In Los Angeles some people drive miles to find an empty beach where they can relax, read, and smear sunscreen in privacy. Not me. I crave a crowded shoreline. Since lockdown I find myself desperate to be among a glut of bodies. I blame Samuel R. Delany. Deep into the pandemic, I read Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue about the closing of Manhattan’s iconic porn theaters in the late 1990s. Through personal recollections and research, Delany shows how the theaters fostered community through spontaneous cross-class contact. As I read my borrowed nostalgia bloomed. The theaters offered chance encounters with strangers but also a place to be alone among others, to relax, to lose yourself in the anonymity of a crowd.
During the early months of the pandemic, the beach was one of the few public places where I felt safe around strangers. In March 2020, I moved to West L.A., only a short drive from Venice Beach. There, the sand teems with bodies sweating, shouting, eating hotdogs, and strumming acoustic guitars. At the beach, I’m as close as I’ll ever be to touching the communal glory of those shuttered theaters.
Beaches are for everybody. In California all 840 miles of coastline are open to you and me. As free, public spaces, beaches attract people from all walks of life. Like Delany’s porn theaters, beaches offer cross-class contact. We gather here for the specific purpose of enjoying ourselves alongside other bodies in public. This is how I find myself in Malibu on the hottest Saturday of the summer.
Paradise Cove looks secluded on the map, but when I arrive, it’s chockablock with surfers, sunbathers, and parents in floppy hats. I’m here with author Allie Rowbottom. We’ve come to the Cove to flee the heat and discuss her debut novel Aesthetica, a fucked up, unforgettable story about our society’s obsession with body modification. Nowhere is this collective obsession more visible than the beach.
All around strangers are throwing foam footballs and rubbing oil on their shoulders. Some recline on towels, eyes closed. Still, others walk by in thongs, sheer tunics, and terry dolphin shorts. I forgot my bikini at home. In a black minidress and converse, I stick out among so much skin. Allie is wearing a black two piece with neon hems, a suit I’m sure I first saw on Kyle Richards, a Real Housewife. Allie’s long, blonde curls are tucked under a black baseball cap. She is balancing a collapsed tent on her shoulder as we weave between coolers and clots of teens, searching for a free patch of sand. On our walk to the beach, a man mistook Allie’s tent for a surfboard. He asked her, “Where’s mine?” He winked. “I’m so over men talking to me,” she tells me. “Except Jon.”
Jon is Allie’s husband. Allie and Jon are recently back in California from New York. Malibu is their new home. A condo close to the
Allie speaks about her process with the confidence of a woman who knows her talent and worth. It’s hot. As we tour the condo, her two french bulldogs trail us room to room, tails switching. Lana Del Rey sings, “Fresh out of fucks forever.” Somewhere incense is burning.
Lana’s Norman Fucking Rockwell helped Allie find Anna’s voice. In early drafts, Anna was passive. Then, while listening to the record one night with Jon, Allie realized that Anna needed to channel Lana’s persona. “We felt she should be more mysterious,” Allie says. “But in a devil may care way, vaping by the pool, popping pills, and eating big burgers.” I immediately regret leaving my vape at home and catch myself eyeing the pack of Wyld edibles in Allie’s kitchen, one of the few items on the counter.
Allie and Jon are still unpacking. “The kitchen is giving me Texas,” she says, gesturing to the grapevine painted on the backsplash. The space makes her nostalgic for the years she spent in the Southwest. While pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Houston, Allie wrote her first book, the JELL-O Girls: A Family History, an unflinching exploration of illness, mother-daughter relationships, and family secrets. The memoir sold well. But promoting it left her feeling bewildered and raw. As a first-time author, it surprised her how little control she had over the book once it sold. “With Aesthetica,” she says, “I’m doing things my way.”
Consider Allie’s author’s photo on the back cover of JELL-O Girls. She wears a white blouse with a high neck and ruffles. She is sitting up straight. Her hair is perfectly curled and frizz-free. The photo is black and white. Flip to the back of Aesthetica, and Allie is in full color. She leans back on a bed, wearing a semi-sheer white dress with a blue lace bra visible underneath. Her hair is wavy, as if wind-blown. She looks relaxed.
While promoting JELL-O Girls, Allie admits she was more buttoned up than now. “I wanted to do everything right,” she says. “I worried no one would take me seriously otherwise.” With Aesthetica, she’s more interested in taking risks, pushing the narrative to its breaking point, exposing the fractures. “I like to read books with sex and drugs,” she told me on our walk to the beach. “I want books to be fast and propulsive.” I’m not sure if she realizes that she’s describing her own novel.
The narrator of Aesthetica, Anna, is a former influencer with a pill problem. She is undergoing the process of reversing her surgical beauty procedures. The anonymity of the internet allows Anna to infinitely reinvent herself in the same way the anonymity of fiction allows writers to shapeshift. “Fiction let me say fuck it” Allie tells me. “No one was writing the book I wanted to read about plastic surgery.” A memoir didn’t suit the material. She didn’t want to write about her own cosmetic procedures literally or linearly. A large part of Aesthetica takes place in an imagined future where the wonders of modern medicine collide with the horrors of our desires.
One of the most horrifying things about desire is its slipperiness. What we want is forever in flux, shaped by the world around us. There is no stable way to exist as a body day-to-day because what we want from our bodies constantly changes. Aesthetica captures this slipperiness through the use of tropes borrowed from literary horror, such as fear and disgust. Classics like Frankenstein have long warned us about the dangers of altering our bodies and reality. “The body is inherently uncontrollable,” Allie tells me. The body is stubborn. It resists perfection by its very existence.
In early drafts of Aesthetica, Allie was grappling with her own sense of horror as she found herself experimenting with various cosmetic procedures, mostly lip and cheek fillers. She was also developing terrible body dysmorphia from these so-called improvements. She tells me, “It was really that experience, the sense of horror over having altered ‘reality’ that pushed me and the book into the realm of horror.” She read literary craft books to teach herself how to invoke fear and disgust in readers while stoking empathy. It’s too easy to judge what other people choose to do with their bodies, and Aesthetica succeeds at exposing both the terror and transcendence of body modification with rare compassion.
At the beach the sun melts our mascara. We look like two B-movie actresses after a crying jag. Allie tosses off her baseball cap: “I’m going swimming.” I linger on the towel, sleepy from a late night of dancing. As Allie wades into the blue, a wave knocks her over. She rises from the
I look up and see countless women with altered breasts, glassy foreheads, and taut jaws. Many others look untouched, with loose jowls, unruly eyebrows, and teeth the color of daffodils. I can’t discern who looks better. I must squint to see the differences between those with tweaks and those who have not. Cosmetic modification is so baked into L.A. culture that it’s easy to forget to notice its existence. Allie’s right when she describes body modification as part of the city’s atmosphere. We breathe it in, along with the smog, whether we want to or not.
As teens Allie and I both absorbed L.A. culture through TV screens. We came of age in the early 2000s, during peak raunch culture, in the era of the bimbo, extreme dieting, and low waist jeans. “All of it rooted in misogyny,” Allie points out. We shared a mutual obsession with The Girls Next Door, a 2005 reality show starring Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends, Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson, who live with him at the Playboy Mansion. Allie tells me that she not only watched each episode with religious fervor but also wrote a college paper about it. “I think what initially drew me to the show was the girl’s performance of the Playboy ideal,” she says. “I appreciated the way the girls inhabited their manufactured sameness with a seriousness that elevated something that culturally might be laughed at or maligned.” To her, The Girls Next Door subverted expectations. They made bimbo-ism performative and smart. “The possibility of subverting the dominant narrative while still appearing to uphold it was a really radical and healing possibility to consider,” says Allie. The show remains popular for a reason. The girls allow us to see the tension between performance and resistance play out in real time.
In Aesthetica’s world, as in our own, the fastest way for a woman to gain visibility and currency is to objectify herself sexually. Like underdogs everywhere, Anna longs to be seen. She desires to be taken seriously by a society that disregards her. Through objectification, she accrues value as a living commodity. More importantly, she shows us how good it feels to be valued, even as an object.
Anna’s desire to be seen makes her story incredibly human and compelling. She is as desperate for love and attention as the rest of us, but her search for legitimacy can also be read as a metaphor for the writer’s eternal struggle for respect and readers. “As a woman artist, you feel like you have to work twice as hard to prove yourself,” Allie tells me. Striving runs in the family. Allie’s dad struggled at school when he was young. “I think he had undiagnosed ADHD,” says Allie. “He always felt like he had something to prove, and I inherited that from him. It took me years to realize that I can’t prove my worth to other people.”
One way to remind ourselves is to slip inside a stranger’s body and root around their psyche. Aesthetica allows us to camp out in Anna’s consciousness. The book’s intimacy discourages judgment. Instead, we find ourselves dwelling in the gray areas, where nothing is wholly good or bad. “It’s impossible to strive your way out of our misogynistic culture, but you can try to tell honest accounts of living in it,” Allie says of her motivation to write the book. With over 15 million Americans undergoing invasive and noninvasive cosmetic procedures every year, Aesthetica is not only timely, it’s also necessary reading.
Down the shore, Jon emerges from the waves, his black wetsuit spangled with sand. He’s been down the beach surfing at Point Dume all morning with friends. He sits down to unwrap granola bars and chat about the rising tide. Not long after he sits down, he eyes the