‘Aesthetica Is a Dazzling Destabilizing Novel That Confronts Influencer Culture
Author photo: Matt Weinberger

Aesthetica Is a Dazzling, Destabilizing Novel That Cathartically Confronts Influencer Culture 

Author Allie Rowbottom gives us a 35-year-old former influencer who is choosing high-risk surgery to reverse her many plastic surgery procedures while also raising questions about the effects of social media on our perception of beauty, the cost of excessive self-promotion, and whether the time and money spent to become Insta-perfect is ever worth it. 

On the first page of Aesthetica, Allie Rowbottom’s indispensable debut novel, 35-year-old former Instagram influencer Anna Wrey watches a group of young women contorting their bodies for selfies beside a Los Angeles hotel pool and reflexively clocks their faces for what she’s been conditioned to perceive as flaws. “They’re cute,” she thinks, “but each one needs a tweak to achieve true beauty.” Rhinoplasty, brow lift, buccal fat pad removal. After more than a decade scrolling, clicking, liking, buying, and wanting, Anna is a heightened proxy for all of us who have subsisted on a steady drip of faces and bodies that embody the true type of beauty she’s envisioning, an ideal defined for us by an app on our phones. 

The novel, out November 22 from Soho Press, is uncanny in its ability to zoom in and lay bare the effects social media has on our perception of youth, beauty, and relevance, but it also raises questions about whether using your body as currency can ever be a form of self-empowerment, the cost of excessive self-promotion, patriarchal power dynamics, and whether the staggering amount of time and money spent to become visually “perfect” is ever really worth it. 

“Possibly not” is the answer to that last question, as we learn early on that Anna, who now works the cosmetics counter at “the black-and-white store” hawking self-care products, is about to undergo a high-risk elective surgery called Aesthetica, which promises to reverse her many previous plastic surgeries, effectively restoring her truest and most authentic self. 

The plot toggles between 19-year-old Anna in 2017, new to Los Angeles and salivating for online clout, and Anna at 35, adrift in the shadow of her extremely online past but also clinging to memories of a chronically ill mother who passed away years earlier and was a dissenting voice to Anna’s newfound Insta-fame. 

It’s an unavoidable truth that most stories about young women, especially those for whom success hinges largely on the physical, will intersect in some way with what we now recognize as the #MeToo movement. For Anna, it comes before her surgery when she’s asked to contribute to an exposé of her former manager and boyfriend, Jake, a disturbingly familiar archetype who goes from preying on pretty young women to rebranding himself as the picture of woke dad-and-wife guy. 

Aesthetica is surely one of the great books of 2022, a not-so-funny comedy of manners for the digital age that should be required reading in schools, book groups, and literary salons for decades to come as it deftly observes and explicates a hyper-specific moment in time; a moment that will continue to shift the culture long after it’s over. 

Ahead of the book’s release, I talked to Rowbottom, 36, who holds a PhD in literature and creative writing and is also the author of the acclaimed 2018 memoir Jell-O Girls about influencer culture, her own feed, and more. 

The below conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Glamour: You capture influencer culture so sharply in Aesthetica—was that something you planned on writing about, or was it just an absurd, amorphous thing you followed along with but didn’t think it had a place in your work? 

Allie Rowbottom: Around 2017 I was looking at Instagram often and feeling so compelled by these young girls who were offering up their body as currency and getting instant validation for it. And on so many levels that seemed great to me, that it would feel so good. But what else comes with it? I kind of knew it was something I wanted to write about and defiantly was like, “Okay, I don’t see books that I’m connecting with about this topic coming out in a literary way.” So I thought it would be a cool exercise to write about this lowbrow topic in a high literary form as a follow-up to Jell-O Girls

There’s real power in writing about what we consider lowbrow topics in meaningful ways because so many are things women are especially invested in, like beauty, shopping, plastic surgery, so-called “guilty pleasures.” You could be the smartest woman in the world and still want to buy cool clothes or a face cream, and yet that’s considered shallow. It’s such a binary. Do you think people are starting to come around to the idea that women can be intelligent and care deeply about the way they look? 

Culturally, I do think there’s the possibility of comprehending that a woman can be smart and successful and also want the cream or the surgery or want to be hot, even. Yes, that’s happening. But I will say I do oftentimes find myself in certain scenes where it’s still very hard for people to wrap their heads around it. And by people, I mostly mean men.

Right, of course.

I got one DM about how basically my self-presentation and my cleavage was the reason for my success. There’s still this kind of idea that a woman can be only one thing that I think is so entrenched, and it’s a tough one to shake. 

I’ve had instances where people, also mostly men, were surprised to find out what I do because of the way I’m dressed or the way I put myself together. Caring about how you look seems to be shorthand for less than in certain situations. 

Totally. I’ve been asked by peers, mostly male writers, “Do you want to be a writer?” after I’m like, “I have a book.” Then again, “Do you want to be a writer?” I mean, I am.

Aesthetica seems to have predicted a shift we’re seeing with Insta-famous people walking back the work they’ve done or wanting to shift their faces and bodies to mimic what they’re seeing online. I’m curious your thoughts about the “BBL reduction” era and the way we’re viewing bodies as social media trends.

I can’t say I’m surprised. I think it’s very textbook patriarchal to shift the ideals right as they begin to feel more attainable or familiar to women in particular. As we get [a deeper] understanding of how it is that “BBL bodies” are made and how that surgery is becoming accessible to people, it makes total sense that we would then completely shift the script to destabilize everyone as they’re trying to attain the ideal. 

Right. It seems like every woman in the world who wanted to, somehow found enough money to look like a Kardashian. It was completely implausible for a minute, and it shifted the culture in such a way that maybe it jumped the shark, so of course it tracks that women need something new and seemingly impossible to aspire to.  

Yeah. But now the ideal, especially with the Kardashians, is this sort of extremely slim-thick look. Even though they’re allegedly reducing, those bodies are even less attainable because they’re excessively slim in certain areas, and then they still retain their fat transfer in others. So, to me, it makes sense that it’s happening. It’s just really depressing, and I wish that there was a little bit more of a moral compass amongst the people who are setting the trends.

It’s interesting to hear from celebrities who helped define the current aesthetic landscape, like Bella Hadid, who recently said she wishes she’d kept the nose of her ancestors. The idea of pining after your original self feels unavoidable now that plastic surgery is so normalized. Why did you want Anna to undergo Aesthetica?

That came so much from me having played around with lip filler for a while. The filler migrated, and it was this weird dysmorphic experience for me. Because I would see pictures and think, That does not look right. But when I looked in the mirror, I couldn’t quite see it. And I got to this place where I thought, Please just dissolve it all, take it away—I just want my old mouth back because nothing is worth this kind of angst. That was such a formative experience that I had to work it into the book.  

You’ve said before that Alexis Ren was the first IG model you fixated on to fully understand the landscape years ago. How about now? Is there a new guard of influencers you’re finding interesting?

I’ve almost entirely wiped my Instagram of influencers. One of the reasons I think Aesthetica is successful as a novel is because there’s real angst and emotion that comes from me having internalized so much of what influencers were feeding me on Instagram. In real life, I just can’t take it anymore. I’m very impressionable. And one of the things that I wanted to make clear in the book is that you don’t really grow out of that, at least I haven’t. I try very hard not to have any influencers in my feed, and the ones that I do have are body positive. I need positive counter-messaging.

You’ve said before you moved to New York for college during the early ’00s, during the Meatpacking rise and bottles and models and that whole scene. I’m on a similar timeline, and there are years that are a big blur because there was no social media. I don’t really have much proof of those years aside from fractured memories. Do you ever feel annoyed that you didn’t have Instagram during those days? Do you feel you would’ve embraced it, or are you grateful that social media didn’t yet exist?

I am grateful. I do think that I probably would’ve become something else entirely if I had Instagram. Anna is not me, but I was taking a lot of the experiences I had at her age and funneling them into what I imagined things would be like if I did have Instagram and taking it as far as I could dramatically while also staying fairly realistic. And it didn’t look good to me. I’m sure that there are very positive ways that young people are engaging with Instagram, but I don’t think it’s always a positive.

Anna Wrey is so spot on and I loved her, but the character I can’t stop thinking about is Jake. He felt like such an accurate representation of a sleazy LA promoter but also of a newly woke dad and husband in the present-day scenes. That arc is such a predicable progression for some men, but I hadn’t seen it so finely and fiercely articulated until Jake. Was he based on a specific person or several men? 

He came to me so quickly so it’s great that you connect to him because he was a very organic character. He was an amalgam for sure. I guess he is one part indie sleaze nightlife promoter. Then, after my mom died, I got into listening to a lot of paleo health podcasts and I put a lot of those men into Jake as well. I was also listening to Epstein-Weinstein-related podcasts, which were giving me a lot of material just about the manipulative and coercive control tactics that these terrible men would use to lure in young girls, and that went into Jake as well. His slightly positive traits—like when he asks about Anna’s sick mom or seems caring—that also came from those Epstein-Weinstein podcasts and the tricks they would use. 

Lastly, did writing Aesthetica change the way you view beauty culture in your own life? 

Personally, I feel a lot less panic and shame around what I’ve chosen to do or not do. I don’t know what I’ll do in the future. I can’t ever be like, “I won’t do anything,” because I don’t think that’s true. But I know that whatever I choose, I’m not coming from a place of something being inherently wrong with me, that there’s something I need to fix. 

Perrie Samotin is Glamour's digital director and host of Glamour’s What I Wore When podcast. Follow her@perriesamotin.