‘I Resist Through Exploration’: An Interview with Allie Rowbottom

The author of Aesthetica on stardom and online hate, conflict between feminisms, and the evergreen currency of a woman’s image.

Elizabeth is a writer living in Toronto. 

Allie Rowbottom and the cover of Aesthetica

Roeg Cohen

There is a type of young woman, often dismissed as vapid, who rarely receives much more than passing—or parodic—consideration in literature. They are not favoured with consciousness outside of how they are perceived. The protagonist of Aesthetica (Soho Press)the debut novel by Allie Rowbottom—is one such young woman. The book tells the story of Anna Wrey, a former influencer. The narrative slips between Anna at 35 and at 19, as she was compulsively cultivating her online following. Young Anna is a shapeshifter, adapting her body and values with varying degrees of agency. At 35, Anna is on the brink of a final shift: Aesthetica, an operation that promises to reverse all of Anna’s previous cosmetic procedures and restore her to her “natural” state. It will dissolve fillers, undo augmentations, and imitate how her skin might have stretched and faded if it had aged without intervention.   

Anna is at turns calculating and naïve. She agrees to increasingly invasive procedures with a mix of excitement and fear, mapping a nebulous fourth wave feminism (empowerment, sex positivity, girlboss bimboism) onto her experiences. As a younger woman, she gets into a professional and intimate relationship with Jake, an influencer manager and archetypal sleaze, determined to use his money and relative power to catapult herself to more followers, more lucrative promotions, fame, and fortune. Reflecting in her midthirties, Anna understands that Jake exploited her much more than she was capable of using him.  

The magic of the novel is in Rowbottom’s lush and tender prose. She describes Anna’s experiences on Instagram and in medspas with a richness and empathy typically reserved for different kinds of protagonists (shyer, or more bookish, or more acerbic). The result is both heartbreaking and redemptive.

Rowbottom is the author of Jell-O Girls, a memoir weaving her family’s history with the story of Jell-O (bought by Rowbottom’s forebears in 1899 and popularized and sold by the family for generations). A few days after her book’s launch party—a glamorous event with pay-what-you-can Botox—she and I spoke about publishing, patriarchy, plastic surgery, female friendship, and her process.

Elizabeth Rathbone: You document the scrutiny that Anna is subjected to as a young woman influencer. Although her experience is extreme, I think it will resonate with many women, especially those with an online presence. How much of that was imagined rather than drawn from your experience online?

Allie Rowbottom: It was a blend in that it felt natural to take the small little bit of many of the things that I’d experienced online and imagine a more dramatic version of them. So it’s both, but I can’t think of anything that Anna experiences online in the book that isn’t real.

I know that you experienced some online hazing after the publication of Jell-O Girls. But I think I think most women with Instagram or social media have experienced some version of feeling under a microscope.  

The incels came later, but the Jell-O Girls stuff was me and my dead mom getting dragged on Goodreads—less by men than by women. So, less about my body and more about a very gendered perception of my privilege or whininess or a sense that I, in writing about my mother’s illness, was exploiting her. There was also a marked incomprehension on some readers’ parts of metaphor as a concept. It was a very literary, niche example of online hazing, but it gave me the ability to imagine what it’d be like to receive hate on a larger scale.

The hate received by women who are online in a very public way is astronomical and comes from women and men alike. While I was writing Aesthetica, I interviewed the Instagram model Paige Woolen about this side-Instagram account that she had started where she would post the DMs that she got from men. She’s super-hot and so smart and kind and is also the recipient of terrible, dehumanizing DMs, mostly from men whose wives and children are in their profile pictures, hovering over words like “Kindness is King” or whatever.

One of the things I love about the book is how these different versions of feminism are filtered. There’s the corporate feminist girlboss culture, sex positivity, and empowered bimboism, juxtaposed with Anna’s mother’s second wave feminism. It’s so tender and honest the way that Anna tries to make sense of these principles in her own experience. How did you think about approaching those themes?

The conflict between Anna’s mother’s feminism and Anna’s feminism and the failures of both waves felt so real to my life. There’s a lot of stuff that Anna says when she’s 19 and kind of naïve that I’ve struggled with in my late twenties, early thirties. Maybe I’m a late bloomer, or maybe these are real struggles for women of every age. What is empowering and what is disempowering, and who gets to decide? Is doing things to support yourself and improve your sense of self in the world a betrayal of other women? Once I allowed the book to go in the direction of the mother-daughter relationship, the conversation around feminism really opened up for me.

Something that you interrogate is the question of who is it for, because the same procedures and products are pitched on the one hand as empowerment and self-care, and on the other hand as impossible, patriarchal beauty standards. The same thing can feel so different given the context. Something I love about Anna’s voice is that she’s struggling with it and feels like she’s constantly messing up.  

It’s come up a lot in doing press for the book: the question of how I, as the author, really feel about surgery or Instagram. The only answer I can give is that it’s complicated. Plastic surgery can be disempowering and it can be empowering. When it’s empowering, it’s usually empowering because it is upholding certain image ideals that are hammered into us by patriarchal culture and the beauty industry. And yet, short of moving to a cabin in the woods, most of us are tasked with negotiating which cultural messages we want to tune out and which we want to uphold and what the cost of each option is. You can always resist culture—most artists do in one way or another—and it comes at a cost, as does plastic surgery or Instagram use. I resist through exploration, curiosity and a willingness to suspend judgment. I resist through writing and exploring my interests on the page.

How did that mindset impact the way you developed Anna’s voice?

For a long time, Anna was too naïve. I was imagining my younger self, wanting to be approved of by whatever guy. But also, I wasn’t giving myself enough credit. What made Anna’s voice was when I added in her feminism and her imperative to use oppressive structures to get ahead. That unlocked her in a way—you can’t have a character that’s too passive, they have to be moving toward conflict and creating conflict. That was a big lesson for me. Re-envisioning Anna in the future tense sections was also really helpful in that way. She had remained passive because in my mind she was frozen in girlhood and traumatized. But she wasn’t doing enough and one night Jon [Lindsey, Rowbottom’s husband and the author of Body High] and I were walking the dogs, talking about the novel and he was like, “think of her like Lana del Ray, smoking by the pool, tough and sort of jaded.” From then on, I had my muse.

I know that the story took many forms before the final iteration where you move between the present tense chapters and the mid-aughts. I’ve read that this was inspired in part by Mary Gaitskill’s novel Veronica, which has a similar structure. What drew you to that construction?

Veronica is written that way for a reason. When you are dwelling in a naïve young model’s perspective, it’s more—I don’t want to say superficial—but a less dimensional portrait of real womanhood. I think that the future tense section gives Anna the ability to think about what worked and what didn’t. It gives the book a dark reflective quality that it didn’t have originally.

There’s something really satisfying about reading toward the space in between timelines. Like what happened to get her to this later version of herself?

I love that. Reading towards the space between.

What I didn’t realize when I first started writing, and what is obvious now, is that the book is in many ways a meditation on aging and lost time.

I read, I think on your Instagram, that you wrote the book for your younger self. Did you have an idea of a reader as you were writing?

I definitely wanted to write a book for women my age, like in their midthirties, but also for Gen Z women, women in their early twenties who are looking to see themselves represented on the page without that page judging them. I don’t see enough of those books out there.

It’s true. It feels almost subversive to have the topic written about in the way that you write about it.

I felt defiant when I started the book. I was like, I’m going to write about something that’s so current and so sellable and so culturally “lowbrow,” but I’m going to write about it in this highly literary form. I hadn’t seen that done before, especially not when it comes to plastic surgery. I suppose in some ways, for that reason, I knew this would be a book for readers, but not for the literary establishment, which is much more interested in churning out hundreds of nearly identical intergenerational family sagas a year—books they have comparisons for, honestly—than in morally ambiguous narratives about women’s bodies (especially women considered privileged or vapid or vain), who gets to alter them, and why. 

After reading Aesthetica I listened to an interview with the influencer Lindsey Pelas where Pelas describes an experience strikingly similar to something you write about your protagonist, Anna. I’ve read that the kernel for Aesthetica was actually inspired by you going really deep on a different influencer’s Instagram. What was it like learning about the story that you had imagined, confirmed and refracted back to you as this woman’s real-life experience?

I keep getting asked what my research was like for this book, and the honest answer is, it was very organic. I was on Instagram a lot, just poking around. It came from stuff that I was obsessed with in my real life, stuff that I didn’t think of as research until later, like getting Botox for the first time. 

While I was writing, I wasn't listening to podcasts like the one that you mentioned. I was just like, well, how would this go? I did listen to a lot of true crime podcasts—Epstein and Weinstein—and those also helped because it was like, how does this go? It’s a very obvious trajectory. It’s like, young girl comes to the city to make it big. A lot of the people in this industry who are charged with elevating these girls to instant stardom are kind of seedy because it’s the same as it’s ever been. It’s reducing women to their bodies and using those bodies to sell things. Or cultivate desire and a viewership.

What were some of the core elements of the story and character that held through the different drafts and forms?

Well, the opening came from a trip that my husband and I took to Ojo Caliente hot springs in New Mexico in 2017. And I saw the outline for the opening of the book. It was early enough in my own mother loss trajectory that I was in this place where I would get really fixated on mothers and their adult daughters, or mothers and daughters in general, out in the world—I would see them and feel deeply wounded by their existence. We were there and I saw some teenage girls just laughing in a mud tub area. And then a mother and daughter watching them. That was an image that stayed throughout many different drafts. 

Jake is another character who really persisted. He came out fully formed very early on and the scene where Anna first meets Jake has been constant throughout every draft of the book. 

I also knew from the jump that I wanted Anna to go through with her first surgical procedure, which is a breast augmentation. The plot really shifted around that procedure and how I could have Anna go through with it without losing readers. I had a completely different plot at least twice. But what I learned about writing plot, which might seem really obvious and feels that way now, but was not obvious at the time, is that it must do everything in its power to reveal and push from the character the emotional truth of the book. I think I was resisting the plot that I knew could do that because I didn’t want to be redundant and write about mothers and daughters again, but it turned out that that was what I needed to get to the emotional truth of this book and what I really wanted to say.

I’ve heard you say that Jell-O Girls was more your mother’s book, for your mother, and that the central relationship in Aesthetica, the mother-daughter relationship, is similar but from the daughter’s perspective.

It’s true what people say about writing the story they have to write in order to move forward with their lives and their careers. There’s not a lot of choice involved. What did get left out of Jell-O Girls, or what I needed another book to unpack, is the real emotional impossibility of caretaking your parent when you’re very young. I felt a lot of guilt for how short I was at times with my mom, how frustrated when it was just the two of us and I was like 20 and she was in the hospital or sick in bed at home. I needed a space to put some of those feelings down because especially in the early years after my mom’s death, I struggled a lot with that feeling of having failed at being a good daughter. And now I feel like it was just a really tough situation for everyone.

Some of my favourite parts of the book are the moments of tenderness between women; between Anna and her mother, or Anna and the other influencers, her best friend, Leah, the women at the cosmetic surgery clinic. It stands in contrast to Jake who talks about women being so competitive with each other.

In my adolescence and well into my twenties, I felt stunted and unable to connect with women the way I wanted to. I felt like there was something wrong with me. Now I see that there were things in my life that were making it hard for me to connect, no question, but I also think that it is really challenging for women to figure out how to connect in a culture that is so determined to keep us disconnected. It’s not just us, it’s a whole system conspiring against us. So when Jake is like, “you guys are always just trying to tear each other down, you don’t want each other to be hot”—he’s not talking about women, though he thinks he is. He’s talking about all the cultural forces pressing in on us.

One way in which Anna and I are extremely different is that in the future times sections where Anna’s 35 and in a hotel room, by herself, she has not yet gotten to a point in her adult life where she is able to connect. And I think that if I had any hope for her after the book ends, it would be that through giving her story and voicing her story, she is able to get to that point where she is connecting with other women; that she has the will to create those relationships that she hasn’t been given the tools to create because of her trauma and her livelihood. 

I’ve read some of the press that you’ve done where you’ve gotten these questions around the book being an internet novel or an Instagram novel and concerns about whether you were worried about it feeling dated. To me, it’s just about human experience.

I didn’t grow up with Instagram—I didn’t really even grow up online. We had dial-up internet. I did look at magazines when I was a kid, and I can still remember turning the pages. It was a very formative experience for me. It was very easy to take that feeling and put it in this new place, Instagram, where the feeling is the same. Right? If anything, it’s just more dramatic, because Instagram is so intense, and so omnipresent, whereas the magazine is a physical object, you can close it and put it away.

I wasn’t worried about it being dated, because these feelings are not going anywhere. The next thing after Instagram will be something similar—and the similar thread is image as currency. The only thing I worried about in that regard was that somebody else would write a similar book and publish it before me.

Something I love about your online presence is that you’re very transparent about publishing and press. So few people talk about it.

Yeah, I want to say the things that I wish someone said to me early on. The truth about writing and publishing is that it is not merit-based much of the time. There are real marketplace considerations and trends that as a writer, you really have no control over. Once you start thinking of them, it can be really detrimental to your art. There is this old sense that the books that get bought swiftly with lots of offers are the best books. Or that the books that get on lists like, Best Books of Fall, or whatever, are the best books. And that can be true, but that’s not the whole picture.

In the end, you wrote this, and people are reading it, and people will continue to read it.

Trusting your intuition about what stories need to be told is key. If the book is good, it doesn’t guarantee that it will get a big book deal. It doesn’t even guarantee that it will get a conventional book deal, or that industry people will respond to it. But in my opinion, those people are often wrong about what readers will be excited about. I don’t know why they are so wrong so often but they are. Luckily, there are many things that writers can do to get their work out there—actions that can make the industry feel less powerful and less in control of our fate as writers. If the work is good, really carefully made and honed, and if the writer is willing to push to get it out there, readers will respond and the book will catch on. That’s a guarantee.

Elizabeth is a writer living in Toronto.