly-spaced eyes projected all the beauty that mattered. Pamela was descended from a line of fighters, from Alice Paul to her grandmother and mother, all of whom had been leaders in the women’s movement. This was her family. This is what they looked like. This is what she looked like, and she was proud to be one of them. Adopting a new face would be a betrayal of her roots. And as a student of history and sociology, Pamela knew the importance of continuity and the price one paid for tearing down the past.


After a brief stint as a chambermaid, Pamela found a part-time job as a fact-checker. She’d gotten the job because she could work from home and avoid face-to-face contact. The gig barely paid the rent, even for her cheap third-floor walkup in a down-at-the-heels townhouse complex in Northeast Philadelphia. But if she could just hang in for a few more months, she’d be able to leave Philly and join the resistance. The movement seemed to be growing, albeit slowly. There were stories of brave women who spoke out at the risk of public humiliation, planned strategies to confront Congress, and established safe houses around the country. The resisters called themselves the WYSIWYGs (What You See Is What You Get). Pronounced “wizzywig.” It was an acronym that was coined in the early days of word processing, and the name said it all.

After finishing her last assignment of the day, Pamela made a list of things she’d forgotten to order online as the TV droned in the background. Something about the Streetcleaners being granted official status under the umbrella of the Department of Health and Human Services. To her they were still “goon squads,” and she hoped she wouldn’t encounter any on her way to the pharmacy.

Bewigged and dressed in a heavy coat and scarf, she made her way carefully along snow-covered sidewalks to the pharmacy, her pace slowed by her stiletto boots. Once inside, she checked for customers before venturing down one of the aisles. Besides the cashier and the pharmacist, she appeared to be the only one there.

Pamela located the tampons she needed at the end of an aisle stocked with contraceptives, erectile dysfunction drugs, and morning-after pills. After the President had been overheard saying, “We’d all be safer if every man could get laid on a regular basis (hey I was only joking),” researchers took it seriously and released studies that identified sexual frustration as a primary cause of violence. After that, Congress voted to make both Viagra and birth control available over the counter. Who said Congress didn’t believe in science? Then they’d legalized prostitution and, after considerable debate, had voted to make abortion completely legal—for the sake of national security and economic growth. Though the law allowed doctors to opt out for religious or moral reasons, not many of them did so anymore.

The heat in the store was cranked up to equatorial levels, so she unzipped her overcoat and unwrapped the scarf that covered the lower half of her face. She passed the cosmetics aisle on the way to the cashier, and as she reached down for a tube of lipstick, she caught the movement of a dark figure out the corner of her eye—a man in a black leather jacket, gloves, boots, and black knit cap. Maybe he’d turn at the cross aisle. No such luck; he was headed toward her.

The heavy scent of exotic perfumes in the next aisle hung heavy as tropical vines, sweat trickled down her neck and between her breasts, and her heart pounded a jungle beat. Now the stranger was standing next to her. He raised his gloved hand, and Pamela braced for a slap, a shove, a grab. Instead, he pulled off his hat, releasing a cascade of blond hair. Not a he. A she. Pamela’s relief was tempered by the thought that women could sometimes be as cruel as men.

“Damn, it’s hot in here,” said the blonde.

Unable to speak, Pamela nodded.

“Know where the tampons are?”

Pamela giggled at the unexpected question. “Over there.” She giggled again.

The blonde gave her a look, shook her head slowly, and walked away.

Pamela paid and walked outside. Though her escape to Portland was still months away, the possibility of a brighter future lightened her step. She stood tall, taking long, confident strides, remembering how it felt to be normal.

“Think you’re hot stuff strutting like a model, Beastie?”

The voice was male but high-pitched, like an adolescent on the cusp of manhood. She could not get a look at him as he encircled her waist from behind with one leather-clad arm and covered her mouth with his other hand, cutting her off mid-scream. Pamela tried to shake herself free but couldn’t loosen his vise-like grip. Definitely not an adolescent.

Her assailant dragged her down the deserted sidewalk to a narrow alley between two blocks of brick town houses. The alley was dark, the only light coming from a couple of windows on either side. Overflowing trashcans and black plastic trash bags lined one side of the narrow path, saturating the air with the stench of rotting garbage. Her attacker jerked her around to face him and slammed her against the rough brick wall.

Pam tried to grab the lid of a metal trashcan to defend herself, but it slipped from her grasp, hitting the ground like a cymbal, the sound playing encores down the narrow pathway. Startled, her assailant lifted his hand from her mouth, and she screamed.

“Do that again, Beastie, and I’ll kill you,” he said, the light from an overhead window casting ghostly shadows on a sharp-featured, ferret-like face that was already distorted by rage. He pressed the point of a knife against her throat and she froze. With his free hand, he unzipped her jacket.

“Damn, Beastie,” he said, gripping one of her breasts through the thin material of her t-shirt. “Nothing to hold on to.” She screamed again, and he pressed the knife deeper into her neck, drawing blood. “I’ll teach you to go out looking like this.”

A window above them opened, and a man yelled. “What the hell’s goin’ on down there? Get off my property or I’ll call the cops.”

“Help!” she screamed, but the man had already slammed the window shut.

Her attacker fumbled with the zipper of his jeans, cursing when it got stuck. The guy was at least a foot taller than she was and built like a linebacker. His unlikely soprano voice would have provided comic relief under other circumstances. As frightened as she was, she was tempted to insult his manhood, but he’d undoubtedly finish the job on her neck if she did. His zipper was down, and he was reaching inside his pants when a police siren rang out, ear-splittingly loud as if the car were right there in the alley. Her attacker froze, then laughed when the theme song of a well-known police procedural sounded though an open window above them.

The guy will probably kill me after he… after he… Stop! This is no time to start playing the helpless female. Not after all that strength training and those self-defense classes. No way this rodent-faced shit is going to do this to me. If she remained calm and thought it through, she could get the better of him. She had to. Weapons? No, she’d forgotten to carry her key ring with keys dangling to whack her assailant across the face. What else? Hard to think while her feet were going numb in the flimsy stiletto boots. Stiletto boots! She was wearing her weapons. Pamela had practiced disabling mock assailants with the surprise and pain of a high heel jammed into the top of a foot. She’d have to drive it home on the first try.

Though her attacker’s private parts were now exposed, she was more concerned with his footwear. If he was wearing heavy boots, she’d be screwed in more ways than one. Mustering all her energy, she rammed a stiletto heel into his foot, and he let out a banshee scream. Before he could bend all the way over to nurse his injured foot, she jammed a knee into his crotch for good measure. Then she ran down the alley, setting trash cans clattering like angry timpani. Before she reached the street, her heel hit something slippery, but she managed to stay upright. She risked a quick look behind her. The would-be rapist was still tending to his injured parts. She couldn’t risk another fall, so she pulled off her boots and ran in stocking feet. The initial shock was soon replaced by numbness, as if she were running on wooden blocks. Despite the neuropathy, she was able to make it home.

Pamela sat on the edge of the tub and ran warm water over her feet until the feeling returned, then filled the tub with hot water and got in. She closed her eyes and imagined what would happen if she went to the police, took her attacker to court, and made him pay. But she knew how that would play out. They’d laugh at her, insist it couldn’t have happened because she was so coyote ugly, no one would want to rape the likes of her. For all she knew, “coyote ugly” was now a legitimate defense for rapists. Hopefully, that wouldn’t be the case in Portland.


On the day of her departure, Pamela swathed her head in gauze, texted her sister and left a voicemail message. She hadn’t been able to contact Alice for the last couple of days, but since they’d already firmed up the date and time of her arrival, there was really no need to touch base. Pamela called a car service to take her to Thirtieth Street Station, where she’d hop a train to the airport. Then she closed her apartment door for the last time.

When the car turned off I95 and headed cross town, Pamela bid silent good-byes to the landmarks that had been fixtures in her life—Independence Hall, the Academy of Music—but her heart zig-zagged in her chest when they stopped for a red light in front of the new Franklin Clinic. Once they moved past, she breathed easier knowing her journey wouldn’t end there. She couldn’t bear to think about what they did to women in places like that.

Thirtieth Street Station, a neoclassical style building dominated by massive Corinthian columns, was her gateway to freedom, though today she found the exterior strangely off-putting. But the interior was welcoming despite the presence of goon squads and crowds of people, any one of whom could blow her cover. There was something almost spiritual about the warm light filtering through cathedral-like windows and blessing the people below, announcements echoing as incomprehensibly as murmured prayers, and art deco chandeliers hanging like giant paper lanterns from an intricately patterned ceiling. Lost in a sea of fellow travelers, many of them sporting bandages like hers, she pictured the trains beneath her, carrying passengers in all directions, carrying her to freedom. What was it about this place that felt so welcoming? Then it came to her. The building was a metaphor. An off-putting façade hiding a complex—dare she say beautiful—interior. The pearl in the oyster shell.


When she got to the airport Pamela texted her sister and called again. Still no answer. But she was too excited to worry, and when the plane took off, Pamela’s heart soared in tandem with the engines. Only a few more hours and she’d be reunited with her sister. Her twin sister. Her mirror image. The two would act with one mind as they always had, following in the footsteps of the family matriarchs. Pamela turned her head toward the window and put on a sleep mask. In spite of the media’s blind eye and the President’s proposed bill to impose sanctions on sanctuary cities, she imagined the resistance movement steadily growing, supported by a small but vocal network of churches that had been fighting for them. And when Pamela finally dozed, lulled by the steady drone of the engines, she dreamed of a massive choir of resisters singing the Hallelujah Chorus at Thirtieth Street Station.

Security at Portland International was tighter than what she’d encountered in Philly. When a guard questioned her, scrutinizing her face and her ID, she responded with a laugh. “Looks like I need new a ID.” He smiled and let her go, but as she walked to the ground transportation counter, she looked back and saw him pick up his cell phone. Don’t be paranoid. Three-quarters of the people at this airport are on cell phones at this very moment.

After arranging for a car, Pamela went outside to wait. I’m so close. When the driver signaled her to get in, she gave him her sister’s address and got into the back seat. So close! What a relief to bealmost home. She closed her eyes and drifted off. When she awakened with a start, she checked the time. Twenty minutes had elapsed. Her sister lived close to the airport, but the ride seemed to be taking a long time. And now they were driving down city streets. Her sister lived in the burbs. This wasn’t right.

“Stop the car. Let me out.” The driver didn’t turn around. When they stopped for a red light, she tried the door, but it was locked.

“Let me out,” she screamed. No response.

They pulled up to a sprawling, glass-clad building and the driver cut the engine. The sign over the door read Portland Rejuvenation Clinic. Two leather-jacketed goons locked arms with her and walked her inside. One of them stayed with her as they checked her in, a process that took a while because she struggled. They had to press her index finger to the scanner three times before it registered her fingerprint. The woman at the desk must have encountered her share of reluctant patients, as she didn’t appear the least bit concerned.

Under the watchful eyes of the goons, Pamela sat down on one of the few empty chairs. With the exception of a couple of anxious faces among the women filling the waiting room, most of them seemed happy to be there. The soft blue-gray walls were dotted with artistically composed portraits of women with perfect faces. Other than differences in skin tone and hair color all the women looked pretty much alike. A plaque on the wall read, Ask at the desk to see the “before” photos.

Alice had to get her out of there. Pamela reached for her cell phone and dropped it. Calm down. She took a deep breath and quickly scanned the room. No one was looking at her. With shaking hands, she pressed her sister’s number. Please pick up. She heard the familiar voicemail greeting and waited for the beep. Damn. “Please Allie, pick up. They’ve taken me to a clinic downtown. They’re going to—”

Her sister’s voice broke in. “Oh, Pammy. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean for this to happen. Hang in and I’ll be there.” Thank God. Her sister would take care of her.

A statuesque woman in a tight white uniform towered over her. “Don’t worry dear. Everything’s going to be okay. Just a few forms to fill out.” She handed Pamela a tablet. “Bring it to the front desk when you’re done, and I’ll escort you in.”

Was this the form that let women opt out? The Supreme Court had ruled that what she was about to undergo was legal, but it was unconstitutional to force women to do something like that without their consent. So they’d come up a workaround: A women could refuse “treatment,” but she’d be charged an opt-out fee that was steep enough to bankrupt all but the super-rich. The online forms in front of her were strictly medical, so apparently opting out was no longer an option.

Still, Pamela breathed a little easier knowing her sister was on her way. Allie would save her. Get her out before they strapped her to a bed, anesthetized her, and carved her a new face and body; before they did a pregnancy test and, if the result was positive, performed an abortion; before they tied her tubes, since there was a high probability that the offspring of a beastie would be another beastie, no matter how much exterior work they did on the mother; before she woke up a stranger with a set of new breasts and a face that was no longer her own. And she’d be sterile.

A handsome doctor with sympathetic eyes came to fetch her. The clinic was set up like a hospital emergency department with curtained rooms surrounding a central station. The doctor led her into one of the rooms and strapped her to the bed with leather restraints. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but you know how this works.”

She struggled against the restraints.

“I’m sorry,” he said again, tightening the straps.

“No,” she cried, her wrists chaffing as she pulled against the unforgiving leather. “No, please.” But he was gone. “Please,” she whimpered to the empty room. She looked around at the machines, the boxes of bandages and metal objects that would be used to carve her up.

She was alone with only photographs of beautiful women to keep her company. The sign above them read: One of these can be you. A collection of adorable baby pictures hung on the side wall under a sign that read: One of these can be yours. Adoption was available for ex-beasties who wanted children. A paternalistic Congress had ruled that motherhood was a sacred right and should be available to all women, including beasties. Sterilized women could choose from a catalogue of naturally beautiful surrogates impregnated with the sperm of carefully selected men. Surrogates and sperm donors were paid big bucks to produce smart, beautiful children, and beasties were granted the privilege of motherhood.

The hum of activity on the other side of the curtain was broken by the occasional raised voice and the periodic click-click of stilettos against tile. Please Allie, hurry!

A nurse pulled the curtain. “This’ll calm you down, honey.” She jabbed a needle in Pamela’s arm. The nurse’s shrill voice was as reassuring as metal on metal. As a drug-induced warmth suffused her body, Pamela heard her sister’s voice in the hall.

“Allie,” she cried, but it came out a hoarse whisper. The curtain opened and a woman walked in. A woman with long legs, sleek black hair, and perfect features. A nurse? Something about the eyes. Then the stranger spoke. It was her sister’s voice—the voice she knew as well as her own. Her sister’s voice coming from that alien body.

“I’m so sorry, Pamela. I wanted to tell you before you got here, but I didn’t have the heart. I fought with everything I had, but people refused to listen. They were put off by my looks.”

Our looks.

“No one believes anything coming from the mouth of a beastie anymore. So—”

Pamela’s mind was fuzzy. Maybe she was hallucinating. No, this was all too real. It took all her energy to form the question, “Did they…make you…do it?”

Her sister’s eyes were dissolving in sorrow. “No, they didn’t force me. I just realized I could accomplish more if I… tweaked my exterior. They even promised me a job as a legislative aide for a state senator if I just ‘fixed myself up.’ They said I’d be in a better position to advocate for women’s rights as an insider rather than an outsider. And you can help me after you…”

“But I don’t want to…” Pamela tried to fight the drug, but it was no use.

A tear traced a path down her cheek, a mirror image of the tear that ran down her sister’s face before it shimmered, blurred, and disappeared.

Published in Alternative Truths III: Endgame, edited by Jess Faraday and Bob Brown.

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