Self Care: A Novel

Self Care: A Novel

by Leigh Stein
Self Care: A Novel

Self Care: A Novel

by Leigh Stein


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"Highbrow, brilliant." —The Approval Matrix, New York magazine

One of Cosmopolitan's 12 Books You'll Be Dying to Read This Summer

A Publishers Weekly Best Book of Summer 2020
A Vulture Best Book of Summer 2020
One of Refinery29's 25 Books You'll Want to Read This Summer
An Esquire Must-Read Book of Summer 2020
A Book Riot Best Book of 2020 *so far

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 could 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143135197
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/30/2020
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 264,482
Product dimensions: 7.60(w) x 5.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Leigh Stein is the author of the acclaimed 2012 novel The Fallback Plan, a poetry collection the same year, and the 2016 memoir Land of Enchantment. 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.

Read an Excerpt



By the time Devin found me, I'd been at the office for fourteen hours and was lying on a lavender velvet chaise, fortifying myself with room-temperature-staff-kitchen chardonnay that I'd poured into a "MALE TEARS" mug, scrolling through my various feeds, using multiple search terms, absorbing every abusive thing people were saying about me, @MarenGelb, M**en G**b, libtard, feminazi, stupid fucking cunt.


I wasn't crying. I felt pleasantly numb. With an insatiable hunger for knowing, I kept compulsively refreshing, in search of the worst. The infinite scroll prevented me from ever hitting bottom.


The elevator ding signaled her arrival. "Babe?"


I raised my mug in the air.


"You're here! People are worried about you. Your phone is off."


"I turned it on Do Not Disturb so I could OD on the internet in peace."


Devin tossed her coat over an ergonomic exercise ball chair. Her blond hair was still damp from showering after her exercise class, so I knew she wasn't too concerned about me, not so concerned that she'd miss an opportunity to burn six hundred calories. She was wearing her "Namaslay" T-shirt.


After a bottle of wine, I'd ditched my sweater and was down to my BreastNest, a garment I'd ordered online. It's a spongy beige sack you can wear for support if even the idea of clasping a bra is too much.


"Sit next to me," I said. "You smell good."


"What are you drinking?"


"Kombucha," I said.


I'd been working late, revising the competitive advantage slide for our pitch deck. Everyone else had gone home. The song of my inbox played at a slower tempo after dark-it was the only time of day I could get anything done. I took a break to check Twitter, and without asking anyone's permission or doing a SWOT analysis, I made a joke. Or I thought it was a joke. Definitely an anger-based joke, I can admit that now. It seemed more obviously funny at the time.


"What if you just deleted the tweet?" she said.


"Too late. They already showed it on Anderson Cooper."


I played the clip for her on my phone. Leading feminist Maren Gelb is causing waves tonight with what some on the right are calling a dog whistle to other activists about the president's daughter and her-I had to turn it off. I couldn't watch it again.


"Don't worry," Devin said. "No one watches Anderson Cooper."


"I watch Anderson Cooper."


"Well, you're my elder." Devin smiled and the highlighter around her eyes shimmered with optimism. "Give me the phone, Maren."


"Why, what are you going to do with it?"


"I'm just going to babysit it while you clean up."


"Wait," I snapped. My left hand was a claw that had evolved to grip this little screen until I died. "Can I show you just one?" We both knew I was stalling. "Look at this douche in Palo Alto with half a million followers, saying, '@MarenGelb is an example of the leadership principal when they go low, we go lower. Did I get that right? Hashtag AllLivesMatter.' He doesn't even know how to spell principle! 'All Lives Matter'? Seriously? Do you see this?"


Devin put my phone in her back pocket without even looking at the screen. I needed another drink.


"Well," I said, "the good news is I figured out what our competitive advantage is."


"Let me guess. Our badass cofounders?" She pointed at me and made her hands into a heart.




"Wait, don't tell me. Our seamless integration of sponsored content and organically sourced influencers?"


"No," I said. "The worse it gets-I mean the more women who are outraged and terrified and suffering-the more our user base grows. The more the network scales."


It was happening right now. A hundred new members a minute. The more I was attacked by right-wing trolls, the more women on the left rallied to support me. I was smart enough to retweet all the rape threats (mostly in the "too ugly to rape" genre) I was getting and ask women to create accounts at Richual, the social network Devin and I had built as a world without men-where women could actually take care of themselves.


Richual asked: when's the last time you put yourself first? 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.


We earned revenue from the brands who offered solutions to that pain: serums and creams, juices and dusts, clays and scrubs, drugs and masks, oils and enemas, scraping and purging, vaping and waxing, lifting and lengthening, straightening and defining, detox and retox, the cycle of life.


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. T-shirt slogans popped on her flat chest. Her collarbone was usually exposed and opalescent. She was small enough that she appeared appropriately human-size in photographs taken at red carpet launches, while I stood to one side like her zaftig cousin visiting from another country-the country of Wisconsin.


Devin hid the work it took to make that body. I wore my work like a second, visible skin. Over the course of eighteen months, I'd gone from a size 8 to a 14 and upped my Zoloft prescription twice. My thighs rubbed together when I walked in a dress. The internet told me this was normal. The internet showed me ads for nontoxic anti-chafing gel.


No one ever called us by the other's name.


Devin went to the beauty closet and came back with a tube of Missha Super Aqua Cell Renew Snail Sleeping Mask with 15 percent snail slime extract "from healthy snails born within five to six months" for "strengthening the skin barrier in a natural way."


"Try this and we'll take a selfie and I'll post it to my account so everyone knows you're okay," Devin said. She picked my wrinkled sweater off the floor and I held my arms up like a toddler, so she could dress me.


"The tweet is gonna be good for us, you'll see," I said. "Don't worry about the tweet."




February 24, 2017





Maren Gelb deeply regrets the violent language she posted on Twitter yesterday in regards to a family member of POTUS. Her tweet does not in any way reflect the values of Richual, the most inclusive community platform for women to cultivate the practice of self-care and changing the world by changing ourselves. CEO Devin Avery assures the Richual community that Maren's joke was meant to be perceived as "dark humor," like "Melissa McCarthy," and not as a threat to the health or safety of the first daughter.


"Maren is the most selfless, empathic person I know," Avery says. "I could not have done this without her as my work wife, and I'm sending so many good vibes her way."


In the words of one of our faves, Audre Lorde, "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation. And that is an act of political warfare," but "warfare" is up to each person to decide for herself, and at Richual, we believe that all people are human beings. We trust the community will join us in support of Maren, while she realigns her spirit and health with our core values of respite, recalibration, and resilience. #Namaste


About Us: Richual is a pioneer in the wellness space, using social technology to connect, cure, and catalyze women to be global changemakers through the simple act of self-care.




Women are people.


All people are human beings.


Believe women.


Do better.


Self-care is not selfish.


Don't read the comments.


You are more than a digital footprint.


The political is personal.


Stay woke.


Calm the fuck down.


With a single tweet, Maren had broken at least two of Richual's Ten Commandments stenciled in fuchsia and sherbet on the wall by reception. How could she say she believed women when she didn't believe that having a woman who could advocate for better family leave policies to her dad was a good thing for women? A girl I knew in college was now doing marketing for a startup using nanotechnology to build air filters that eradicate mold toxicity on the molecular level and the guy who had the job before her had a younger brother (adopted) who once dated Tiffany and that was how I was able to get a meeting with someone on Ivanka's team about inviting her to join our exclusive sorority of Richual influencers, after it came to me in a dream one night, the kind of high-quality native content related to juggling entrepreneurship, motherhood, politics, and gardening she could put out there as @Fir$tDaughter, but Maren flushed that potential partnership down the toilet.


When I asked her to at least explain the tweet to me, why she thought it was funny, she just sent me a link to an article about "punching up" in comedy and said, "Educate yourself."


I wasn't mad, not after I did my rounds of kapalabhati this morning, but I was concerned. Maren practiced the least amount of self-care of anyone I knew. Imagine if the COO of Sweetgreen ate McDonald's for lunch every day. You'd be like, Wut?


I'd seen Maren like this before. When I met her at a retreat for solopreneurs in New Orleans, she was in a very dark place. You could tell she was one of the scholarship recipients by how I found her during the continental breakfast wrapping mini muffins in paper napkins to save in her purse for lunch. Now that I think of it, it wasn't really a purse so much as it was a "Free Pussy Riot" tote bag. "I want to mentor that one," I told the organizers. She was working for a charity and had come to the retreat to learn entrepreneurship so she could get better at fundraising. I wanted to do a full makeover, starting with the food types that suited her dosha, but when she showed me the charity website, we had to start there.


"Honestly? You need to invest in a redesign," I told her. "You only have one chance to make a first impression on me and this is not mobile-friendly. I can't share this link with my friends and ask them to donate if it's not cute, you know?"


Maren put her head in her hands. I could tell I was breaking through to her by the way she was breaking down. "You want to make money, don't you?" I asked. She nodded her head without looking at me. "Like, a lot of money, right?" Another nod.


Overnight, she redesigned the website herself, so that it was more pink overall and the Donate Now button stood out in mint green, the color of money, not in an aggressive way but in a way that made you feel generous, like you were building Barbie's Dreamhouse for women who were less fortunate than you.


No matter what I suggested Maren do-including actually ask herself if she wanted to be leading a nonprofit where everyone took her for granted-she did it. We roleplayed different scenarios where she would find herself one-on-one with a woman with a high net worth. I told her the secret to asking for money was to never actually mention money at all.


"Pretend I'm seventy-eight, I'm a widow, my name is Frances but all my friends call me Fifi, and I have a bichon frise on my lap.


"Pretend I'm the young heiress to an alcoholic beverage distributor fortune and I grew up in a household that values philanthropy and you happen to run into me at SoulCycle in East Hampton.


"Pretend my family built their wealth doing something very bad for the environment or something and I feel very, very guilty, and you can help me feel better."


Finally, I said, "Before she died, my mom started a small foundation that gives art grants in New York City. I know she would have been interested in the work you're doing and I'd like to donate five thousand dollars."


"Is this part of the roleplay?"


"No! I'm being serious."


Maren's nose turned bright red and then she started to cry. I'd never seen someone so genuinely grateful about so little money. It was super satisfying, like when you're trying to get the last glob of jelly cleanser from a tube and you're shaking and shaking it upside down and it squirts out all at once. I wondered what it would be like to collaborate on something, if I could find us some funding. Maren could resign from her pointless job and we could do work that actually made a difference-at scale.


The only story sexier than a woman under thirty starting a company was two women under thirty starting a company. Cover story in Fast Company, profile in the Styles section, slideshow on Vogue dot com: "Workplace as Vulva-And Why Not?" Our interior designer conceptualized our layout and decor to be a visual representation of our brand: female-facing, luxurious yet accessible, and totally transparent. Break boundaries by literally having none. My office was one of the few with walls and a door, but they were glass walls, and the door itself was just a glass wall with a handle.


From my desk, I could see the entire floor of my small but dedicated kingdom, a dozen ladies wearing noise-canceling headphones, sitting at long marbled-pink tables, or ruining their thoracic spines on jewel-toned velvet couches. Emerald and sapphire, garnet and citrine. Even the girl we hired to be the receptionist was usually wearing headphones, which someone should really do something about.


Last night, I told Maren she needed to take some PTO and the office definitely felt more chill without her. Probably because nothing was on fire. I put some lavender essential oil in the stone diffuser on my desk and took a deep breath. In between a lilac Pusheenicorn I got from Secret Santa and a vase of pink ranunculus, I had a little inspiration library: The Glitter Plan, Big Magic, Sparkle, You Are a Badass, You Yes You Are a Unicorn, Style Your Mind, Mind Your Magic, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Peace Is Every Breath: A Practice for Our Busy Lives.

Reading Group Guide

1. Leigh Stein opens her novel with the question “When’s the last time you put yourself first?” What do you think of when you think of "self care"? Is taking care of yourself a necessity if you’re also taking care of others?

2. A lot of Self Care takes place on social media, where appearances don’t necessarily represent reality. Do you follow anyone online who reminds you of one of the three main characters? Or someone who would totally be a Richual user?

3. Devin and Maren are so different, and yet at the start of the novel they are very close friends and business partners. What do you think they each get out of the friendship?

4. The wellness industry is valued at $4.2 trillion globally. Why do you think there is so much money to be made off of consumers who want to feel better? How have you seen the diet and wellness industry change over time? In what ways do you see "self care" marketed to women as products and programs?

5. Why did Maren and Devin envision Richual as a women-only platform? Do you think it’s helpful to have places—both online and off—where women can gather and talk without men?

6. Maren says that the internet enables “the illusion of intimacy” and that there is “a fine line between authenticity and TMI.” What are the benefits and pitfalls of social media platforms that encourage unlimited communication and unlimited sharing? What are the upsides and downsides to being vulnerable in public?

7. At one point Maren refers to drinking as the “indulgence” she permits herself. What do you think Maren isn’t willing to admit to herself? How does our culture perpetuate the narrative that drinking fits into the practice of self care?

8. How would you define Evan and Devin’s relationship? What do you think Maren should have done when she learned they were together?

9. Khadijah has ideas for how to make Richual a more feminist workplace. Have you seen your own office make progressive changes (for example, in terms of culture, fair pay, parental leave, diversity and inclusion)? What changes would you still like to see at work?

10. How does the theme of ambition play out in the novel? Do all three main characters define success in the same way, or are they each chasing something different?

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