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Feminism and the capitalist impulse collide head-on in Leigh Stein’s blistering second novel

Self Care by Leigh Stein
Self Care is a surpassingly dark comedy about consumerist culture

In June of this year, Sophia Amoruso stepped down as CEO of Girlboss, the multimedia company she founded in 2017. The company, named after Amoruso’s 2014 bestseller, #Girlboss, has (according to its “About” page) a mission “to redefine success for millennial women.” This comes with large dollops of advice on how to effectively manage stress and maintain equilibrium – recent blog posts include titles such as “Maria Menounous on Work-Life Balance, Resetting Priorities, and the Importance of ‘Being,’ ” “How to Eco-Proof (and Virus-Proof) Your Self-Care Routine,” and “5 Finance Rituals to Attract Daily Wealth.” The site has a veneer of feminist empowerment underwritten by a strict capitalist impulse: when Amoruso stepped down, she bemoaned the loss of “a high 8-figure partnership” that fell victim to a “head-on, high-speed collision” with COVID-19. She announced her decision to leave the company on Instagram.

Eight days after that Instagram post appeared on June 22, Leigh Stein’s second novel was published. The dates are serendipitous, since Self Care is nothing if not a vicious, withering, satirical broadside aimed at the wellness industry as embodied by Girlboss and its attendant ethos.

As the novel opens, Maren Gelb, co-founder of the online wellness start-up Richual, is embarking on a company mandated digital detox following an ill-considered tweet that went viral. Maren is overweight and alcoholic, decked out in unflattering outfits and undergarments such as the BreastNest, “a spongy beige sack you can wear for support if even the idea of a clasping bra is too much.”

Maren‘s diametric opposite is Devin Avery, Richual’s blonde and toned co-founder. “Devin was the face of Richual. She was also the body. She was literally the ‘after’ photo in a piece of branded content promoting a thirty-day cleanse.” Maren describes her business partner’s collarbone as “opalescent” and suggests that on red carpets Devin appears ”appropriately human-sized” while Maren herself stands “to one side like her zaftig cousin visiting from another country – the country of Wisconsin.”

The evident lack of self-esteem in Maren’s narration underscores one of the ironies of Richual, a site founded so that “women could actually take care of themselves.” The app “pressed a pause button on all the bullshit in daily life,” in part by asking users, “when’s the last time you put yourself first?” Of course, the feminist ideology undergirding these principles does not apply to Maren, who is overworked, underappreciated, and forced to address the various crises that plague Richual. Devin, meanwhile, actually lives the company’s ethos, spending hours each day at the gym or the spa, perfecting the societally accepted, anatomically correct form she then displays at high-end restaurants and on Instagram to attract other “influencers” to the fold.

Self Care is narrated in the first person from the alternating perspectives of Maren, Devin, and Khadijah, a self-described “digital girl in a digital world,” who is responsible for all the content posted to Richual and who serves as the company’s token diversity hire. Khadijah’s current dilemma (in addition to being overworked and underappreciated) is that she is pregnant and unsure of how to approach Maren to discuss maternity leave.

Stein is merciless in the way she skewers the kind of faux-feminism that attends capitalist tech companies obsessed with clicks and user engagement. These are the metrics that will allow them to “scale” and, with luck, ultimately accrue a valuation that will attract a lucrative sale offer and make the company executives obscenely wealthy. (The irony is implied in Richual’s very name.) The company has no HR department and Khadijah is left trying vainly to get Maren’s attention, even as the latter ignores her employee’s increasingly obvious physical state. (This storyline is particularly barbed given that Amorosu’s pre-Girlboss tech start-up, Nasty Gal, was sued by an employee who claimed that she was fired (along with two others) just prior to her maternity leave, calling into question the company’s public-facing feminist bona fides.)

The novel takes a turn in its second half, after Richual’s key investor Evan Wiley, a former contestant on The Bachelorette who is known for performing feminist allyship, is accused of sexual assault by a number of women. As the scandal ramps up, Maren tries to get Devin, who has been seeing Evan, to admit that she, too, is a victim, a claim Devin staunchly and consistently denies.

The #MeToo subplot (or, given the novel’s early-2017 timeframe, the subplot that anticipates #MeToo) takes over in the latter half of the book, raising troubling questions about belief, the nature of consent, and the conflict between fidelity to feminist ideals and the ongoing need to make a profit. Stein is canny in her use of first person narration: while Maren tries to convince Devin she has been victimized and Devin continues to deny this, the reader is aware that both are fundamentally unreliable, filtering their experiences through their individual perspectives and imperatives.

Richual’s Ten Commandments, “stencilled in fuschia and sherbet on the wall by reception,” include as their top three, “Women are people,” “All people are human beings,” and “Believe women.” As the novel unfolds, these three principles will be increasingly twisted and abused by various parties, culminating in a protest at a conference involving a group of women (whose comments on Richual’s site expose individual agendas of their own) and a piece of crass merchandise that co-opts a feminist clarion call to believe the victims of sexual assault.

The novel’s title is blazingly ironic: the site professes to be a locus for women to indulge in self care, but in cultivating their army of influencers, Maren and Devin are utterly cynical about exploiting trauma and personal pain for their own ends. Maren makes reference to a questionnaire that potential influencers are sent, which exists as a virtual catalogue of individual misery: “Have you ever: lost a grandparent, a parent, a sibling, a husband, a boyfriend, a friend, other (please describe) … been raped; had a chronic illness, been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, other (please describe); struggled with addiction to alcohol, pain meds, heroin, meth, cocaine, marijuana, food, shopping, sex …?” This exhaustive list also includes one moment of corrosive humour, when Maren blithely and unironically notes that the litany of trauma includes asking people if they have ever “been biracial.”

Not everything in the novel works equally well. Products and brand names are scattered throughout in lists and catalogues as a means of sending up the necessity for women to develop a personal ”brand” largely by demonstrating fidelity to actual consumer brands (and thereby sacrificing an essential element of their own humanity). The idea is sound, but in its execution, the novel channels a bit too much American Psycho era Bret Easton Ellis. And while Khadijah is a more earnest and straightforward narrator than either Maren or Devin, this also makes her somewhat less interesting, at least until the book’s climax, when her own ruthlessness is revealed in a key boardroom scene.

Minor missteps aside, Self Care ends up as a surpassingly dark comedy about a consumerist society that continues to elevate an artificial ideal of women in the place of authentic experience or humanity. The jockeying for power and position at Richual directly addresses some of the pressing issues of our time, including cancel culture, the gig economy, the dangers of social media, and sexual assault. Often laugh-out-loud funny, Stein’s novel holds up a mirror to our society and, like all good satire, forces us to take a close look at our own biases and preconceptions. If there is any self care involved in reading this lacerating book, it is in the possibility of confronting our own self-deceptions about women’s supposed freedom in a lean-in culture.

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