The Price of Beauty

A new operation is available, it will burn your fat and clear your skin, it will shape your face and add shine to your hair...it will make you beautiful. But at a cost. Not only is this operation unbelievably expensive, it's extremely dangerous too. The eight-month long process pushes your body to its limits, and can even prove to be deadly.
When Cassie's twin sister Lily turns down the operation Cassie is offered it in her place free of charge. But what is the price of beauty? And is Cassie willing to pay it?

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2. Two - five days earlier

Beauty.

What is it?

Is it flawless skin and thick silky hair? Is it designer clothing and unpractical shoes? Is it a flat stomach and the perfect summer 'beach body'? Or can it stray beyond those fickle outlines? For instance, can I find a crowd of people gathering on a cold, wet Thursday evening in early November to march as one beautiful? Because this enormous multicolor sea of people is by far more beautiful to me than my sisters freshly-crimped hair that's blowing straight into my face.

"I think I see Elle over there by the postbox." Lily yells, pointing vaguely to our left. I'm about to tell my twin sister that that shadow of a young woman could be anyone and that even if it was Elle there would be no way for us to reach her through all these people, when Dani beats me to it.

"Don't be ridiculous! She's way too tall to be Elle, besides, how can you tell from this distance?" She yells, having to scream to be heard over the angry cries of everyone around us.

"Well this was her idea so it feels wrong to start without her..." Lily trails off, frowning.

"Can we just get this over with? I hate crowds." Tiffany pipes up, crossing her arms across her chest and huddling closer to the rest of us.

"We agreed to meet by the newsagents next to the broken lamppost, if we wait a few more minutes she'll probably find us." Lily reminds everyone, stubbornly refusing to budge.

"Lily, it's freezing cold and absolutely tipping down with rain, and there are at least two hundred people here. Elle has probably started without us, in fact knowing her she'll be at the very front of the crowd yelling at the top of her lungs raising a large cardboard sign high above her head. If we don't start marching soon then we'll all freeze to death!" Dani lectures her, beginning to lose her patience. Lily looks up to me as if to say Cassie, aren't you going to say something? But I just shrug, too cold to think clearly at this point.

"I...I agree with Dani, we either need to start walking or turn back and head home." I decide, just about managing to get some words out through my chattering teeth.

"I vote to go home." Tiffany mumbles, just loud enough for us all to hear. We all pretend not to have noticed, and finally we get moving.

It's a bit like being in the eye of a storm, once you're submerged in the crowd all the different slogans and cries merge to form a sort-of melody, a beat to drive you forwards through the blinding rain. All of a sudden you're not wedged between two strangers, your walking with your comrades, marching forwards, screaming out 'beauty comes from within' and 'no to the perfection operation'. Everyone is here for one reason and one reason alone - to protest. To protest against making the so-called 'perfection operation' legal in the UK. The operation first appeared in America, with one doctor claiming that he had perfected an algorithm that could make anybody beautiful. All it took was eight months of brutal and potentially fatal dieting and surgery, as well as five to ten thousand pounds. Rich and stupid social media and reality TV stars have been raving about it, and now the company want to bring it across the water and launch it here too. And it looks like they will. That's why we're here. That's why we're marching. Sure, I'm mostly here because Elle is too scary to say no to, but right now, while I'm stood in the eye of the storm with my nameless comrades, it feels as though my entire being is motivated by the single desire to force the government to listen to my opinion.

"Beauty is not skin deep!"

"Pretty doesn't need to hurt!"

"Real men love their bodies!"

"You are born perfect!"

Every second a new cry emerges, a new argument against the law is posed. Some are catchy, some are moving, most are both. Each one seems to fuel the fire of the crowd, speeding us up on our march to Parliament. Even Tiffany, who has made it quite clear she'd rather be in her room reading about economic theory right now, is unable to block the effects of the movement, her eyes lighting up like stars under the blaring lights emitting from hundreds of torches. It's like a drug. Walking as one fills you with a strange new confidence, a sense of invincibility. You can't be touched here. You can speak freely and be fearless and act with your heart not your head. Here, you are unstoppable, because you are not you, you are hundreds of people, you are an army. And you don't need guns or weapons, because your determination is dangerous enough as it is.

I see Parliament emerging in the horizon, a tall building that somehow seems so much smaller now. The closer I get the more voices I hear, everyone seems to get more and more passionate the closer they get to those walls. It's stunning.

"What now?" Tiffany asks as we draw to a halt, stopping meters away from the metal fence, sandwiched between other supporters.

"Just keep shouting!" Dani tells her, a huge grin spread across her face. Like me, she's been whisked away to somewhere else by the cries of the marchers.

"About what?"

"Anything." Dani screams, giggling.

Anything. Anything at all. Because no matter what you yell you won't be judged, your cry with merge with countless others to form a great roar that will literally shake the ground beneath your feet. You will move the earth with your voice, no matter what you say. Now that's power...now that's beauty.

-----

"Beauty isn't up for debate, and I'll sing this 'till late, all those doctors will fail because my face is not for sale!" I sing along, the words interrupted by my laughter.

"One more round?" Lily asks round the table, getting to her feet before we've even given her an answer.

"I can't, I have a tutorial tomorrow morning, I shouldn't even be here...I think I'll head back." Tiffany stresses, her drinks only adding to her anxiety.

"I'm up for it if you are," Dani shrugs, "Cassie? What about you?" I know that I could easily manage one more drink, but I can also see Tiffany in the corner of my eye, trying desperately to suppress a drunk panic. She can’t walk home by herself, it wouldn’t be safe.

"I think I'll walk with Tiffany back to the house, you know? Make sure she gets home safe." I decide, putting my coat back on.

"You don't have to do that, she'll be fine. Come on, stay." Dani argues, frowning.

"No, I can't. I, erm, have a lecture tomorrow I'll want to be on top form for." I search for an excuse, not wanting to seem like a buzzkill, but not wanting to abandon Tiffany either.

"Right, it's just you and me then Dani." Lily gives in, standing up and heading over to the bar.

"I'll see you tomorrow then Cassie, you too Tiffany."

"Bye Danielle."

It's awfully cold outside the pub, the bitter winter wind practically knocks me off of my feet the moment I step outside the door. I huddle close to Tiffany for warmth, really beginning to wish that I hadn't forgotten to bring my scarf. I'd freezing and we have a fifteen minute walk ahead of us, including a steep hill. Still, I'm glad I came, tonight was amazing.

"I liked marching...even if it was a bit loud inside that crowd." Tiffany says out of the blue, I'm not sure if she's talking to me, or just to herself.

"It was incredible," I agree, "I felt invincible. Besides, we were marching for a good reason."

"That operation is sickening..." she nods, “I hate my short, stubby nose, but I'd never go through all of that to change everything I don't like about my appearance."  

“I think Lily is much prettier than I am," I tell her, showing some solidarity, "Her hair always seems to look so perfect...but yeah, that operation is awful and-"

"Ooh, look!" Tiffany yells out of the blue, cutting me off, "The light in our kitchen is on!" She points up, and sure enough, the window in our kitchen is bright and golden.

"Yeah...so?" I ask, it doesn't seem that much of a big deal to me, although I haven't drunk as much as Tiffany...

"I turned it off before we left, so Elle must have turned it back on. Elle's back! We should go and see her…” Tiffany giggles, simultaneously losing her footing and tripping off of the pavement. She manages to avoid falling fat on her face, but it still seems to shock her back to her senses. “How much did I drink?” She turns to me, worry creeping back into her tone.

“I wasn’t keeping count,” I shrug, “More than me, I was on lime and soda and pork scratchings at first.”

“My head hurts.” She mumbles, scowling.

“We’re here now anyway.” I remind her, opening up the door and letting her past me back into the warmth. “I’ll see you in the morning, well, probably the afternoon.” I laugh, shaking my head.

“I need a glass of water.” Tiffany decides when we make it up the stairs, turning in the direction of the kitchen rather than her room.

“You just want to see if Elle is there…” I sigh, trailing after her.

Sure enough, Elle is sat down at the counter when we walk in, tucking into a bowl of cereal, a cup of tea in front of her. She doesn’t even look up.

“Where did you get to?” Tiffany asks her, “We waited for you but it got too busy.”

“I ended up going with the rest of Model UN.” Elle tells her, “I meant to text you all but I forgot.”

“Are you eating cornflakes?” Tiffany raises her eyebrows, peeping over Elle’s shoulder, completely forgetting about personal space.

“I’m hungry.”

“They’re not my cornflakes, are they? I wrote my name on the box.”

“Oh for f*ck sake…”

“Those are mine!” Tiffany snatches the bowl.

“Hey!” Elle tries to grab it back. Tiffany, too drunk to keep a good grip on it, let’s go, and the cereal flies out, spilling out across the floor...and Elle. “Now look what you’ve done!” She screams, trying to dab herself dry with a teatowel, “This shirt is only one week old!”

“It’s not my fault, you’re the one who stole my cornflakes!” Tiffany yells, grabbing some kitchen roll and trying to tidy up the mess on the floor. She only seems to be making it worse, spreading the milk and soggy flakes even further out across the (already pretty mucky) tiles.

“Oh grow up!” Elle shouts, still struggling to pick the cornflakes off of her shirt.

“You grow up!”

“That doesn’t make any sense…”

“Will both of you shut it?” I snap, finally intervening. They both stop arguing, resorting to petty glares instead. “Here Tiffany, I’ll do that, you just grab a glass of water and head up to bed.” I offer, not because I particularly want to, but because I think we’ll be here all night if I don’t. Besides, with Tiffany gone, Elle might calm down a little. I’ve known Elle long enough to know that she’s not one to take things lightly, and picking a fight with her is like poking a stik at a bear.

“Fine.” Tiffany accepts my offer, following my instructions and heading off to bed.

“She’s such a light-weight.” Elle says as soon as she’s left, “Her and her labels...they drive me insane.”

“They help her relax.” I shrug, using some kitchen roll to soak up the milk off the floor. “She likes order and routine.”

“And I like cornflakes...why should her needs be greater than mine?” Elle scowls, finally done cleaning off her shirt. I don’t reply, I just give her a quick look. Tiffany needs routine, I’ve seen her without it and it’s not pretty, I don’t think Elle needs cornflakes, not to the same extent anyway. My look doesn’t go unnoticed and Elle glares back, her grey eyes transitioning into storm-clouds. “Can I ask you a question?” She speaks up again, now a lot calmer than before.

“Sure.”

“You might be a little offended…”

“Just go ahead.”

“Okay,” Elle nods, “Lily or Cassie?”

Elle!

“What? It’s dark and I’ve been drinking, and you two are identical.” She defends herself, throwing her arms up in the air.

“It’s Cassie.” I tell her, “You can tell because my hair is short and curly, whilst Lily straightens hers every morning and puts in in a ponytail.”

“Right…” Elle trails off. “I knew really, I just wasn’t one hundred percent sure-”

“I’m off to bed.” I cut her off, “Maybe I should get some beauty sleep? That might make me stand out more.”

“I didn’t mean it.” Elle grumbles, muttering something else under her breath that I thankfully don’t manage to hear.

“Night Elle.” I shake my head, throwing the kitchen roll in the bin as I leave.

My room is downstairs, so it takes me less than ten seconds to launch myself out onto my bed. Everyone else shares a room upstairs, but I sleep down here on a sofa bed amidst all our boxes of belongings that we still haven’t emptied out since we all moved in together. I should probably get changed into my pyjamas, but I can’t be bothered. With the chants of tonight’s march still playing over and over in my head, I slowly shut my eyes, and drift off to sleep.

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