Q: What if you could filter your face IRL?
Trigger warning: contains self-harm
Chapter one - A rush of cold
The burden of beauty. That’s what my mother called it, as she stared at herself in the mirror each night when I came in to give her a kiss goodnight. Without taking her eyes off of herself, she would offer me her alabaster cheek and I would dutifully oblige. Long, thick mahogany hair. Smooth, porcelain skin. Hazel, deep-set eyes. The embodiment of symmetry and grace. And the latest ‘must have’ face trending on the REAL FACE app. Everyone had her face as their permanent filter. Everywhere I looked I saw her. At school, at the coffee shop, in my reflection.
I had adjusted the vectors to elongate my nose, to recapture what was mine but my father insisted that I revert back. Back to her face. The face he loved, whose gaze he would no longer feel.
He was a broken man ever since that day. I could see him looking over at strangers with her face in the supermarket, unsure whether it was her or just a filter. Sometimes he would approach them and whisper her name, hoping for an answer but all he got was repulsion. I’m sorry, I would say, he thinks you’re…but I would never finish the sentence. I didn’t want anyone to know that she was my mother. It’s ok, they would say, feeling sorry for me. One even gave me a small hug. I hated their pity.
After a while, my father turned off his filter of the latest male perfection and scuttled around in the edges of society. I envied his freedom and his privilege. He was unfettered by guilt or expectation. I, on the other hand was drowning in it. I could feel his desperation to see her every morning and prayed that the next perfect face would trend soon. Even then, I wasn’t sure that I would have the courage to swop. It was pathetic I know but I loved him. I was forever to be burdened by my mother’s beauty.
Sometimes I would remember those words and feel anger build up inside me. How dare she moan of her burden? How dare she inflict her genetic victory on to me? And deny me of it at the same time? I stared at myself in the mirror. My mother glared back at me. My rage grew until I felt I would burst. I wanted to cut. Control the anger in my heart. Make. It. Stop.
A Pavlovian response - my hand grabbed the razor in my dressing table drawer and I switched off the facial filter on my phone. My real face stared back at me. The not-so-perfect face. The one with my father’s sad eyes and the scars of previous moments of desperation across it. I raised the razor to my cheek and felt the cold blade against my burning skin. I needed this. As it sliced through the epidermis, the seething pain dampened my anger. A rush of cold hurtled towards my brain and I felt calm again.
Wiping away the blood, I turned REAL FACE back on. I couldn’t bear to look at myself any longer. Even my mother’s face was palatable once my feelings had dissipated and my brain sought perfection once more. I remember thinking how ridiculous this filter was but I quickly got accustomed to it and my brain rewired itself into rejecting anything that didn’t conform to the Golden Ratio. That was the problem. Nothing was ever good enough any more.
I had even stopped taking out the contact lenses out at night. The ones that enabled the REAL FACE filters. That’s how much I despised my reality.
A knock at the door. My father. I slammed my drawer shut and flung myself onto the bed. He shuffled in and sat by me, gently pushing back a stray lock behind my ear. Are you ok, he said? Of course, I smiled, how are you? My father studied my face intently, looking for signs of distress but none betrayed me. My mask disguised it all. He took a deep breath. I know I’m not…he started, finding it difficult to find his words. I knew what he was trying to say, to tell me that he felt remorse, for not being a stronger parent, for indulging in his pain but I didn’t want to help him with acknowledgment. Instead that awkward feeling was churning in my heart again. I’m fine Dad, I said springing up and grabbing a nearby book. I’ve got so much homework, I spluttered, I’m so stressed. That did the trick. He stood up nodding and turned to the door. If you’re sure you’re ok…he mumbled, thankful for the release. I wanted to shout out no dumb fuck, I’m not ok, I’m hurting can’t you see, I’m in pain, you’re causing me pain…but all I could do was grin like an idiot and shove my hands in my pocket. My whole body was willing him to leave while the voice in my head was screaming for him to stay. Well, if you’re sure you’re ok then, he said, heading for the door. He stopped. You know that the royalties we get from your mother’s face keep us afloat…what would they say if her only daughter didn’t have it…his voice trailed off. It’s all good Dad, I said. He nodded again and closed the door behind him.
My heart raced. I felt the urge to cut again but a crumpled piece of paper in my pocket distracted me. I smoothed it out:
We see you. We feel your pain. We are UMBRA.
How did this get here? That girl who hugged me earlier in the supermarket? I googled Umbra and found nothing but a home decor site. Was it a hoax? Wait. What’s that? Top right of my screen. A circular icon with a neon ring. It was pulsating as if it was watching me. My gaze locked on to it and I blinked. The screen fell into darkness.
I had a bad feeling about this. It smacked of the dark web, of illegal activities, of no turning backs. One click and that was it. They had you in their net. I could hear my father’s voice in my head telling me that we had to stay on the straight and narrow, that we needed the money. Then I saw my mother’s face staring back at me from the reflection of the dark screen and I wanted to keep going, find out what they were about. Could they be my salvation? But at what cost?
I didn’t know what to do. Remain the dutiful daughter and suffer in silence? Or take a chance at liberation, not knowing what the consequences may be? What was I to do?
Chapter two - a young girl’s wet dream
The burden of beauty. That was the code we had to hand over, written down, unspoken, like the pain we all felt inside. The code that would grant us salvation, understanding. So much hope and anticipation dripped from those words. To be handed over at the pet shop on the corner, after closing time. A disguised gateway to UMBRA.
Behind the till, a hunched figure eyed me up thirstily as I gave him my piece of paper. Ick. I avoided his gnarly stare and glanced around the shop inhaling the putrid smell of imprisonment. Eyes still undressing me, he tossed the paper into a jar of black treacle and watched me squirm as the blackness started churning. Cockroaches. Shiny brown ones that climbed over each other engorging on the paper. Gross.
Another girl, looking as nervous as I was, handed over her slip of paper. Giving her the once over, he gestured to a doorway behind him and then went back to his phone. Glitchy lights directed us through the dank corridor and down sticky steps. Velvet, midnight curtains muffled the sounds of young voices beyond as I tentatively pulled them apart.
Wow. I gasped. An all senses extravaganza. Bejewelled walls, sparkling ceiling, diamond-peppered floor. A hint of vanilla mixed with candy floss in the air. A table full of cupcakes. Taylor Swift on repeat. A young girl’s wet dream.
Welcome, said a glamorous woman, striding over to us. She had the most incredible smile and I immediately wanted her to like me. Well done for coming, she said, it must have been quite a decision. So brave of you. So brave, she repeated. You’re now in a safe space. Free to be who you want to be. Come, relax, have a drink. You’re with friends. Take off your filters. She saw me hesitate and smiled warmly. No pressure of course, she laughed gently, whenever you’re ready. I looked around and noticed a room full of girls, chilling, laughing, at ease with one another, all without their filters. An array of disfigurement, unappealing to my eyes so used to perfection. My mother’s face was nowhere to be seen. No REAL FACE here, just real faces.
It was disconcerting at first but my brain soon adjusted. Their imperfections became their individual identifiers and I began to see past their defects. The other girl who had arrived at the same time turned off her filter but I wasn’t ready. Not yet. Not ever, maybe.
The lady handed us a drink in a delicate, rose-tinted glass and I sipped it mindlessly. It was so delicious, so calming, I soon relaxed. I could feel the serotonin swirling round my head and the weight of the world dissipating. I hadn’t felt like this since…forever.
I spent many hours, days, weeks in there and each time I would come out feeling empowered. Fuck my narcissistic mother, fuck my spineless father I would say as I climbed up the steps ready for the outside world again. The lady and her team had helped me label those who had victimised and contributed to my low self-esteem. Like a mother-figure, she was there for me, welcoming me each visit with a tender hug and listening without judgement. She was right…my parents, school, health services, no one understood me. No one. Apart from UMBRA.
I was now cutting less. Their distraction techniques - running, shouting, tearing - were keeping my feelings at bay but I also knew it was because I was avoiding home. My father, now a recluse, barely knew if I was there or not. Whenever he did notice me, he would call me by her name and sob silently in the shadows.
On the anniversary of my mother’s disappearance, the lady said that I was ready for the next stage of the rehabilitation. To learn to control my dark thoughts and eventually take off my filter, whatever was underneath. It would take place in the dark recesses of the lower floors, where the other young girls had gone to and come out cured. Now healed and living out in the world au naturel, she said. I had noticed that the faces in the room were continually changing. I rarely saw anyone I recognised. The UMBRA programme must be doing something right. I wanted to be a part of it.
An all-white room with a medical bed in the centre awaited me. I had been told beforehand to have a long bath, to be clean, to be super relaxed for the treatment to work. I got up on to the bed in my dressing gown as advised and waited. A rose-tinted drink with a pretty ‘drink me’ label sat on a table next to the bed. Worried I would need the toilet during the procedure, I abstained.
The hottest man with the most attractive filter came in. So my type, he took me off guard. He asked how I was. Blushing, I stumbled over my words. F-f-f-fine th-thanks. I could feel myself beginning to sweat. He asked me if I was comfortable and whether I wanted more to drink. I nodded, shook my head, heart racing, really didn’t know what I was doing. Distracted, I tried to listen as he told me how amazing I’d been, how well I had progressed, how well-loved I was and that today he was going to teach me the delay technique. He spoke of neuroplasticity, how malleable the brain was and how we were going to teach it to delay self-harm through association. The most powerful association for the brain was chemical, he said. A rush of dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin immediately gets its attention. He leant in closer so his face was up close. We’re going to recreate that chemical rush, he whispered. Many times, he said softly, pushing back a stray lock of hair behind my ear. We’re then going to withhold it so it learns to wait, he continued. To delay. It’s going to master how to prolong your self-harm impulses. So that you’re the one in control. Not anyone else, not your mother, not your father, not society…his voice trailed.
I saw his eyes. They were undressing me. I’d seen those eyes before. This didn’t feel right. My gut was churning. Like a thousand cockroaches crawling inside me. His hands were drifting up my dressing gown. This definitely wasn’t right. Instinctively I kicked out and crunched my heel into the side of his face. The filter malfunctioned and for a split second I saw the true face behind the mask. The man from the pet shop. I muffled my scream as he crashed down to the floor.
Pulling myself together I ran out into the corridor. An alarm was being raised. Quick. Think. I ducked into an adjoining room and hid behind the door. I heard a rush of footsteps go past and then disappear. My opportunity to escape. As I reached out for the door handle I heard a whimper in the corner. A crouching figure, crying silently, rocking her body tight. She looked up. It was the other girl. I knew what had happened. She looked away.
What was I to do? I had a second until they would be back searching for me in here. I had this one opportunity to escape but could I leave her? Why would I forgo this opportunity to run? She wasn’t my friend. I didn’t know her. I didn’t even know her name! Get the hell out of there, screamed a voice in my head. But could I? Could I just leave and save myself? Or do I help this stranger and put myself in danger? What do I do?
Chapter three - poster girl
The burden of morality. I looked over at the crumpled mess of a girl in the corner of the room and felt a churn in my heart. Annoyance. I wanted to be escaping on my own right now but my conscience had held me back. Our eyes met. A silent interaction over a cacophony of displeasure passed between us. Why are you still here? I couldn’t leave without you. We need to get outta here. I can’t. Yes, you can…we have to. You go. It was too late for that.
The girl contorted herself into a smaller ball, pulling her legs in so tight I knew she wanted the ground to swallow her up. She took a deep breath. I thought they would make me better, she said. Oh Jesus, I thought to myself, we don’t have time for this. I wanted to shout, well they didn’t did they, those fucking perverts but all I mustered was a supportive smile. You can do it, I cheerled…you just have to believe in yourself. God, how irritating was I? She flinched and flashed back a piercing stare. But you don’t, she retorted. I winced. Low blow. Are we really going to do this? You haven’t taken off your filter, she continued. Apparently we were.
It didn’t take long for me to reach boiling point. I turned my back on her and paced the room. It’s complicated, I hissed. My Dad…he needs me…to be her or…my voice trailed off. Or what, she challenged, her tone toughening. Or he’ll disappear like she did, I replied. And just like that, it was out there. My darkest fear.
I grabbed her hand. Look, if we don’t leave now, neither of us are going anywhere, I urged. I had to distract, suppress it again. This was no time for emotions. She pulled away. What’s the point anyway, she said?
I let go of her hand. I could see the murky shadows of my deepest doubts swirl around me. It was doing its silent creep, trying to extinguish any hope or joy within me one bit at a time. She was right, what was the point? I felt ugliness and emptiness enter my heart. I knew what would come next. The compulsion to stem this pain. A momentarily relief that would be followed by more guilt and regret. More ugliness.
The burden of beauty. I could hear my mother saying it. In her glacial tone. In her God-awful voice. This was all because of her. Wasn’t it? I felt the anger rising. I was the way I was because of her. Right? I was slipping off the edge, looking down into the dark abyss. It felt like a point of no return. This was it. This was the moment. Yet I didn’t want to to let go, to give in to the pain, to momentarily free-fall. That wasn’t what I wanted. I still had so much hope, so much potential, so much life. I clung on and breathed. Tried to calm myself down, to let the oxygen into every corner of my lungs and inflate my soul. I could rise above this. I could do this. A moment of clarity shone through the mist. I knew.
What’s the point, I repeated? The point is that we are here, in the present, alive, we are. I could feel myself sweating now. We’re all different, I said. Individual. Special. But we waste our lives trying to conform, to hide behind a mask. But on whose orders? Who decides what’s acceptable and what’s not, who’s beautiful and who’s not? Fuck them. But most of all fuck us. All of us. Because the burden of beauty is self-inflicted. We do it to ourselves. We let ourselves get hurt. I should know. I’m the poster girl for self-harm, I whispered, taking off my filter. Finally. I am the burden of beauty, I said.
I was crying now. Whatever I had held down all these years was now flowing freely. The girl came over and put her arms around me. Don’t be too hard on yourself, she said kindly. She looked different, more confident. When had she become so self-assured, I wondered? We can’t do it alone, she explained. It’s not a solitary process and it’s definitely not your fault. How could you withstand your mother’s influence? Or your father’s? The brain is a powerful machine. Its control over you is profound. It takes great power to control it but we can. We all can. If we take it one step at a time.
She grabbed me by my arms and looked deep into my gaze, tracing my scars with her eyes. You’re ready, she said after a while. I was so confused. What was she talking about? What did she know about my mother or my father? And why was she talking to me as if she knew me?All these thoughts were running around in my head but all that came out was…ready for what? She nodded brightly. To tell him, she said. Tell who, I implored? Your father, she replied. You should tell him how you feel…now.
I followed her eyes and there he was. Standing by the door, weeping for the little girl he had unknowingly harmed. Instinctively I turned my filter back on. Back to being her. Had he been there all this time? What was going on?
He took me in his arms and hugged me. I’m sorry, he cried, I love you so much. You. Not because you remind me of your mother but because of who you are. I’ve been so weak, can you ever forgive me? I stepped away from him and looked at the girl for reassurance. Was I really going to do this? She nodded at me. A sign of encouragement. I took a deep breath. I have the power to control, I mumbled through the tears. To control what we can and let go of what we can’t. I hesitated. My father gave me a reassuring squeeze and a smile to carry on. I continued. We can’t control the actions of others but we can control how we react to them, I said, my voice taking on a new confidence. I’m choosing me by reclaiming my face, I proclaimed, turning off my filter. For the final time. I was choosing me. Finally.
Umbra is the darkest part of the shadow of an eclipse. It’s the part that never sees the light. Sometimes we have to reach the darkest part of ourselves to see the light.
If you need to talk to someone, call The Samaritans on 116 123 (UK) or 1(800) 273-TALK (US).
With UK government legislation not keeping up with rapid advancement of AI beauty filters, Gleam Futures, UK’s leading talent and influencer management company, are campaigning for an amendment to the Online Safety Bill and expand the remit of ‘Harmful Content’ to include beauty filters. Be part of this movement. #BoldInfluence