• The Creepy Dissonance of Reading Trick Mirror in a ‘Self-Care’ Book Club

    Ruth Madievsky: Snacks! Facials! Corporate Feminism?

    It started with a question: How are you going to practice self-care this fall? A woman with a swamp green face and vocal fry responded: Pumpkin spice everything! A chorus of yesss-es filled the store, several of its speakers also sporting muddy face masks. We went around the room sharing our self-care goals, our names, and how many times we’d each been to book club. Pumpkin spice made several more cameos, as did baking and getting more sleep. The only surprising response came from a store employee, who seemed touched to be included: I love taking my dog for long, aimless drives around Boston.

    We had all paid $10 plus a service fee and shown up at a natural cosmetics store in Boston for the promise of snacks (store-bought bagels, coffee cake, grapes, seltzer), free facials (already free at the shop), store discounts, and a women-only discussion of a newly released book (Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror). I was suspicious of the whole enterprise from the moment my friend asked me to come with her. For starters, I didn’t want to pay to talk to strangers about a book. Once I got there, I resented nearly every aspect of the club: the discussion starting forty minutes late to encourage us to pregame with a shopping spree, the ableism of not providing enough seats and using backless stools instead of real chairs, the questions themselves (Did you love it, hate it? Would you watch or listen to it in a different medium, like a movie, a podcast, or a play?), and that the facials were administered during the discussion, making it nearly impossible for those getting them to engage.

    I also hated what I brought to the table: withering judgments, an inflated sense of importance as a real writer, internalized misogyny. I felt immediately superior to the other women—mostly white millennials—at book club, which was bizarre considering my look was indistinguishably similar. I’d had avocado toast and homemade cold brew for breakfast. I was dressed in H&M pants and Madewell jewelry, and I carried a tie-dyed tote bag with ALLEN SCHWARTZ stamped across it. I wasn’t interested in the store’s jelly cleanser because I already owned Glossier’s, or in their exfoliants because I’d already paid $105 for Good Genes. I didn’t buy anything, but that didn’t stop me from pawing at the millennial pink products that would look just as good on my mid-century modern coffee table—next to my gold pineapple candle and crinkle fern plant—as they would in my bathroom cart. I still wore the fading stamp from last night’s bar on my hand. I was one of the people who got a facial during the discussion, having sensed I wouldn’t be missing much.

    I came to book club because my friend, a PhD student at MIT, had a shitty experience the first time she’d attended and wanted someone to talk to about it. That time, they’d read a novel centering on the experiences of a former slave. Every woman at that book club had been white, with the exception of my friend, who is Indian, and a black woman who’d had to take the only open seat in the center of the circle in what felt like a kind of spectacle. When my friend commented on the protagonist’s surprising empathy for her oppressors, a white woman misconstrued it as an endorsement: So, you’re saying marginalized people should empathize with their oppressors? My friend tried to rephrase her point, but felt the nuance had nowhere to land.

    The most disturbing part of book club was the lack of acknowledgement that it was exactly the type of environment Tolentino was critical of in Trick Mirror.

    This time, there were thirteen or so women at book club, my friend again one of the only women of color. The group really liked Trick Mirror, but felt some of the essays were too meandering. They thought Tolentino’s arguments were compelling, but that she used too many examples to make the same points. The group’s favorite essay was the one on self-optimization, and their least favorite was “Pure Heroines,” a stunning deep-dive that demarcates the grim limitations female protagonists operate under in literature. I got her point on page six, someone said, and then she went on for like thirty more pages. Several women laughed and agreed. Someone brought up how frustrating the literary spoilers were, and if a nice lady in her early twenties weren’t currently massaging toner into my face, I would have rolled my eyes. I too haven’t read Anna Karenina, but I’ve accepted that it’s not a spoiler if the book was published in 1877.

    That was actually my favorite essay, I said, speaking for the first time since introducing myself and naming getting really into Halloween as my fall self-care plan. I loved how granular that essay was, how she articulated so much insidious patriarchal bullshit in thirty-something pages. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer and a big reader, but I love that kind of deep-divey feminist critique.

    Everyone nodded supportively. If they thought I was a pretentious asshole, they didn’t show it. The conversation turned to feminism, but I was too mortified to follow along. Why did I announce to this group of strangers that I was a writer and a (cringes to near-unconsciousness) big reader? Why was I casting myself as the voice of authority and implying these other women were not thinking hard enough? And why did I assume, without evidence, that I was the longest-standing Jia fan in the room, my opinions the most informed and legitimate? At some point, one of the women drew comparisons between Trick Mirror and Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion (which I haven’t read), and the woman with vocal fry expanded upon them. A different woman said something about white feminism, but I was only half-listening. When the group discussed some of Tolentino’s essays I hadn’t gotten to, I wondered if I was the only one who hadn’t yet finished the book.

    The discussion petered out after forty-ish minutes, about the length of time we’d spent shopping beforehand. Our moderator announced the next two books and where we would be meeting: a chocolatier—where we’d learn all about their products—and a posh women-focused co-working space—where we’d be given a tour. We were encouraged to keep shopping with our store discount and not to leave without a goodie bag. I swarmed on the remaining grapes. When people started leaving without goodie bags, I began to panic that I wasn’t going to get any free shit after all. Eventually, an employee emerged with a tray of shiny orange sachets, and I was the first to descend upon them. The contents were disappointing: tea packets with suggestive names like “Sleep With Me,” a suspicious-looking electrolyte mix called Liquid I.V., a miniscule sample of face wash, and hair ties printed with the names of the skincare store and the tea brand. I was jonesing for a fancy serum, not a hodgepodge whose total value was below the price of my ticket.

    Let’s get bagels, my friend said, after I buy this eye cream. The emerald green jar in her palm reminded me of the velvet loafers I’d purchased last year on Black Friday, which reminded me of fall, and holiday parties, and spiced cider. I considered getting one too, before remembering I don’t use eye cream. She paid, and we left without saying goodbye to anyone. Outside, I looked up directions to the bagel place, next to a woman from book club who appeared to be planning her next move. My friend and I smiled at her. For a second, I thought about inviting her to join us. Then the light changed, and we turned to cross the street.

    That was garbage, right? my friend said.

    Yeah, I’m never going back, I told her. It was so basic. That room was like a Bingo card of white millennial personality traits. Pumpkin spice! Baking sweet treats! Monstera plants!

    We parted ways after an hour so she could do the important work of economics research and I the important work of reading on my couch. Also, we both needed to water our Monstera plants.

    When I got home, I did some digging. The book club we’d attended is one wing of a larger self-care brand targeting millennial women. It took 30 minutes of mining their archives to find a throwaway line affirming that non-binary folks are also welcome. The goal of their meet-ups is to relax, disconnect from social media, and build community in cozy spaces. Though participants seem to be primarily white, the founder is a woman of color. They partner with other millennial-targeting brands, including Sweetgreen, which is especially amusing given Tolentino’s dystopic rendering of the fast casual salad chain in her book:

    The ritualization and neatness of this process (and the fact that Sweetgreen is pretty good) obscure the intense, circular artifice that defines the type of life it’s meant to fit into… He [the ideal customer] feels a physical need for this twelve-dollar salad, as it’s the most reliable and convenient way to build up a vitamin barrier against the general malfunction that comes with his salad-requiring-and-enabling job.

    This same essay—everyone’s favorite—devotes much of its attention to picking apart the barre method (Barre feels like exercise the way Sweetgreen feels like eating: both might better be categorized as mechanisms that help you adapt to arbitrary, prolonged agony). When, literally twenty minutes later, we were unironically offered barre class discounts, I felt I had entered a wormhole. The most disturbing part of book club was the lack of acknowledgement that it was exactly the type of environment Tolentino was critical of in Trick Mirror, with its corporate feminist pandering and insistence that wellness can be bought. It’s possible we were all too polite to point this out; I certainly didn’t say anything. But the moderator gave no indication that book club’s offerings were anything but earnest. I was deeply unsettled by what felt like a collective deficiency in self-awareness.

    I felt gross for the rest of the day. Had book club actually been as bad as I remembered, or did my going into it expecting a trash fire mean I had lit the match? Everyone was nice: the moderator, the store employees, every woman who showed up alone to make her skin feel good and chat with other women about an awesome book. The facial was pleasant, spending time with my friend was great, and witnessing how Tolentino’s book was discussed among mostly (I think) non-writers was interesting.

    The tension lies, for me, in the pairing of attempted intellectual rigor and corporate feminism—and, beneath that, the unstated cultural message that acts of feminine self-care or self-soothing are lowly, superficial, and anti-intellectual. As Tolentino puts it:

    When you are a woman, the things you like get used against you. Or, alternatively, the things that get used against you have all been prefigured as things you should like.

    There’s a cognitive dissonance to all this. I can have a feminism-informed understanding that products and activities that mostly attract women are treated as lowly, superficial, and anti-intellectual because it’s primarily women that engage with them. But knowing this does not expel the cultural lesson that’s already been metabolized. Recognizing criticism of vocal fry as a sexist dog-whistle doesn’t make me immune to ungenerous first impression judgments. I can skewer men who belittle women’s self-care (sexism!) but let myself off the hook because I’m not like other women (internalized misogyny!).

    Part of this cognitive pretzel is the inseparability of self-care from Self-Care. We’ve reached a point where dunking on feminists is losing its mainstream appeal, so it now makes more sense for companies to co-opt the language of feminism to sell our liberation to us. We are queens, and we deserve to feel like them, vis-à-vis overpriced crystals, pseudoscientific skincare, and comfy-sexy athleisure. But this manufactured idea of self-care, refracted through an exclusionary capitalist lens, can never truly deliver.

    I assumed anyone who wasn’t creeped out by the corporate pandering was still in the Matrix. Or, put another way, they were basic, a term that implies a superficiality that is incompatible with intellectual rigor. Writing for The Cut, Noreen Malone described the basic bitch as a woman who is almost always portrayed as utterly besotted with Starbucks’s Pumpkin Spice Latte…They reveal a girlish interest in seasonal changes and an unsophisticated penchant for sweet. She goes on to say:

    the word basic has become an increasingly expansive stand-in for “woman who fails to surprise us”… She delights in all the things that men dismiss as unserious or that don’t often even register for them as existing—celebrity gossip, patterned disposable cocktail napkins that mean something sentimental.

    I’m reminded of Leslie Jamison’s essay “In Defense of Saccharine,” where she calls sentimentality an accusation leveled against unearned emotion. Autumn and fun cocktail napkins and face masks are easy to derive pleasure from. And, as Jamison writes, we’re disgusted when anything comes too easily. This feels especially true for things women enjoy. It’s not basic for men to like football or action movies or luxury cars, even though these are extremely basic and mainstream sources of male pleasure.

    Women deserve spaces to relax, disconnect from social media, and build community with each other. Monetizing that community replicates the inequities of capitalism…

    In our age of backlash-to-the-backlash, self-care is both basic and politically radical because it’s basic. Activities that carry the embarrassing whiff of the feminine occupy a paradoxical cultural status that is simultaneously celebrated and degraded. I would love to live in a world that does not ravage the health and emotional well-being of women in order to package and re-sell a “cure” back to them. A world where we don’t need to pay to be pandered to under the guise of self-care. At book club—and wherever else it’s benefited me—I’ve sometimes prioritized the social capital that comes with serving as a patriarchal foot soldier over doing my part to build that world. I’ve tried to prove my intelligence by divesting from the mainstream feminine, because it is so much easier to enjoy proximity to power than to do the terrifying, absorbing, exhausting work of dismantling power.

    The problem with book club wasn’t basic women. It was structural: the competing goals of fostering great conversation among strangers and selling us shit up the wazoo felt, for me, incompatible. Targeting millennial women with enough expendable income for fancy skincare and several-hundred-dollar-a-month coworking spaces meant targeting the benefactors of a culture and economic system geared toward white people. One could argue Boston’s racial segregation is partly to blame here, but from reading about the company’s book clubs in other cities, the overwhelming whiteness seems to be a pattern.

    Writing this essay, I struggled with how to ethically portray my book club experience. I felt guilty for unfairly judging this group of women, but I also recognized the importance of being suspicious of any space that claims to be for women but is 80 percent white. I want to elevate women without resorting to Taylor Swiftian girl-power feminism, which is really just white feminism. Even if every woman in that room were a genius, it wouldn’t be enough, just as it’s not enough that the company has selected excellent books, many of them written by women of color. Encouraging white women to diversify their reading is a nice side effect, but it still misses the target.

    Women deserve spaces to relax, disconnect from social media, and build community with each other. Monetizing that community replicates the inequities of capitalism and will never lead to a satisfactory and inclusive version of that space. Some might argue that feminism becoming increasingly mainstream, with women’s pleasure and wellness mattering on a larger (more profitable) scale, is a hopeful sign of better times ahead. Hope is nice, but we also need to get real. We need reckoning. We need to remember that, as Tolentino writes, mainstream feminism has had to conform to patriarchy and capitalism to become mainstream in the first place.

    Ruth Madievsky
    Ruth Madievsky
    Ruth Madievsky is the author of a bestselling poetry collection, Emergency Brake (Tavern Books, 2016). Her work appears in Harper’s Bazaar, Guernica, Literary Hub, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She is a founding member of the Cheburashka Collective, a community of women and nonbinary writers from the former Soviet Union. Originally from Moldova, she lives in Los Angeles, where she works as an HIV and primary care pharmacist.

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