The female cofounders of a wellness start-up struggle to find balance between being good people and doing good business, while trying to stay BFFs.
Maren Gelb is on a company-imposed digital detox. She tweeted something terrible about the President’s daughter, and as the COO of Richual, “the most inclusive online community platform for women to cultivate the practice of self-care and change the world by changing ourselves,” it’s a PR nightmare. Not only is CEO Devin Avery counting on Maren to be fully present for their next round of funding, but indispensable employee Khadijah Walker has been keeping a secret that will reveal just how feminist Richual’s values actually are, and former Bachelorette contestant and Richual board member Evan Wiley is about to be embroiled in a sexual misconduct scandal that destroy the company forever.
Have you ever scrolled through Instagram and seen countless influencers who seem like experts at caring for themselves—from their yoga crop tops to their well-lit clean meals to their serumed skin and erudite-but-color-coded reading stack? Self Care delves into the lives and psyches of people working in the wellness industry and exposes the world behind the filter.
Leigh Stein writes about what the internet is doing to us. Her fourth book, SELF CARE, is a satire of the wellness industry and girlboss feminism. From 2014–2017, she ran a secret Facebook group of 40,000 women writers, in her role as cofounder and executive director of Out of the Binders/BinderCon, a feminist nonprofit organization. She’s been called a “leading feminist” by the Washington Post and “poet laureate of The Bachelor” by The Cut.
I need a cleanse of my own after reading this. I can see from other reviews that I'm in a minority on this one, but I really did not enjoy this novel. The character development was very cliched, it lacked depth, and the structure of the novel felt like it needed more editing. Bringing in sexual assault charges and childhood trauma at the end doesn't add depth in this case, but rather feels like an attempt to tug at emotions. And I'm not at all sure what to make of the ending. What am I supposed to take away from it? It just made me mad, but I'm not sure what effect Stein was going for.
I received an ARC of this novel from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Wait, what? That was my reaction at the end, which felt more like the half-way point. A satirical look at the online wellness movement, at being ‘woke,’ at white fragility, at influencers; a comprehensive list of all the ridiculous products women fall for in their attempt to be whole and empowered and healthy; a poke at how men still control everything no matter how far women think they’ve come — all of this would’ve been bearable in a sort of uncomfortable hahaha sort of way, had there only been some sort of redemption at the end, a comeuppance ... something? Instead the only half-way likable character (she’s a bit more ‘real’ than everyone else and is somewhat aware of her flaws) is thrown under the proverbial bus and left there. I’m annoyed that I wasted my time
A parody of the self-help and wellness industry, "Self Care" (2020) is a light entertaining novel complete with catchy one liners written by Leigh Stein. In addition to her novels with feminist themes, Srein has written her memoir: "Land of Enchantment" (2016) and a book of poetry. This is her seventh book.
This novel opens in 2017, with the health and wellness free website "Richual" dedicated to improving, enhancing and empowering the lives of all women followers and subscribers--the sale of (costly) beauty products, various supplies and apps add to profitability. Co-founders Maren Galeb and Devin Avery have their hands full managing the social media platform with hundreds of comments and tweets. The storyline is narrated by Maren, Devin and their dedicated assistant Khadijah.
Usually MIA, Devin has a severe anxiety disorder, and manages her stress levels with meditation, several classes and the small matt she keeps under her desk. Maren fortified herself after she had fallen asleep at her desk, with wine form the company fridge and a prescription of Zoloft. Maren's boyfriend, accused her of "devoting all her waking hours to building a community dedicated to the lives of self-absorbed narcissist's who's only political action was to be brand ambassadors for the first ever pubic hair conditioner designed for all gender identities that cost $69.00 an oz." By the way, Khadijah would need to take maternity leave in July... The serious problems begin after a male staff affilate is accused of inappropriate sexual misconduct by three different women. Although the allegations of sexual misconduct are a serious matter, in this storyline they were meant as a reflection of current office culture. Nonetheless, this was a fun enjoyable audiobook. **With thanks to the Seattle Public Library.
Leigh Stein was prescient in writing this book. How timely to write a book titled Self Care not only because we could all use a little—or a lot—of self care these days, but we are all living online right now being hit from every direction with what to buy, breaking news, and viral videos. I know that I for one am overstimulated. This book couldn’t have come and spoken to a better time. I was giddy at the satirical lens in which Leigh wrote about self care in the lifestyle space. I got totally wrapped up in the Richual space (great name) and the stereotypes that Maren, Devin, Khadajiha, Evan and others provided.
I loved the characters and how they played into stereotypes and showcase the hypocrisy of performative virtue signaling. Devin and Maren had good intentions with their mission for Richual, but once profit and the hampster wheel of it all took over, their value system and everything that Richual stood for went out the window. I definitely would have liked to have seen more of a pay off or punishment for some of the characters in the end, but in some ways the open-ended finale leaves it up to the reader to decide on what happens.
All in all, highlighting the inner world of the women’s lifestyle space provided a much-needed laugh. Leigh wrote a funny, unapologetic story on the tragic and sometimes necessary era of social media. Leigh calls out our obsession with health and wellness and yet our own inability to trust our gut on what we actually need. We really need to look to ourselves and our own innate, natural instincts rather than jumping on a bandwagon just because it's glossy, and deemed cool.
One of my goals for 2022 is to clean out my Kindle. I have over a thousand books on there right now, which is the product of over half a decade of ebook hoarding, and I'm desperately trying to read as much as I can and delete everything that I don't like/don't want to reread. I don't remember how SELF CARE came across my radar. I probably saw an article about it somewhere because that's typically how I end up finding "hip" books like these. As someone who works in tech, I'm always a little amused by books that parody start-up culture because even though I think it's fun, there are definite flaws in the structure.
SELF CARE is a tough book to rate because I did find parts of it really funny and spot on... there just isn't a point? There's two ways of doing satire. There's satire with a point (some sort of end goal: a message, a funny story, an unexpected twist) and then there's the Antiques Roadshow sort of satire, where you just point at it, maybe laugh, and then you call it out and just move on to repeat steps 1-3.
This book is the Antiques Roadshow version of satire. It doesn't really do anything except do the literary equivalent of pointing its finger and going "ha ha!" After getting through a quarter of this book where all of the punchlines seemed to boil down to "MILLENNIALS, THEY'RE SO RIDICULOUS, AMMIRITE?" I started to get bored. I kind of feel like Self Care is for people who publicly brag about leaving Facebook and are also subscribed to TheNew Yorker. You know who you are.
While living through this global health pandemic, I'm still trying to unpack and recover from the daily traumas and minute-to-minute dramas of the previous 6 years spent toiling 24/7 in the blindingly contradictory world of women's wellness. Too soon? Maybe. That said, I was drawn to this book like bougie basic betches are drawn to The Class by Taryn Toomey. Leigh Stein’s "Self Care" was just the darkly comedic celery juice and organic gin craft cocktail I needed to toss back to process the mixture of amusing, absurd, and bitter memories of my own somewhat self-inflicted pain from living as a female leader working at a well-known online healthy living website.
"Self Care" is like the insightful, witty, well-toned, high-achieving love child born after the Williamsburg loft party where the movie "Heathers" had a threesome with Dave Eggers' The Circle and Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley: A Memoir while watching their lithesome reflection in Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion What I’m trying to say is: I couldn’t look away or put this book down!
Stein shines an LED selfie light on the dark ways sickness is sold to us as health for profit by businesses, brands, and influencers – along with our very closest frenemies. Like the most in-demand women’s lifestyle Instagrammers (distilled to essence in the character of Devin Avery), Stein nails all the details down to the placement of the windowsill succulents and meditation cushions. I can’t tell you how many times my former wellness website treated self-care influencers to lunch or dinner in West Hollywood restaurants where they ordered "hot water and lemon" or inquired how the asparagus was cooked before asking the waiter for "a side of steamed veggies to have as my main course."
Stein has her finger on the pulse of the click-baity so-bad-they’re-gold headlines (i.e. "The Real Reason You Think You Need a Snack" and "Ancient Fasting Wisdom That Will Blow Your Mind and Clear Your Gut") as well as the competitive and formulaic first-person confessionals squeezed in a cold-press from our most-soul-crushing real life experiences. She smartly critiques our current culture: "In the attention economy, thoughtful solutions had so little value. What you did wrong was more engaging than what you did right," while delivering sardonic laughs with goat yoga, woke quasi-feminist slogans on branded tchotchkes, and a photo series called “Healing Crystal or Dildo of Antiquity?"
I cracked one of many dark smiles when I read: "Her arms were pale, unblemished, delicately defined in the Tracy Anderson mode. The scent of her body was sweat and period blood, hardly masked by her useless natural deodorant." I know that girl! In fact, I know 100 of her.
Maren Gelb, Devin’s co-founder and editorial leader for their co-created self-care social network Richual (and the character I relate most to) says: "I kept my phone next to me on the couch while we ate, just in case it buzzed or rang. This must be how surgeons felt. I might be needed in an emergency. No, working online was worse than being a surgeon. Your career as a surgeon didn’t continue in virtual space while you slept or ate breakfast or had sex or shopped at Fairway." #Truth
I forced myself to take calming yogic Ujjayi Pranayama breaths as my hands raced through the pages toward the story’s stomach-churning conclusion. Stein sticks the landing with rapid-pacing and poise. I wish I had written this book!
okay so this one time i went to an event at the wing before the wing got canceled and i was like there is something so psychically amiss about those 25 year old employees with minimalist avocado line drawing tattoos and vaguely yonic decorative sculptures that i feel like i'm the protagonist of a "get out" spin-off for ladies. and then like three months later amanda hess did that semi investigative piece about the insane racism behind the scenes and audrey gelman resigned, and i was like holy shit i am a bad feminist Precog.
this book also set off my Capitalist Feminism spidey tingle. it's obviously supposed to be a satire of the Wing/Goop/Nasty Gal/girlboss-run enterprises, but it ends up just name-dropping a lot of manhattan yuppie brands and becoming the thing it's trying to parody. clearly it's critical of girlboss culture but the moments of criticism are kind of wedged into otherwise flat prose about white women who drink a lot of wine and rub expensive oil on their faces. this book is basically the book equivalent of a "the future is female" t-shirt manufactured by sweatshop laborers for bourgeois white women to wear to spin class.
Because it was so highly recommended in Cosmo? What a waste of time. This book was stupid and annoying. I get that it’s a satire, mocking women for their self-absorption and vanity. Regardless, it is tiring and poorly written. Surely, this should not be the hot summer beach read it is promoted to be.
I'm not sure if it was my quarantine mood, or this book, or some combination. But this book was TOO MUCH. Even though the portrayal of startup culture was so spot on, all the characters were so hateable that I found it hard to read.
I feel seen af. I haven't loved a book this much since "Daisy Jones." Stein's nickname as the poet laureate of The Bachelor displays her perfection to write about the exact intersection of wellness influencers and do-good millennial brands where so many people of a certain age and background spend their internet lives. How many of these companies have I watched implode-Gawker, Away, Decium, Uber, etc etc etc. However, Stein lowers the knives into us, the enablers and viewers, just as sharply as she lowers it into the people behind the image. These modern-day Wizard of OSes, with their acai bowls and high-waisted leggings, make for fantastic reading, and Stein delivers her story with sharp insight and wicked humor.
Whether you read this book or not, please just go read Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism instead or in addition to. You’ll learn way more by reading that book than this one.
DNF’d this book with less than 100 pages to go. I was hate reading it by that point. I understand what this book was trying to do but I don’t think it succeeded. I’m all for skewering the white feminism and fake empowerment of companies/brands that crumbles under any scrutiny but this book just ended up being the thing it was trying to critique. A book about white women that made fun of them and their performative wokeness but then didn’t really examine why white feminism is so dangerous.
There was barely any examination of intersectionality or intersectional feminist issues despite the fact there was a black character with POV chapters, but the book didn’t spend nearly as much time in her voice as it did the white characters. (To be fair I didn’t finish the book and I understand why a white author would spend more time writing from their perspective rather than from one they don’t personally experience).
I started out thinking it was going to be a good satire of white feminism but it's trying so hard to be satire that it just veers into tedious and and totally over the top bad parody. Listing out the brand and ingredients of every product in a character’s skin care routine or salad ceases to satirize the brand-obsessed, health-obsessed girl boss when it happens every other page and literally every time a product, app, or other branded item is mentioned. That’s just bad writing.
I think this book is wildly misunderstood. It's supposed to be satirical. You hate the characters because you're kind of supposed to. This book is short but packs a HUGE punch because it essentially calls out an industry that monetizes something that can be done for free or at least a lot cheaper than what brands charge these days. Also, I think it shows how competitive women can be, even when they claim to just want to build each other up in the workplace. The cover is this wonderful and pretty picture that draws you in, but the real world isn't always so nice. This book does a fantastic job of highlighting that!
This is a fabulously biting satire of the "self care" industry aimed at women, and a wonderful look at the way women's very real pain and insecurities are exploited and used to make a profit (usually for the male VCs at the head of those empires). Though frankly, I'd give it five stars just for the one line where one character tells another, "you don't work hard enough to be burnt out."
-Maren's ironic, yet self-aware obsession with work as COO of a wellness startup -Devin's ridiculously specific self-care practices -Khadijah's tendency to channel her stress into blog titles -The seamless integration of blogs, texts, press releases, and chatroom conversations into and between three distinctive first-person POVs -Its uncanny portrayal of both shine theory and toxicity in female friendships, the double-edged sword that is the wellness industry, and the complex ways we interact with and perform to each other in online spaces. Oddly, it reminded me of Jia Tolentino's Trick Mirror and Hank Green's An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.
I won't quote from the book as I read an ARC, but look out for the incredible one-liners when you get your hands on this one--the ones that make you laugh as well as the ones that make you think "oof!"
According to its most basic dictionary definition, “self-care” means simply “the practice of taking action to preserve or improve one’s own health.” But moving past its denotation and into its many—and frequently ambivalent—connotations, self-care becomes a more fraught and considerably less straightforward term. Leigh Stein’s second novel, Self Care, examines the ambiguities inherent in its title concept, delivering a hilarious and scathing satire on the toxicity and contradictions of contemporary wellness culture and commodified feminism. I devoured it in a weekend laughing out loud and cringing hard at the impeccably rendered saga of a lifestyle company called Richual whose mission is to “use social technology to connect, cure, and catalyze women to be global changemakers through the simple act of self-care,” and thinking a lot about how, as one of the book’s epigraphs states, “If you think the internet is terrible now, just wait a while” aka Balk’s Third Law. From 2014 to 2017, Stein was the cofounder and executive director of Out of the Binders/BinderCon, a feminist literary nonprofit dedicated to advancing the careers of women and gender variant writers. Her previous books include the poetry collection Dispatch from the Future (Melville House, 2012), the novel The Fallback Plan (Melville House, 2012), and the memoir Land of Enchantment (Plume, 2016). This spring, as Self Care was about to come out, she and I corresponded over email about destructive activists, the disturbing prevalence of trauma as content, and how too often what passes for discourse on the left devolves into “liberal white people with masters degrees telling other liberal white people with masters degrees how they’re failing in doing the work.” Also: skincare routines. The following conversation has been condensed and edited.
Kathleen Rooney (Rail): Of what does a typical day in the life of Leigh Stein consist? Leigh Stein: I work for myself and my boss has really high expectations. I tend to evaluate my own worth in terms of how much I produce and achieve. My moon is in Virgo and I track all my time and keep a spreadsheet of my productivity and my earnings. I’m a Libra sun, so I’m also all about balance. On a good day, I reserve a few hours in the morning for reading and writing. I spend my afternoons working as a book coach. I’m working with 10 or 12 memoirists and novelists at a time, helping them finish their manuscripts, build their platforms, and find literary agents. Rail: As Aisha Harris writes in her article “A History of Self-Care,” the phrase originated as a medical concept, and “It wasn’t until the rise of the women’s movement and the civil rights movement that self-care became a political act. Women and people of color viewed controlling their health as a corrective to the failures of a white, patriarchal medical system to properly tend to their needs.” Your novel explores—with an absolutely unsparing eye—the morphing (or perhaps the deformation) of the initially positive concept of self-care into the troubling realm of physical and online “wellness,” with its attendant consumerism, monetization, and elitism—fitness routines, skincare products, orthorexic eating, vaguely mystical product lines, and so forth. What made you decide to take on this topic, and why do so in fiction and not another genre? Stein: After the 2016 election, I saw the Audre Lorde quote (“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”) everywhere on social media. Detached from its origin (Lorde’s cancer diaries), it became a meme, influencer content, permission to really focus on yourself right now, when you (the liberal) felt sick with rage over the election results. Companies figured out how to capitalize on our despair by selling us products: 10-step skincare routines, Himalayan salt lamps, meditation app subscriptions, booties to peel the skin off our feet. The American impulse is to solve problems through consumption: isn’t there something I can buy that would take the edge off? Rail: Two of your first-person narrators, Maren and Devin, are white, and one of them, Khadijah, is black. Moreover, Devin, the face of the company, is independently wealthy—and thereby able to commit herself religiously to an ascetic dietary and fitness regimen—whereas Maren and Khadijah are just getting by, hustling hard behind the scenes. The book doesn’t shy away from the questions and resentments raised by the obvious inequalities and blind spots among the three of them as they try to keep the wellness start-up Richual up and running. How did you figure out who your protagonists would be, and why did you give them the traits that you did? What do you hope readers get out of watching their dynamic? Stein: I put Maren and Devin on opposite poles of a wellness spectrum. Devin is a compulsive exerciser, someone with disordered eating habits who says it’s all for her “health” (orthorexia). Maren is a “leading feminist” who knows she should be body positive and not care about her pants size; she also has a drinking problem and is addicted to work. To Maren, “self care” means permission to drink. Her addictions are just as powerful as Devin’s. Khadijah is between those two poles. She’s health-conscious (a vegan) and she goes to yoga, but she takes a more realistic, relatable approach to wellness. I’ve seen how women of color are tokenized by for-profit companies with feminist branding (see Amanda Hess’s 2020 profile of The Wing, for instance) and I knew I couldn’t write a novel that only centered the two white cofounders. If Devin and Maren were savvy feminists, a woman of color would be one of their first hires. I worked on developing Khadijah’s motivations for accepting the position and working for these people. There had to be something in it for her. Rail: Relatedly, I appreciated that this is a book about three straight women in which the action is driven not by any suspense as to whether they’ll find love with a man in the end, but by how each of their relationships to ambition, work, and money will resolve. One character observes that, “Our appetite for stories of victimized women is insatiable.” Why do you think our culture has that bottomless appetite and how conscious were you about managing or pushing against your audience’s expectations regarding that trope? Stein: While I was working on my novel, a number of major events unfolded in the media: there was the fall of #MeToo and the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, the Babe.net story of Aziz Ansari, the controversy over whether or not Lena Dunham really believed victims when an accusation was made against one of her professional colleagues, the accusations of violence against New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (an outspoken leader in the #MeToo movement!). My lunch conversations with friends (remember going out to lunch?) orbited around assault and harassment. I didn’t feel part of a collective catharsis. I felt fatigued. I wondered if men were talking about this at their lunches. Taken to its most cynical extreme (because I’m writing a satire), I thought about how victimhood can be weaponized to someone’s advantage. I was influenced by Jessa Crispin’s polemic Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto. She writes, There are advantages to being labeled the victim. You are listened to, paid attention to. Sympathy is bestowed upon you. Once you have been declared a victim, you are allowed to rest, you are given time to recover. Everything you do is brave. You can be sympathetic as to why people might want to be in that victimhood space. It’s why so many people make up stories of victimization, like people writing memoirs claiming to have survived the Holocaust, white girls from the suburbs claiming to be inner-city gang members…mothers making their children sick just to get attention at the hospital. To be sure, Crispin’s generalizing (many women are not listened to or given sympathy), but I ask you to think if you’ve ever seen an influencer on Instagram or Twitter confess something traumatic in order to seem more sympathetic to her audience. I’m disturbed by the prevalence of trauma as content. Rail: There are so many brutally acute and hilarious lines in this book. A favorite of mine is when Maren thinks, despairingly, about how she’s devoted her “every waking hour to building a community of self-absorbed narcissists whose definition of political action was serving as brand ambassadors for the first-ever pubic hair conditioner designed for all gender identities that costs sixty-nine dollars an ounce.” What, to you, are the qualities of effective satire? And what are the ideal outcomes of satire? What should it do for the reader? For the world? Stein: In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby says that satire works by “constantly setting up a contrast between a character who thinks he is being moral—supporting the beliefs of the society—and the effects of those actions and beliefs, which are decidedly immoral.” With the character of Maren, I wanted to see how far I could push a character’s bad behavior under the guise of “doing the right thing.” Working on this book, I felt like the little boy shouting, “The emperor has no clothes!” I think satire can effectively highlight hypocrisy. Rail: The book is unflinching in its critique of the performed outrage and petty point-scoring that characterizes a great deal of online “discourse.” As Devin observes, “the only thing women love more than being angry is being angry at those who are angry about the wrong things.” She thinks this in relation to Richual’s plan to create a segment called Stay Woke, Y’all, which she notes would present the company with “a way to monetize that anger.” Why has wokeness become noxious and how can we reclaim it towards some kind of restorative or edifying function? Stein: I’m interested in John McWhorter’s theory that wokeness (or what he calls third-wave antiracism) is a new religion of the left. In his construction, White people confessing their guilt and privilege is akin to testifying and those with problematic views should be called out publicly and excommunicated for being heretics. In a 2018 piece for the Atlantic, Yascha Mounk describes a study conducted by the organization More in Common about PC culture, and writes that “progressive activists are much more likely to be rich, highly educated—and white.” This describes a lot of my Twitter bubble (which I have actively aimed to diversify, not only by race and class but also by ideology): liberal white people with masters degrees telling other liberal White people with masters degrees how they’re failing in doing the work. Is telling educated, liberal white people they just haven’t read enough books yet the solution? Is reading Robin DiAngelo or attending a $2,500 dinner party with Saira Rao to confront your privilege and fragility going to solve economic, health, environmental, and/or educational disparities between Black and White Americans? Before you put $2,500 towards an anti-racist dinner party, have you divested your investment portfolio of prison stocks? I wonder if the project of dismantling systemic racism is so large and daunting that White women are seduced by the idea of anti-racism as self-improvement because self-improvement is a framework they are already very familiar with. Rail: Can you talk a bit about how you founded and ran BinderCon? What were the biggest rewards of serving in that position, and what were the biggest challenges? Stein: Anna Fitzpatrick started a private Facebook group for women writers in 2014, thinking 20 people would join. Within three months, there were 30,000 members, including me. I’m someone who’s been making friends on the internet since I was 13 years old and I love spending time in online communities, so I was totally hooked, checking the group every day. In July, I proposed the idea that we should have a conference, and by October we’d raised $50,000 to hold a conference for 500 writers in New York City. That conference, BinderCon, became a 501c3 nonprofit organization and I became its executive director. I’m extremely proud of the six conferences I worked on, in NYC and LA, with an all-volunteer staff. My team was incredible and gave so much—time, bold ideas to make the conference more inclusive, positive energy, valuable connections in their network. Members of our community signed with agents, became New York Times bestsellers. But I couldn’t emotionally or financially sustain the work. I earned a $12,000 (annual) stipend as executive director, worked as a teacher/copyeditor/freelance writer on the side, and took on credit card debt to stay afloat. I might have been able to keep doing it if the drama and conflict in our online community hadn’t so utterly consumed my life. I went on antidepressants and ultimately had to resign for my own health. At the time, in 2017, I thought these problems were unique to our community and that as a leader, I had failed. I had no idea how common destructive activists are in progressive organizations. They’d rather destroy than pitch in to build something better. Rail: You grew up in Lombard, Illinois, dropped out of Glenbard East High School, and attended classes at College of DuPage before moving to New York to study acting. What was your childhood in the Midwest like and how did coming of age there shape you as a writer? And what did you get out of being a young writer in New York City? Finally, where are you living now, and how is that environment shaping you and your work? Stein: I did indeed drop out of Glenbard East High School. I have a really hard time thriving inside institutions. I’m not a very good motivational speaker for young people, because my path is totally unconventional and the grown-ups usually want you to reassure the youth to follow convention. I didn’t graduate college until I was 27. I’m not a very good case study for MFA students either because I don’t have one (I published my first two books, and worked at the New Yorker, before I got my BA). I think to be an artist you have to have something you’re pushing up against. That resistance is important. It’s how you come to define who you are and who you’re not, the kind of work you want to produce and the kind of work you definitely do not want to produce. I don’t think the places I’ve called home have been as influential on my work as the internet as setting. The internet is where I found my first readers, my first peers, my first collaborators, my first editors. I’m really lucky that I came up as a writer at the same time lit journals were coming online, and my first publications as a poet launched my writing career and led me to my first literary agent.
I’ve always been drawn to millennial novels (think Sally Rooney, Ottessa Moshfegh, Naoise Dolan, Dolly Alderton etc). While they have been flooding the market in recent years, it’s still not a theme i’m sick of (yet). But like any other tropes, some works are excellent, while others are more lackluster. Unfortunately, i found SELF CARE to fall under the latter.
When i read through the blurb, i thought it would be right up my street. We have Maren and Devin, two young women who built a start-up called ‘Richual’ - a social media platform like Instagram that focuses on wellness but a lot more commercialised as they connect users to products or services in the name of ‘self care’. The whole book was basically a satirical look at influencer culture, the #girlboss trend, white fragility and performative allyship.
I knew it was going to be a struggle when i had to muddle through the excessive name dropping of brands and millennial buzzwords from the get go. Twists like drinking problems, eating disorders and sexual assault charges were thrown in, which didn’t add any depth to the story and felt almost futile. It’s like as if the author is just using the book as a vehicle to make snappy social commentaries with too little focus on the actual story and character development.
Mind you, there’s a bunch of quotable sentences and passages you could find. It also looks at the ‘unlikeable character’ notion which i’m always into, as all our narrators are honest in their narrative and don’t sugarcoat their thoughts. But these just weren’t enough to redeem the rest of the book. Also - i think this is implied but the vanity coming from the privileged characters was just outrageous.
Premise was great, but the execution - not so much...
Oh my God, I almost didn't finish this one. I didn't get the point, so what was this all about? I got the impression that we have a couple of loose stories here to, well, I don't know what this novel wanted to actually tell me. I was pretty bored and yes, maybe I would have had more fun with it if I got all the pop culture references. The novel lacked a real plot and a meaning. I knew that Self Care wanted to deal with Social Media, but this was just too much. Furthermore, this was ought to be a satire, but it wasn't one. Some few jokes were quite nice, but the rest was not. Then the novel dealt with topics like gender equality and race, but not very successful. It lacked depth, and a novel just mentioning several issues cannot be regarded as feminist etc. The ending was, well, I don't know this either. My goodness, maybe I am too old for this, it just wasn't the right thing for me.
I loved the voice in this book so much, it truly felt familiar in that way that makes me cringe. But then we got to Khadija and it just felt so vague, like there wasn't enough time to do research on what she would sound like and be like, not even a cursory mention that black women are much more likely to die in child birth than anyone else? It just felt surface-level and the issues that cropped up later also felt surface level, which I guess it's par for the course with these shallow start-up founders, but sexual assault isn't really a subject that lends itself to the satire of white women. It's hard to put the two side by side and not feel like the author is making fun of #metoo a little, and I feel like I can laugh at vagina candles while still taking Paltrow's sexual harassment accusations seriously. When you try to make fun of an anxious, hysterical white woman spiraling because she thinks her friend is a rape victim and then being punished by it ... it's icky. So on the one hand I liked that the book addressed how we try to capitalize on anything these days, but on the other, I don't think I'm ever in the mood for a book about caring too much is worse than being a privileged asshat who doesn't care at all. Two stars because I still think it was well-written, it was just not for me in any way.
A punchy and important novel that explores the ways in which the commercialization of modern feminism and the "self care" industry masquerades as wellness for women, but really just makes us feel inadequate and promotes bullying and tear-down culture. Stein has a sharp wit and a talent for writing believable characters (we all know exactly who these people are!) and uses the power of fiction to call attention to the nefarious influence of social media and #girlboss culture on millennials. I loved most the author's exploration of our current culture's obsession with seeing every issue in black and white, while also holding a mirror up to all the grey areas that we haven't come to terms with. A quick read but only because I couldn't tear myself away! This should be a top choice for feminist book clubs everywhere - lots and lots to discuss here
I almost never laugh while I'm reading a book...I thought something might be wrong with me, but now I know I just needed to read THIS BOOK! Witty, snarky, outrageous--this book is just so much fun, but not without an undercurrent of mild trepidation, especially because Leigh Stein does an amazing job of holding up the mirror to our current culture. Girls all over the world who have suffered through hours of Fab Fit Fun ads and hot yoga will absolutely DIE OVER (that means LOVE) this book.
An insecure but gorgeous fitness/wellness influencer, a beleaguered nonprofit exec whose mission is to end gender-based oppression via statues of vaginas in public places, and a Black writer who became famous for viral essays like "The Best Worst Time I Had My UTI Mansplained to Me on Reddit" come together to found Richual, a self-care-focused social-media network for women, an attempt which — you'll never guess — goes horribly awry.
Are you laughing yet? Crying? Yes? Oh my gosh this book is a pitch-perfect satire of this exceedingly stupid moment in our enduringly, relentlessly stupid society, all of which Leigh Stein skewers so, so well.
The platform is designed for "dewy-skinned, chaturanga-toned young women who post about their exclusive ayahuasca ceremonies (millenial pink puke buckets provided)" or who "pose with a glass of low-cal rosé at the launch party for sweat-proof eyeshadow you could wear to spin class"
Here, Richual tells users: buy this beach towel, try this ten-step beauty routine, rub this on your chakras, brush your skin, tone your vagina, lubricate your third eye, pumice your spiritual calluses, alchemize your intuition, spend all your time and money taking care of yourself, because there's no one else you can trust who will.
Stein perfectly, agonizingly, hilariously takes us through the astonishing rise and the death-by-a-thousand-cancelations fall of the platform, not to mention the dissolution of the minds of all (well, most) of the people involved in it. She tosses off lines like "cultural commentary is hugely popular among the woke Gen Z demo; user engagement that once aggregated around FOMO and envy is now more dynamic in regards to controversy and outrage." She deftly incorporates text messages, Slack conversation, market-up Google docs, edited and re-edited and re-edited press releases, and slippery sponcon posts and nauseating personal essays into the storytelling, and you will (or anyway I did) gasp with recognition and dismay on nearly every page. Woof.
I was a little hesitant to read this one at first because influencer/wellness social media culture in general makes my brain feel mushy. My worries were unfounded, however, due to the self-awareness this book had. The narration had a biting wit and it never felt like the author wasn’t in on the joke. This was an interesting take on startup culture as well, since you got to see how the founders met and the inner workings of their dynamic as real life friends and partners. Khadijah was also a strong character and I was glad to have the input of her point of view in the mix sometimes. This book touches on so many of the issues of today from white privilege/race and class divides, paid maternity leave, the falsity of appearing perfect online, sexual assault, the defending of abusers when it’s someone you know/victim blaming and so much more. The audiobook narrators did an awesome job and I gasped in my car when the twist happened right at the end. I can’t recommend this book enough.
3.5 stars. A glossy satire of the health and wellness industry, #girlboss life, corporate feminism, influencers, social media, and the lack of diversity in startups. Fun and fast-reading--almost to a fault; it felt rushed and likely *was* rushed by publishers given how of-the-moment the subject matters is. It'd probably make for a great book club read for Gen Z/millenial ladies. It touched on almost too many buzzy topics, so I felt that it would have benefitted from being at least 10% longer. I personally would have enjoyed if the satire would have been even more scathing and critical, but I doubt that would have as much commercial appeal ;)
I enjoyed Self Care. This was my first time engaging with Leigh Stein and it was fun. This book was dark and hilarious, poisonous, depraved. It battled a lot of current cultural situations millennial women involved in the social media world are dealing with/faced with at the moment. It provided a few intersecting perspectives but none that I empathized with greatly. For example, I thought both Maren and Devin were completely fucking insipid and kind of unbearable. I got Gwyneth Paltrow Goop vibes from Richual; the obvious hint of ugliness in this company being tied to the beginning word "Rich" in their self care shenanigans.
A favourite line of mine:
"“BEING A GOOD GIRL IS WORTH NO MORE THAN $50,000 SO ADJUST YOUR EXPECTATIONS OR BEHAVIOR.”" // 11% in 'Self Care' by Leigh Stein
I read that and was like: yeah, 100% FACTS.
I liked the cadence and clip of Leigh Stein’s writing style. Self Care wasn’t particularly thrilling but there was this quality about it where I couldn’t put it down. Was it the shadiness of the characters that I liked? Maybe. The story itself was by all means pretty linear, with most of the twists and turns occurring in each character's intentions with Richual or the their intentions with each other. I also thought it was a great character study in the kinds of unhappiness, fake happiness & settling for bullshit that millennial woman are willing to take; especially our insipid main character, overkill strategist and somewhat power hungry Maren Gelb. I liked the backstories; they kind of felt like the movies From Prada to Nada meets the Social Network.
As an early adopter and early defector of IG, I’m mostly anti-influencer, anti-rich-bitch health and wellness culture. This book gets to the heart of what that is and what it looks like from the inside of these IG influencer/branding spaceships. There was tea and there was bitches shading each other at every turn. Self Care also felt a little like that Black Mirror episode Nosedive. I loved the character Khadijah, that bitch was plotting and stealthy and I was here for it. Great character glow up.
This is definitely a chill, lay on your deck/balcony, drink some wine and laugh, weekend/summer/beach read.