• Mon. Apr 12th, 2021


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What Is Self Care Now, Anyway?

— Leigh Stein, the author of “Self Care,” a novel

“Self Care,” a novel by Leigh Stein, is anything but soothing.

It was pitched to publishers as “‘American Psycho’ in a Goop universe.” But in place of a “psychopathic murderer,” there are “all these women competing and taking each other down online in the name of feminism,” Ms. Stein said in a phone interview.

Published in June, the book is an all-out send-up of the wellness industrial complex and the companies profiting from it. Ms. Stein sharply delivers by poking at all that is uncomfortable and goes unsaid (or is said too earnestly) in the self-care industry.

The monetization of self care that Ms. Stein takes on — think millennial pink robes and the popular Instagram hashtag #selfcaresunday that shows off countless beauty rituals — has prompted psychologists to ask: “Where did real self care go?”

That’s one question at the heart of Ms. Stein’s novel about the two female founders of Richual, “the most inclusive online community platform for women to cultivate the practice of self care and change the world by changing ourselves.” Marin is the body-positive, anti-diet, workaholic, number-crunching member of the team. And Devin is the appearance focused, slightly eating disordered, and yoga obsessed public face of the brand.

Inevitably, Ms. Stein’s characters raise other contradictions about self-care, too. The idea, for instance, that even as young women supposedly “take care” of themselves by buying face rollers, meditation apps and face masks, they aren’t necessarily feeling better. Millennials shell out twice as much on self-care — a $10 billion industry — compared with their Boomer parents, yet their health outcomes haven’t necessarily improved. And all women continue to have a higher incidence of anxiety, depression and eating disorders compared with men, according to the Women’s Institute for Policy Research.

The irony, Ms. Stein says, is that the title nods to both the narcissism and the paradox of #selfcare.

Ms. Stein spoke with In Her Words about whether there is such a thing as too much #selfcare, her personal reckoning with feminism, and the desire to look and feel good.

The conversation has been edited for clarity.

Why tackle the wellness industry? Why did you see that as fertile ground for a novel?

I see the self-care industry really as the diet industry rebranded. Today it’s not “lose 10 pounds for bikini season.” It’s: “How is your gut health? Have you cut out gluten? How’s your sleep hygiene routine?” It’s new messaging for the old problem of “you’re a woman, there must be something wrong with your body.”

I don’t want to say self-care is bad, because I do think we do need to take care of ourselves, but I believe that true self-care doesn’t cost anything: drinking water, getting enough sleep and going outside occasionally to get vitamin D.

What I’m really cynical about is the more consumerist forms of self-care. If you go on the Goop website, there are products for problems you didn’t even know you had. Like, I didn’t know I needed to lighten my eyelids until I saw this eyelid brightening cream.

So self-care is important, but it can go really wrong. How?

I think there’s a lot of systemic problems right now that our country faces. There’s the national reckoning right now with racial injustice, among other issues of social justice. There are so many huge problems that feel overwhelming, so if there’s a product I can buy or a book I can read that tells me how to work on myself, I feel like that’s doable.

I keep coming back to this idea that no one has ever lost money on making women feel bad about themselves. In the end, do our medicine cabinets full of supplements, serums, vitamins and creams make us feel any better?

I put Maren and Devin on these extremes of the spectrum, where Maren is like, “I’ll be body positive and I’ll just eat whatever I want, and just feel like crap. But I’m a feminist.” She has her own twisted way of making herself feel better by not taking care of herself. I think that’s one way to go — you can just opt out of all this stuff. There aren’t role models for that, or at least not on Instagram. Once you become a role model on Instagram, you’re already peddling something.

Where do you fit on the self-care spectrum?

This is my confessional. I told my therapist that I wanted to lose some weight, but that I didn’t want to go on a diet because that would make me a “bad feminist.” And she said, “Why do you have to bring Gloria Steinem into it?” Which I thought was very funny. I felt guilty about wanting to lose weight because I thought the message I had gotten from other feminists was that we don’t talk about that. We don’t talk about pounds. We don’t talk about calories. That’s over. Diet culture is dead. I really struggled with that.

On the topic of being a “bad feminist,” some of Devin’s sexual preferences one could argue are “unfeminist.” Does that make her a hypocrite because she runs a female empowerment brand?

Devin has a preference to be submissive sexually, yet she has a lot of power in other respects. She’s the CEO of this company. And so for her, what turns her on is actually to have no power. She’s also a compulsive over-exerciser and has orthorexia. Her life is so controlled. She has so much riding on her as the face of this company that she wants to escape from that.

It’s unrealistic to write off self-care entirely — people want to feel and look good. On the other hand, we don’t want to become prisoners to the self-care industry. Is there some happy medium?

I think it’s being aware of what you use and why. It’s not just products. It’s also programs. I think there’s enough shaming of women that I don’t want to be the person that shames people for what makes them feel good. But I think we’re so influenced by marketing disguised as content that we aren’t often checking in with our own bodies. That has been really revolutionary and radical to me: to actually ask my body what it needs instead of just taking in what the screen tells me that I might need.

In Her Words is available as a newsletter. Sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox. Write to us at inherwords@nytimes.com.