January 30, 2023 - 7:41am

There’s a well-trodden genre of viral video that compiles photos or videos showing someone transforming their body through exercise, over time. We’ve also been staring at people who have done grotesque things to themselves through plastic surgery ever since Lolo Ferrari on Eurotrash. Now, though, the funhouse mirror of digital culture has thrown up a new twist: plastic surgery as influencer content. 

TikTok personality Dylan Mulvaney recently underwent ‘facial feminisation surgery’. After posting a bandaged-up video from a hospital bed, and presumably waiting until the bruising, sutures and other evidence of cosmetic surgery had faded, the world may now enjoy the resulting  “face reveal” video, complete with Swan Lake music.

Mulvaney has built a large following via a series of highly stylised TikTok transition videos. Mulvaney’s depictions of “reliving the moments of girlhood that I missed out on” often prompt an angry response from many women — including detransitioners — to whom Mulvaney’s output looks like contemptuous parody, by a male, of a female adolescence that many young women experience as a turbulent and sometimes frightening time. 

But leaving aside the gender politics, what’s startling in the ‘face reveal’ video is watching someone self-objectify to the point of treating their own physiology as a kind of Plasticine, for others to consume as entertainment. Here, the video story isn’t a familiar body in a different costume, or even a slow transformation of one body through effort. It’s the transformation of someone’s physical self through surgically-applied violence: nose broken and re-shaped, skin peeled back from facial bones to more feminine lines. The sheer brutality of this process is clear from Mulvaney’s swollen, scarred post-surgery video

In the process, it reveals an increasingly widespread ambivalence about what ‘normal’ means in physiological terms. Mulvaney’s ‘facial feminisation surgery’ doesn’t make sense, after all, unless we have a general, Gestalt understanding of what women usually look like. But the whole Mulvaney TikTok project — and transgender activism more broadly — also takes aim at the idea that there is a ‘normal’ sexed physiology. One Mulvaney video demands, for example, that someone wearing tiny leather hotpants with a visible penis bulge shouldn’t be stared at, just because most (female) wearers of tiny leather hotpants would not bulge in that location. 

And when this is mapped onto the internet’s perverse incentives, it suggests that we’re only into the foothills of flesh-sculpture as entertainment.

The content machine is always hungry, and internet notoriety is reserved for whoever is willing to take the most extreme course of action. As a result, we’re now well accustomed to people who over-expose their inner lives, or indeed their physical bodies (‘posting hole’, as the kids say). In this genre, pornography proper shades into — or often combines with — what I’ve called ‘pornography of the self’. 

And with our growing ambivalence about the existence of ‘normal’ increasingly, er, normalised by uncanny-valley influencers of the baroque and bizarre, it’s possible to imagine a post-surgery ‘face reveal’ as the oncoming bow-wave of a whole new genre of content. For when all of activism is oriented toward abolishing ‘normal’, why not liberate self-carving from its increasingly weightless constraints altogether?  

Bodies are now plastic and protean: fair game alike as content, and raw material. And when everything is a funhouse mirror, you have to do more to stand out. Expect the fame-hungry to begin re-sculpting their very flesh for the digital carnival sideshow.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.