The ‘Instagram Novel’ is tricky — too didactic, and you seem like a Luddite, too familiar, and you’re rehashing previous territory. Too few seem like they have any other message behind ‘Instagram is bad!’ but when a rare gem offers something new, it can be explosive.
The narrator behind Allie Rowbottom’s new novel, Aesthetica, Anna, starts her journey as a vulnerable 17-year-old yearning for something more: stardom, purpose, or just a hobby. After a direct message from Instagram influencer Jake Alton, he takes her under his wing and she immediately receives an influx of comments, hearts, and followers. This, Anna realizes, can be a viable career option.
Aesthetica tracks Anna’s story starting in 2017 and the multiple surgeries, personality shifts, and thought processes she endures while courting sudden fame. Her mother, a stout second-wave feminist, looks down upon Anna’s injectibles and occurrence at influencer parties, saying this isn’t the path to self-realization. Anna, though, is stuck between two schools of thought: to want to modify one’s body, and to go through with it, well, that’s just what feminism is. She views an online story where an Asian woman undergoes surgery to correct her “natural squinty eyes,” and thinks to herself, “What sort of woman would I be if I weren’t thrilled for her?”
Our Culture sat down with Allie Robottom to discuss the Instagram age, influencer culture, and the terrifying real-life circumstances that inspired the novel.
Congratulations on your debut novel, Aesthetica! You’re a prolific writer, and published the previous memoir Jell-O Girls, but how did the process change while writing fiction?
Everything changed — when I first started studying writing in college, I was learning and writing fiction, and had veered away from it because I had material in my life that felt like it needed to be non-fiction. So it was kind of like a muscle I had lost when I came back to it, and it took me some time to realize it. I really wanted to get Aesthetica written fast. I was like, ‘I’m just gonna pound this out.’ But then I was writing it like it was a memoir, even though I was making all this stuff up. I had to go back to the drawing board, and learn to craft books, and re-educated myself on scenes and plot. Stuff that’s really basic but which I had lost the thread of, a little. I will say, it has been so emotionally freeing and fun to write fiction, as opposed to memoir, which is my first love and I still write non-fiction quite a bit, but it can be so emotionally taxing. It’s nice to have a book that I can enjoy publishing and publishing.
You said ‘emotionally freeing’ — in terms of how you’re able to do whatever with the character?
That, totally — it’s nice to just not have to stick so closely to the truth of what happened. But also, just in terms of not having to answer a lot of questions about myself or my family or my mom. It’s nice to just be like, ‘I made this thing, I put the work in, and it’s about me but kind of just about the book.’ Whereas with Jell-O Girls, it’s about the book but it’s actually more about me and my personal life. That can just feel really draining after a while. With this, it’s just like, ‘I made it up!’ [laughs]
Gotcha! Well, let’s talk about some made-up stuff. So when she was young, our narrator Anna meets Jake Alton, an influencer with whom she quickly develops a symbiotic relationship — she gains followers from him quickly, and he has another beautiful girl to add to his posse. How did this relationship come to be?
The relationship between Anna and Jake was one of the first things to fall into place with the book. I just knew that there’d have to be some shady guy to usher her into this dark world. He was almost fully-formed in my head, because I was basing him off of a lot of nightlife promoters in New York I met while I was young. It took some time to deepen him and make him complex — he was fully one-dimensional for a while. I wanted him to be a round character but also stand in for the patriarchy, in some way. He’s this shadow that falls over Anna kind of quickly in the book, and it felt important to have the plot moving forward with him coercing her, but also caring for her and creating this complicated relationship. Ultimately, he’s the catalyst for a lot of terrible things in her life, but he also takes care of her and asks about her mom.
Influencer culture is endlessly fascinating to me and I love how every single part of it was explored in the novel, from the Blaze influencer parties to the constant surgery Anna undergoes. Did you research influencers in the wild to see how their journeys progressed, or did you want Anna to have her own path?
I didn’t do a lot of checking in with influencers while I was writing — I’m not sure why, exactly. I guess I was just more focused on nailing the emotional highs and lows for the character herself. One thing I was doing was listening to a lot of true crime podcasts about [Harvey] Weinstein and [Jeffrey] Epstein. I remember there was one girl in particular about one of the things about Epstein, and she had just lost her mother and she was particularly vulnerable to his coercion. Listening to that was like… ‘Well, that’s my character’s story too.’ That was the primary research I was doing — that in coercive control and terrible guys enacting violence.
What I found with the Instagram stuff that I would sort of make up, is that later, when I would talk to influencers or hear one on a podcast, it all felt very aligned with the content of the book. I wasn’t trying to speak for all influencers or all Instagram models, of course, but looking at the sort of make-up of the world she was existing in, and the premise of Instagram itself — which is like, image is currency and sex sells — it was very easy for me to take it to its natural, dramatic conclusion. It turns out that all of the things I chronicle in the book do happen. Of course, it doesn’t happen to everyone, but that kind of out-of-control power, when you start out thinking you have it, I feel like that’s common in a lot of people’s lives. Instagram is just one way that it plays out.
It’s interesting you mention that the podcast episode was integral to Anna’s journey — they do prey on these types of people, but with Anna, she was just young and vulnerable — she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was just 17 and looking for something.
Yeah, and I think it often does happen that way. You know, this guy DM’s her, and she’s like, ‘Yeah, I wanna meet up. Sounds legit, look at his checkmark and all these powerful men on his feed.’ There’s this part in the book where she’s looking at Jake’s grid before she’s met him, and he has pictures of himself with all these powerful men, and that was something I took directly from accounts of Epstein — you would walk into his townhome and there were pictures of him legitimized with all these famous people. That was on purpose — it was to make young girls feel at home and safe, in some ways.
Anna quickly realizes that, because of the condensed form of Instagram, her body is able to be used as a tool for more followers, notoriety, whatever she pleases. Do you think that it’s possible to somehow not come away with this conclusion if you’re young and on the app? Is there a way to use it without severely impacting our self-image?
I definitely think there are ways to not come to that conclusion — I mean, the younger the user is, the harder it is, which is why I think people with big platforms have a real responsibility to help their younger audience to come to the conclusion that they don’t have to present themselves a certain way. In the book, I’m looking at a large portion of users that use the app a certain way, but I know there are people who use it differently. There is, like, Bookstagram, or a wing of Instagram that’s focused on body positivity and diversifying people’s feeds. I don’t think the lesson of one’s value being situated in one’s physicality or hotness is the only lesson Instagram provides, but I do think it’s the biggest one.
On the plus side — and I hope that in some small way, the book contributes to this — there is a growing awareness of the surreality of Instagram and the smoke and mirrors that go on behind the scenes. Instagram might not be around much longer; engagement is down and people are using it less, so there’s gonna be something else that takes its place, and hopefully that app will be a little bit better at giving multiple ways of using and engaging with it.
We can see that her want to become an influencer only speeds up the obsession Anna has with her body, especially after people like Jake suggest breast implants and other surgeries. Why do you think Anna is so susceptible to the wants of other people, but also so quick to give into her own impulses?
To me, there’s three answers to that — one is her age. She’s very young and, at least for me, at that age, when a guy I liked suggested something to me, I’d be like, ‘Sure, love me.’ I didn’t want to make her completely passive, but there was that element of my experience I wanted to get onto the page because I definitely don’t think it’s unique to me.
I also think that, for Anna, she grew up without a father, and having a challenging relationship with the father archetype, is also something I took from the Epstein stories. The absence of a father being a really common thread within his victims. I think it does make someone more susceptible to saying yes and going through with something like breast implants or whatever a guy that fills that father role suggests.
And then also, fourth-wave or post-wave feminism: this sort of idea that everything that a woman chooses is feminist and is empowering. It’s a messaging that she’s internalized, so maybe her first response to implants is maybe, ‘No. Why would I do that? It’s not for me.’ But the more she wraps her head around the idea, the more she’s like, ‘This is empowering, and if it’s a business opportunity, why would I not take it? It’s what I’m here to do. The women who have come before me have paved the way for me to be able to self-actualize in this way.’ I wanted her to embody that next wave of feminism as a counterpoint to her mother, who is way more second-wave and old-school.
This book is also about motherhood and friendship — prior to a shock that has Anna uprooting her life, her mother’s influence is mostly pestering, to the point where she blocks poor Naurene on Instagram. Do you think, at that point where her mother is unable to help anymore, it’s really up to the person that’s in the cult-like group to recognize what’s happening?
Poor Naurene. It’s a really impossible situation, and you know, thinking about it now, it came from my own experience with my mom at that age, but I was obviously not courting Instagram stardom. But at 17 or 18 I had a really gnarly eating disorder, and my mother behaved very much like Naurene. She was trying to help me and save me and I was constantly blowing her off. I don’t know what she could have done better, because I was just not gonna listen to her. I know she was terrified. Looking back, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, how terrifying.’ I just wanted to put some of that impossibility into that dynamic between the two of them. Once your kid is like, legally an adult, there’s not much you can do to stop them or get through to them. There’s no real way for Naurene to get through to Anna, except from physically excising her from Jake’s house, which is a fear Anna has.
Well, the resolution to all of that are the parts in the book where she’s 35, recognizing this was the wrong thing to do. She goes through the titular surgery to age herself and remove the cosmetic procedures from her body, kind of normalizing herself.
In the space of the book where we aren’t with her, which is where the book leaves off in 2017 and picks up in 2032, I think that in my imagination, she was turning towards procedures to stop time and freeze herself in youth and girlhood. That is what the procedures are done for — they’re to make us look young and to preserve beauty. Eventually, what she comes to is that it’s more valuable to look in the mirror and see her true self reflected back to her. And her mother is a part of her true self. The grief is erasing the traces of where you come from. For her, returning to her natural face as if she aged naturally is a reclamation and a return to her mother’s daughter.
I love that. That’s a great way to cap her story off. Finally, what’s next? Do you think you’ll continue writing about the internet and stardom, or do you have other topics you’d like to explore?
I think I’ll write another novel. I have an idea, but I can’t talk about it too much because it’s still young and precious to me. It doesn’t have to do with the internet, but it does have to do with stardom!
Aesthetica is available now.