When reading this review, you might find that I come off a bit angry. I want to make it clear that I’m not mad at Leigh Stein or her wonderful book. I’m mad at the world we live in that made this book so damn relevant and necessary. I’m not trying to tar this book with the brush of ‘importance’, because it’s a very enjoyable read with moments of real lightness. So join me on my journey as I try to assess why this book lit such a fire inside me, and then pick up a copy yourself.
First—we have to start at the beginning. In the context of Self Care, we could go back centuries. And I’ll get to that, but for now, let’s start with modern history. When scholars look back at the Instagram of the 2010s, they will note the prevalence of two intensive, often militant, and frequently contradictory schools of thought. Both making use of the pastel-perfect Instagram palette—meaningful quotes typed in handwritten fonts, the long captions alongside decorated lattes and mirror shots—they will find the Girlboss, and the Self Care queen. It is as much this moment in time that Stein captures so ripely in this perfect summer satire as the characters that bring these concepts to life; the novel’s leads, Devin and Maren.
‘Girlbossing’ glorifies full calendars and the hustle, exemplified in quotes about never giving up. It rose to prominence thanks to Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amaruso, and the phrase started as a descriptor for women in business, largely those who played on their femininity, but soon became a hashtagabble mantra signifying the aim of making business moves; a woman taking control of her destiny. In Self Care, Maren works around the clock, keeping the business afloat while her health suffers. It’s her erratic, stress-induced tweeting that drives attention to the business at the heart of the novel.
‘Self Care’ requires the prioritisation of downtime and wellbeing rituals, exemplified in quotes about going back to bed. It has gone from a radical act to being a hashtag; a catch-all term for something that we are entitled to and should defend to the death. It is, if catchy Instagram proclamations are to believed, anything from a face mask and a glass of wine on a Sunday, to a reason to skip work or cancel on friends as and when you choose. Devin has quite literally made a career out of self care. She’s barely in the office, instead opting for meditation, yoga, massages and beauty treatments. Her body and her face are proof of the brand; self care works.
It’s likely you’ll drift more towards one character or the other as you read, although recognise elements of both in those around you. They represent the caricatures online but seem alarmingly real. You want to reach out and shake them, like friends who are posting too often and who you discuss on the group chat they’re not in. (We are the problem).
Reading this book and spending time with Devin and Maren made me realise that it was necessary for the girlboss and the self care queen to rise to prominence at the same time; one the antidote to the other, an endless cycle of Instagram comparison-induced burnout and the reclamation of time that can heal this. It’s remarkable that these different life perspectives find their common ground in glitter, pastels and unicorns—or slogan beach towels, as we see in the novel’s tentpole moment.
The problem is that when something becomes a meme, it takes on a life force of its own. It replicates and distorts, and the well-meaning root is lost. Usually, we can blame capitalism for this. If something gets popular it’s the job of someone, somewhere to make money from it. Social media has just accelerated that process, and that’s where the premise of Self Care is smarter than the fast pace and glamorous drama would have you initially believe.
Self Care tells the story of Devin and Maren as they collaborate on an app they cofounded. ‘Richual’ is a social network that gamifies self care for women. Set in a post-2016 world in which we all need a break from the news cycle, but are unable to do so without existing in a connected, kudos-led space—it’s actually surprising to me that this doesn’t already exist.
As someone who, alongside a healer friend, set up a business in 2016 that connects working women to wellbeing practitioners, I do feel that this book was somewhat written for me. Some lines I had to read through my fingers, so cutting and well-observed they were. That my business no longer exists is somewhat irrelevant. (In an act of self care we shut it down when I realised that being a boss of any description did not align with my authentic self.) Since then, as a writer, I have dreamed of creating a robust and biting satire on the commercialisation of self care, that has in the past half a decade become so critical to Instagram engagement and communication. I needn’t have bothered, as Leigh Stein has done a near perfect job. This book is an easy read, enjoyable as it is painful, with a lot to say about this world.
What I loved was that at no point is the book didactic. It does not need to explicitly state that self care has been used to validate harmful behaviours such as a fascination with looks and weight, that Western women have co-opted ancient traditions from other cultures as though they discovered them or even invented them themselves. It does not need to condemn the fact that by glamourising the girlboss lifestyle we are perpetuating the idea that our personal value lies in our professional productivity. The characters are such trainwrecks that the lesson is there for those who wish to take it.
I hope it’s not too subtle. There’s a lot of wisdom to take from such a concise and enjoyable story, and the fact that these characters exist, IRL on many Instagram feeds, makes me concerned that this may be missed by those using self care to avoid deeper healing, or those getting just four hours of sleep per night because they heard a podcast that told them that was essential to success.
While being unable to put it down, as is likely very clear from this review, I found myself becoming angry, almost bitter as I engaged with the world of the story—which I soon realised was a direct result of the world of the story so effectively reflecting the world of our reality. And as someone who related deeply with both characters, I am acutely aware of my own hypocrisy when I moan about the commercialisation of a term with such noble aims and revolutionary origins, or when I am guilty of having posted pictures of myself working on a Sunday with hashtags expressly celebrating ‘the grind’. And I realised, as is often the case, my anger was misplaced. I don’t want to be mad at the women who engage with and perpetuate these trendy behaviours. To me, the only place that Stein’s novel could have gone further would be to address the root cause of this disconnect from the heart of what self care and girlbossdom could be, at their truest and most beautiful essence.
Because, for the continual erosion of self-awareness that detracts from the genuine benefits a connection to spiritual tradition can offer, there is much nourishment and healing that can come from the genuine reclamation of time for the self. Similarly, the value of being a self-sufficient entrepreneur with a dream and a goal outside of traditional corporate structures is remarkable and profound. It is the capitalist mindset—catalysed by the Silicon Valley, start-up, VC money mentality—that truly disrupted this integrity.
It is a very real fact that there are many women like Devin and Maren—the faces of Richual, an app for women by women—who are at the whim of their male investors for the capital to keep going. It’s important to note that both Devin and Maren are white, and the book does a great job of showing that white women are still more likely to get opportunities than their BIPOC counterparts. Although it is still very much a man’s game, the potential to play it in the hopes of ‘winning big’ is offered almost exclusively to well-connected white women, although their younger, precariously placed and often racially diverse staff do all of the legwork with a far less significant pay-off at the end of it. The cycle continues. In a similar vein, I would have liked to see a more explicit callout highlighting the role that men have historically played in benefiting financially from women’s insecurities: turning each ‘flaw’ into something they can monetise, igniting each body and mind into a perpetual competition for perfection, and creating the environment in which an app that gamifies this in the first place can thrive. Devin and Maren, representing the founders just like them, may have intentions that are consciously noble, but the harmful, innately patriarchal capitalism that allows apps like this to survive and thrive was always against them.
Instead, there’s an important sexual abuse storyline that heightens the drama of the novel, and I have to remember that’s what this is. It’s a novel. But it’s frighteningly relevant, torturously well-observed, and utterly unputdownable. I’m not sure how many beaches we’ll collectively be on this summer, but I’d recommend it for that purpose if you do make it on holiday. Partly because it has the speed, humour, and aspirational charm of a typical summer read. But more because that’s a heightened situation of gendered ego, comparison and pain—more and more lived through a constant social media feedback loop. And if this book teaches us nothing else, it’s that we need to love ourselves and follow our goals without the help of a screen or social validation. And that’s something to aim for, not something to be mad about.
By Leigh Stein
258 pages. 2020.