Kayleigh was slumped over her steering wheel, head rested on it’s leathery black cover. She banged her head against it and refreshed the webpage open on her phone again. Still, only 654 hearts. It was 1pm and she was despondent-the photo had been up for 24 hours. She didn’t get it, it was a photo of her holding a cocktail that matched her outfit and she had just had her teeth whitened that morning (so couldn’t actually drink the cocktail) and was sure she’d be a shoe in to get at least eight hundred hearts. An aesthetic ensemble and freshly whitened teeth without the use of an app meant she could even use the tag “naturalbeauty”. But that was the day Felicity Bagshot had gotten a new puppy. Not just any puppy-a french bulldog. French bulldogs had become the new it-dog on social media. Her outdated pomeranian, Penny was too hasbeen a breed to be exciting social media currency. All potential peer traffic had gone over to the new fleshy, bug eyed pup.
Kayleigh had been a consistent picture poster that summer, was gaining followers each week and was on her way to getting there. She knew a dip in interest could crush her chances of being the most well followed girl in her school year group. And she wasn’t about to lose out to horse-faced-Felicity.
“You might as well be a chihauaua” she had shouted at the dog the day before, when her rival’s photo had appeared. Penny scurried around her large hallway excited that she had been spoken to and slipped on the floor that the cleaner had freshly waxed. Kayleigh was padding around in ugg boot slippers she had borrowed from her sister so as not to slip. Frantically venting over text to Alex she had said:
-Ugh have you seen how many hearts Felicity got? her jaw is longer than my phone bill, its not fair! ugly people aren’t supposed to be this popular. She’s barely even got any makeup on in this photo. Hate her-
-We all know what lurks behind that puppy. Herculean jaw. Why you stressing anyway you’re going away in a few days! I’m stuck listening to my mum screaming at my brother. She’s saying we should go to shitty Benidorm. kill me. Palm trees await you and everyone loves palm tree bikini pics- Alex replied
Kayleigh sighed. It was true. People did love palm-tree-bikini-pics. She moved back from her steering wheel friend and reminded herself in a few days she’d be walking around in an aesthetic paradise. She could take a picture in any location and it would get at least 800 hearts. She slung her pink backpack over her shoulder, locked up the car and headed into the gym.
The place was low lit and everything seemed to be yellow. There was house music blaring from the speakers and lots of sweaty, toned people were walking around in tight, small items of clothing. Her father owned part of this chain of gyms so she got in for free. Others paid £100 a month for the privilege which she took absolutely for granted. She walked into the expansive women’s changing rooms, past the steamed up sauna and the perfectly temperate showers to her favourite locker-the one right in front of the mirror. She felt at ease once she realised there was no woman in the locker room more attractive than her. There was a refined looking Indian woman who might have been, she deduced, but the love handles spilling out over her shorts quickly cemented her lack. An overweight smiley faced woman chose a locker near Kayleigh’s and their eyes met. Kayleigh gave a false smile and wondered how that woman had such glowing skin when her diet the must be terrible. The shadow of the anorexia Kayleigh had developed when she was 12 going on 13 had left her with a judgemental, sickening little voice in her head, commenting on imperfections on all bodies-especially hers. The voice was relentless, yet she knew not to always believe it.
After a twenty minute run on the almost silent treadmill she went into an empty studio which had a mirrored wall and did some weight exercises, for toning, not bulking of course. Heart pounding she put the purple weights down and let all the stale hot breath out of her body. Closing her eyes, for a minute she felt renewed and whole. For a minute. Side eyeing the mirror she turned fully into it to inspect her body. She noticed the curve the side of her thigh had gained from the running and how her collar bones weren’t as visible as they had been the week before and how that might have been a line in her forehead. The overweight woman was running on a treadmill near the studio which she saw reflected in the mirror. She turned and watched how her flesh wobbled side to side and saw it like a tree swaying in the wind. The woman moved her arms back and fourth methodically and had gained sweat patches on her workout clothes. Kayleigh stood there engrossed for a second at the flow of the flesh and wondered what it felt like to have your entire body carrying something so heavy, always.
A frantic breath entered into her lungs as she realised now she had to do what she really came to do. Putting her weight on one leg, pouting her lips slightly and sucking her stomach in, she angled herself in the mirror to create a heart-worthy look. She took ten photos, changed the pose and took ten more. She got down on the floor and stretched her legs out and took ten more, then took ten from a low angle, ten from a high angle, ten facing the light and ten away from it, ten with a filter and ten more with a different filter, ten in black and white and ten with the front facing camera, ten with her smiling and twenty with her mouth half open but not horse-about-to-consume-hay open or Felicity-over-lunch open.
Once she felt satisfied she stretched out across the floor on a yoga mat and started going through them, deleting most. It took her longer than the length of the last part of her workout to pick, edit and caption her most attractive photo. A gym selfie with her body in minimal clothing was a sure way to get noticed. She knew Alex would call her a “beg” in her subtle south london way for wearing so little clothing. That was just Alex, who was less judgemental than Leah, who had always preached gym selfies were the lowest form of selfie. But these were dire, desperate times for a social climber and she knew her friends would understand that.
Feeling a little more stable she walked out the studio with her eyes down at her phone creating a post that would knock that little french bulldog off it’s newly found pedestal. The overweight woman who was huffing with exhaustion and sipping water didn’t see her coming. Kayleigh slammed straight into her homely body.The phone went flying and fell hard onto the ground. The water spilled everywhere. The water spilled onto the phone. Kayleigh’s face went into a stiff, aghast position as the woman said
“Sorry! Oh gosh! hope the phone’s okay”
Kayleigh buckled down and picked up the phone, dripping, and turned it over to reveal a cracked screen. Her hands were shaking.
“Oh my god. My phone” She looked up at the woman with her huge light blue eyes filled with tears.
“That’s a shame! Here let me help you-“
Kayleigh stormed off into the changing rooms, shoved her phone into the locker and almost ran into the shower before she began sobbing. The woman looked down at the puddle of water on the floor, and placed a sorry hand on her chest.
A limb Kayleigh had grown invisibly corded to had been violently severed. As blood would pour from a wound, tears poured from her eyes. They blended in with the water and she knew, deep down it was more than just the phone she was crying about. Engulfed in water she let herself fall into the release and even let some sound out which she found a small liberation in. When the tears stopped falling a sudden clarity grew inside her mind.
The pictures she had been posting had been going up almost daily that summer and there was always a moment of intense fear after she had clicked “submit” as to whether it would be enough. Enough to get the hearts she needed, for her to be noticed and adored. It almost never was. The fear was so intense sometimes she even had to turn off her phone so she wouldn’t keep checking the picture’s progress. She knew suddenly she didn’t have to go through that, at least for the rest of that day.
She came out clean and wide-eyed and went and sat down in front of the mirror, wrapped in a yellow branded towel. Staring at herself she noticed how her cheeks were slightly sunken in from a lack of food and just how giant her big moon eyes really were. It was the first time in a week she had seen herself without makeup.
Sitting very still she noticed the overweight woman was back and had changed out of her gym clothes and into a yellow polo shirt. Kayleigh’s now undistracted imagination flooded back into her system and she saw the woman as a giant benevolent lemon. The lemon was sat on the opposite mirror station and was lovingly placing a cap on her head completing her look, over her tragic haircut. She smiled at herself in the mirror, glowing. The words “cleaner” were printed in bold letters on her cap. Kayleigh watched the lemon pick up her carrier bag full of belongings and walk slowly out of the room, flesh flowing from side to side as she did. She turned back to her own reflection and breathed out a long sigh of relief.