Books In Conversation
LEIGH STEIN with Kathleen Rooney
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.
Rail: What’s your skincare routine (sort of kidding, sort of not)?
Stein: I started using Drunk Elephant in order to have something to talk about on beauty podcasts when my book came out, and for like six weeks in quarantine, when no one saw me, I had the most amazing skin of my life. Then I got a horrible reaction on my forehead. I emailed customer support and they told me to use the Marula oil, so I did, but I think the Marula oil is what ruined me. My forehead is still in the process of healing.
Rail: How would you describe your own relationship to self-care? Any products or rituals, or practices that you associate with taking care of yourself? Where do you draw the line between self-care and wellness, or do you?
Stein: This year, I got sober curious (now there’s a wellness catchphrase for you) and started looking at my relationship with alcohol, using Annie Grace’s Naked Mind (2015) technique. I used to believe that alcohol was how I de-stressed, but it was actually causing me a lot of stress. I was never a binge drinker, and I didn’t get hangovers, but wine was a nightly habit and I felt an uncomfortable tug of war between the part of me that wanted to cut back and the part of me that insisted, You deserve a treat.
The wellness industry sells itself in a near-religious way and I’m skeptical of any rigid dogma: the only way to quit drinking is to go to AA, for example. Or the rules of Whole30. There’s something appealing about a system because it eliminates how many choices we have to make, but if it sounds like a cult, user beware.
Rail: What books have you been thinking about recently, and why?
Stein: Two books I’m loving right now are Why We’re Polarized (2020) by Ezra Klein and Girls to the Front (2010)by Sara Marcus, about the riot grrrl movement of the early ’90s. With the Klein book, I’m worried about the election and trying to learn more about group identity and divisiveness. With riot grrrl history, I’ve been thinking a lot about how counterculture has disappeared. The goal is to go viral, get the biggest audience, move fast, and break things. It’s Silicon Valley metrics. We’ve lost so many weird indie lit mags that couldn’t afford to pay contributors but offered a home for new work and ideas. Bring back zines!
Rail: Now that this book is done and entering the world, what are you working on next?
Stein: When I stopped drinking, I started writing poems again for the first time in nearly a decade. It felt like a miracle to have poetry in my life again. I’m grateful that Soft Skull Press is going to publish my next collection, What to Miss When, in 2021.
Rail: What do you want to be remembered for?
Stein: For documenting what it’s like to live online.