Leigh Stein’s satirical novel, Self Care, is both consistently funny and compulsively readable. It’s also very important. An account of a startup, ‘Richual’, a community platform ‘for women to cultivate the practice of self-care and change the world by changing ourselves’, the novel traces the increasingly panicked travails of the two female co-founders, Maren and Devin, as the company is rocked by a sequence of scandals. While its most obvious targets are social media influencers, the wellness industry and corporate feminism more generally – easy enough targets in some ways – the novel is also concerned with deeper issues about femininity; women’s passion for disciplining their bodies for instance, the disconnect between those bodies and our minds, the insane perfectionism, the rivalry, the policing. The novel shows that what lies behind all these ‘pathologies’ is the profound self-alienation that springs from women’s cultural objectification.
One of Stein’s epigraphs is a quotation from the feminist philosopher, Sandra Lee Bartky: ‘Woman lives her body as seen by another’, and Bartky’s ruthlessly clear insights about this ‘interiorised body’ (40), ‘a mode of self-estrangement [that] lies close to the heart of the feminine condition itself’ (37), underpins the novel as a whole. Richual’s vision of supposedly empowering self-care – encouraging you to ‘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 prioritising #metime, based on how many hours a day they spent on the app’ (6), is clearly part of the ‘fashion-beauty complex’ (the equivalent of the military-industrial complex) that Bartky saw as seeking ‘to glorify the female body and to provide opportunities for narcissistic indulgence’ (39).
Stein’s satire prompts much the same sense of exhilaration as Bartky’s brutal clarity, and reviewers have been quick to register the impact of the experience, describing it as ‘brutal’, and ‘lacerating’ (Knibbs). What’s exhilarating, and also what’s specifically comic, is the economy of Stein’s accounting; the throwaway precision of the skewering. One reviewer, Wired’s Katie Knibbs, suggests that Stein’s characters are ‘nihilistic’, but it is rather that they are steeped in the cultural orthodoxy – and are either slavish adherents (as in Devin’s case) or bracingly frank (Maren) and these different positions – one naïve, the other sceptical – allow Stein to expose the cultural forms at work, in ways that are both bold and very funny.
Maren’s advice for an influencer receiving criticism, for instance, is harshly plain spoken about the social norms that govern online behaviour: “I told her she had two choices: She could capitulate, admit she was wrong, apologize, promise to never again post selfies she took with the orphans she cared for in Mombasa because now she understood the meaning of white saviorism. Or she and I could go back to her questionnaire, find something from her past that showed that she, too, had suffered, and with a single post we could turn the tides of sympathy in her direction.” Maren, lower down the class hierarchy than wealthy Devin, and without her beauty, has no safety net; she’s pragmatic and driven as a result. It’s not exactly nihilism at work in her analysis of the logics of public performance, but a tendency to a kind of time-poor and too-direct expression of self-evident truths. That too-direct expression is what produces the comedy, creating an incongruous contrast to the obfuscation and finessing that are the more conventional approach to brutal truths.
Devin, however, while apparently serenely ‘on-message’ and ‘on brand’, is often less confident about social norms, despite her eagerness to conform. For instance, when she is left hanging during an interview with another entrepreneur at a ‘Foundress Summit’ (Arianna Tran, foundress of S’Wipe, purveyor of organic adult wipes) she is stricken with doubt: ‘Should I not have said “flushable”? Should I not have said “women”?’ (196). It’s not nihilism but naivety – another key comic mechanism – that explains Devin, and this characteristic is very useful to Stein, in both exposing and mocking social structures, as when Devin fantasises about a ‘real’ relationship with Evan, a Richual investor with whom Devin shares the same privileged background of private school and elite college. He’s been accused of sexual misconduct, and she imagines helping him rehabilitate his image: planting ‘an organic vegetable garden with students in Harlem … at a silent vipassana retreat in Myanmar.’ ‘I pictured us in black tie at a gala to raise money to treat obstetric fistulas in Africa’ (153). Wellness becomes a stand-in for ethics, while philanthropy is a way of cleansing reputations, and a feel-good justification for extravagant social events which consolidate class cohesion.
If Devin is defined by her blithe privilege, Maren by her scrappy outsider’s ambition, then Khadijah, the third voice of the novel, is primarily understood in terms of her race. Keenly conscious of the protocols of woke corporate culture, Khadijah is Richual’s first hire (Maren wants to give her ‘5 percent equity because of reparations’, but Devin talks her down to 2.5 – ‘I agreed that I was white, but I didn’t feel as bad about it as Maren did’ (17).
She’s a seasoned content producer and keeps the whole enterprise afloat; over-worked and exhausted, she self-soothes by ‘translating [her] anxiety into content’ (214): “Is it Because I’m Black? One Woman Speaks Up About Not Being Targeted for Sexual Abuse in Her White Workplace.” Stein deftly summons the micro-aggressions of that workplace, from the fact that all the white girls call each other babe: ‘Thanks, babe; no problem, babe; really sorry, babe, but I was only ever Khadijah’ to the habitual ‘blackvoice’ they use in conversation with her: “Damn, girl,” Devin says (17), “Fo sho,” from Diana (142).
Khadijah understands the digital world to be a prison for women: during college she writes a Tumblr called The Panopticon which details the ways in which women ‘were both the prisoners and the guards’ (45). And, just like the other lead characters, she embodies the truth of this. She’s clearly complicit in working for a platform that, under the guise of self-care, trades in novel forms of disciplinary practices (practices which for Bartky, are ‘part of the process by which the ideal body of femininity is constructed’ in producing a ‘practiced and subjected’ body’ 71), but in her own self-alienation, she’s also a prisoner. Unconvinced about her ability to give birth, for example, she asks her bemused mother whether she should get a ‘birth coach’ (215), and she yearns for her yoga class as ‘somewhere where they make you breathe’ (122). This echoes Devin’s devotion to her exercise class, where she hands over ownership of her body to the charismatic teacher, Tressa; a desire for passivity that drives her masochistic adoration for Evan, who insists upon doll-like submission during sex and thereby releases her from having to ‘captain the vessel of my body’ (115). Maren initially wilfully disregards the imperative to discipline the body: she drinks too much, she doesn’t diet, she doesn’t exercise. But by the end of the book she submits, and like Devin, hands herself over to Tressa to be remade.
Concerned as it is with startups, girlbosses and ‘leaning in’, some have judged the novel a mere ‘artifact’ (Pariseau), ensnared in too culturally specific a moment, but its indictment of women’s self-estrangement, one that is paradoxically worsening through ‘wellness’, is surely much more enduring and universal than that.
Bartky, Sandra Lee. Femininity and Domination, Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.
Knibbs, Katie, ‘Leigh Stein’s Self Care and the Death of the Girlboss’, Wired, 1 July 2020, https://www.wired.com/story/self-care-girlboss/.
Pariseau, Leslie, ‘Review: ‘Self Care’ is a blistering fictional takedown of VC feminism’, Los Angeles Times, 5 July 2020, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2020-07-05/self-care-by-leigh-stein-review
Stein, Leigh. Self Care. New York: Penguin, 2020.
© Emma Sullivan 2020.