‘Self Care’, a new novel by Leigh Stein, exposes the rot at the core of an expensive industry
A recent search on Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand, pulls up $75 candles that smell like my vagina and my orgasm, respectively. There’s a $250 pair of baby-sized Loubotins, a $3,500 24-karat gold dildo, and a pair of earrings that costs more than my student loan debt. Oh, and let’s not forget the vampire repellent. It’s almost like a beautiful, rose gold-and-white minimalist package complete with a famous face is enough to sell luxury to any woman.
Leigh Stein takes on this outrageously white, expensive and performative wellness industry in her most recent novel Self Care, released June 30. Instead of Goop and Paltrow, readers meet Richual, a wellness app and social media community peddling the latest serum or workout regimen to cure whatever late-capitalist nightmare ails you. At the helm is Devin, the app’s CEO and perfectly moisturized figurehead, and her business partner and COO, Maren.
“Richual asked: when’s the last time you put yourself first?” Stein narrates through Marin. “Our app pressed a pause button on all the bullshit in daily life. You could track your meditation minutes and ounces of water consumed and REM sleep and macros and upcoming Mercury retrogrades and see who among your friends was best at prioritizing #metime, based on how many hours a day they spent on the app. It was a virtual space where @SmokyMountainHeartOpener posted videos of herself doing forearm stands in a thong leotard and @PussyGrabsBack shared photos of her feet soaking in Epsom salt after a march. It was the digital sanctuary where you went to unload your pain.”
In an industry that demands larger-than-life social media performances, Stein inserts equally monstrous characters. Devin’s a skinny, meditating walking face mask who quotes Thich Nhat Hanh before paying for a massage out of her sizable inheritance. Maren is her foil in many ways, kind of dumpy-looking, not the best at self-maintenance, a former nonprofit fundraiser who performs extreme wokeness (like calling the profit-share of Richual’s only black employee “reparations”). But both ladies are equally besotten by their roles as corporate #GirlBoss feminists.
And these women largely propel Self Care forward throughout an otherwise pretty minimal plot: Maren gets cancelled for a tweet that threatens Ivanka Trump and goes on a solo retreat-turned-wine-binge in the Hamptons, while Richual’s principal investor and Devin’s sometimes lover has a #MeToo moment–thanks to some necrophiliac-adjacent predilections–and Devin gets publicly called out for supporting him at a women’s empowerment conference.
Stein’s writing is so spot-on, her satire so revealing, her characters so cringey, that I hated every character. It took the full 250-page novel for me to decide if I even liked Self Care, which, in a satire, is truly the mark of a genius. The novel is so prescient, it may as well have been predicting the events of 2020.
Believe Women unless it threatens funding
Devin and Maren disagree over how to handle their investor’s sexual misconduct. Maren cites Rituals ## commandment, “Believe Women,” while Devin thinks the accusers are lying to derail the app’s series B funding (whatever that is). The resulting press release is a horrendously true-to-life mix of earnest feminism without any accountability or grounding in the real world:
“Women’s History Month is the perfect time to honor the strength and courage of the amazing women who’ve come before us by taking care of our whole selves so we have the energy to make history,” the press release begins, echoing a very similar statement from Joe Biden’s presidential campaign on May 1, addressing accusations by former staffer Tara Reade.
“Regarding the sexual behavioral misconduct allegations against Evan Wiley, a Richual board member and longtime feminist ally, CEO Devin Avery says, ‘At Richual, we believe women. We also know that, sadly, a small percentage of these kinds of allegations are falsely reported and sadly, this is one of those tiny percentages. It is a shame that these are not real victims, but I pray that this unfortunate circumstance will not silence the true victims of abusive men that are still out there.’”
At times, Stein exhibits shades of the same lack of self-awareness of her characters. Amidst a commentary on separating one’s identity from one’s persona, Stein has built her own career on by-lines from trendy publications like The Cut and Buzzfeed that rely on writers to become Internet personalities.
“By the time I was in college, it wasn’t enough to make something online. If what you made was any good, people wanted to know who the maker was: ‘About Me.,’” writes Stein of another character, Khadijah. “I watched as the self became what you made.”
Wellness Lost Illusions
Tellingly, Self Care’s most interesting character is Khadijah, a black woman trekking the same media ground as Stein herself: A successful feminist Tumblr translates into by-lines in Jezabel, The Hairpin and The Toast and later, a staff writing position at Buzzfeed. Especially given the growing conversation around the largely white and independently wealthy make up of the media and publishing industries, Khadijah’s perspective is timely:
“I watched as the girls I was blogging with at twenty-two were offered staff positions writing about pop music and millennial culture at The New Yorker, or about the intersection of race and tech at the Times,” she writes. “What, was my meme beat at BuzzFeed not highbrow enough?”
As Stein’s narrative switched back and forth between Devin’s and Maren’s perspectives, she throws in Khadijah’s once or twice, which left me wanting way more. I could read an entire book about a black 20-something navigating a relationship with a dopey hipster, an unplanned pregnancy, and our current media landscape. When Khadijah inherits the keys to the Richual kingdom at the novel’s close, I felt cheated. Here’s a really fun, complex character, who gets to play such a pivotal role in our storytelling, and we don’t really hear how she feels about it. Khadijah becomes a plot device.
If Khadijah is the winner in Self Care, Maren remains the loser, ousted from her own company despite all her “woke” intentions. Devin and her investor boyfriend remain on the masthead, and Khadijah is the new COO. After 250-or-so pages, I wondered what Stein was trying to say here. All the good intentions of well-meaning white liberal women don’t count for much? For Khadijah, money and a promotion are rightfully a more powerful show of good-faith than her relationship to Maren. Or, is it that the elite and powerful like Devin will always come out on top? If Maren wanted to play the game of #GirlBoss thrones, she had to play to win.
Regardless, it’s safe to say that Self Care isn’t a happy ending. Terrible people remain at the helm of a terrible app, and there isn’t a lot of hope in sight in our terrible late-capitalist wellness space. Stein delivers a deceptively dark morality tale of performative feminism that I’m sure will continue to mirror the horrors of the real world for years to come.
(Penguin, June 30, 2020)