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How to Start Embracing Your Perfectly Imperfect Self

by KAREN KARBO

The following is an excerpt from “Yeah. No. Not Happening” by Karen Karbo.

Women are the self-improvers of the world. Those famous Paleolithic cave paintings in France and Spain? Created not by bison hunters dabbling in self-expression, as originally sup- posed, but by cave women inventing interior design. This cave is a dump! Let’s add a few stick animals and handprints to liven up the place. Then came the wealthy ladies of ancient Egypt, early adopters of makeup and the practice of spending a for- tune on it. We have Nefertiti and Cleopatra to thank for black eyeliner, blue eye shadow, and the classic red lippy. Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen of France, then England, during the twelfth century, was also queen of self-betterment: she could read and speak Latin; sing and play the harp; weave,  spin,  sew,  and whip up a fetching needlepoint pillow; identify the constellations; ride, hunt, and hawk. She literally and figuratively ruled. Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, where this lovely feminine impulse to beautify and improve self and surroundings has evolved into a nutty, near-religious pursuit of perfection. We ladies of late-stage capitalism spend our days chasing the ever-receding mirage of our so-called best selves, existing in a continuous state of telling ourselves we’ll do better, be better, and always be thinner or fitter.

The rigors of modern self-improvement are exhausting. One Huffington Post piece about cramming some self-improvery into your life involved a “6:00 a.m. outdoor boot camp” followed by a parsley protein shake. Inc.com offers “50 Ideas to Help You Design Your Morning Routine,” including making a video log upon waking, working on a side hustle or business idea, learning one to three new things, taking a cold shower after doing a complicated breathing routine that looks as if it might make you pass out, and reviewing your previous day’s spending.

I am done, reader. Done viewing myself as a permanent fixer- upper. Done feeling that I’m always supposed to be doing some- thing to better myself, then feeling guilty about being too lazy to commit to the latest self-improvement regimen, or, conversely, if I have committed to said regimen, feeling as if I’m not doing it enough or with the proper pure and holy mindset. I’m done feeling bad that I don’t live in a perpetual state of red-carpet readiness, even though there is no red carpet to walk, and done feeling that it’s my fault I can’t stop time, thereby remaining an eternal tousled-hair beauty clad in an oversize cashmere sweater and no pants, sipping tea from an artisanal mug by a fire made by a man who pulls down seven figures.

Done done done.

So, I decided to swear off self-improvement. A lifetime of striving and struggling to improve myself hadn’t yielded much other than frustration and self-loathing. I was fit enough, fif- teen or so pounds overweight, a domestic disaster, an avid reader, a rescuer of dogs, a good friend. I was no stranger to an apple or a green salad. I got enough sleep and flossed regularly. I didn’t smoke. That was going to have to be good enough.

But I was afraid. Would I instantly transform into a troll un- der a bridge if I gave up face serum? Would I become the laziest sloth in Slothville if I made yeah, no, not happening my regular morning routine? Would my husband leave me if my glutes and abs stayed exactly as firm as they are this minute, adjusting for age? I worried that I would gain weight, even though the last time I said fuck it all to dieting, I lost a few pounds, just as the people who beat the drum for that approach to eating always promise. The worst thing that would happen, that did happen, is that I got real about who I was, what I enjoy, and how much I just don’t give a fuck about all the self-improvery foisted on women. So far, I’m less anxious, and less worried that whatever I’m doing I should be doing something else, and have more time to devote to stuff I’m interested in. Like singing karaoke while slightly hammered, slinging around my awful high school French, and napping. My blood pressure has gone down. And I’ve lost seven pounds, even though I said yeah, no, not happening to kale. I hate that shit. It’s a decorative winter shrub and should go back to where it came from.

I’ve written this book to urge you to join me in the radical act of swearing off the endless quest for self-improvement. To stop thinking wistfully and magically that tomorrow you will start the diet, the challenge, the program, the method. To bid a respectful adieu to your imaginary best self, the one you will always fail to inhabit.

A few things before we get started:

Learning to say yeah, no, not happening isn’t about giving up on yourself, or health, or beauty. It’s about reclaiming your common sense and your confidence that you know what works for you and what doesn’t. It’s not about settling for a lesser life, but experiencing more, because you’re no longer captive to the ridiculous, ever-shifting demands pressed upon women in the modern world, most of which are expensive, time-consuming, not very much fun, and fucking lame. It’s about standing up for yourself, to yourself, and to the world.

Saying yeah, no, not happening makes space for who we are this minute. This book isn’t a self-improvement program disguised as an anti-self-improvement manifesto. Regardless of where we are in life, we’ve all absorbed messages from our mothers, our peers, and mass consumer culture about what it means to be a successful female. We are who we are, right here, right now.

In addition to demonstrating how to say yeah, no, not happening going forward, I will encourage you to give yourself a break for long-established habits that may technically be considered self-improvement. Some of the ways in which we are pressed into improving ourselves and being “better” women do resonate with us. We can’t help it, nor do we want to help it. We like our red lipstick. It’s part of who we are. When we say “no more” to new self-improvement schemes, we are saying it from where we are this minute. Part of chucking the impulse to self-improvery also involves swearing off perfectionism and celebrating our inconsistencies and contradictory natures. It means understanding that there is beauty in complexity.

In the end, your most basic task in life should be to occupy the you of you. I’m not going to use the word celebrate. It’s overused and brings with it the expectation of treating your- self to something ridiculous and expensive, then overposting it on social media. Occupying the you of you is not just good enough, it’s good.

A beating heart. A human soul.

A character and personality like a beech tree—you know the ones I mean, blown into crazy shapes to accommodate the elements. You are flawed. You are wondrous. Why try to square the corners? Why iron out the creases? Why fall for the wisdom of someone else who doesn’t know you, who’s just trying to make a buck?

 

From the book YEAH, NO. NOT HAPPENING by Karen Karbo. Copyright © 2020 by Karen Karbo. Published on May 19, 2020 by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission. Click here to purchase.

This essay was featured in the June 21st edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.

KAREN KARBO

Karen Karbo’s first novel, Trespassers Welcome Here, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a Village Voice Top Ten Book of the Year. Her 2004 memoir, The Stuff of Life, was a New York Times Notable Book, a People magazine critics’ choice, and a winner of the Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in Elle, Vogue, Esquire, Outside, The New York Times, and Salon.com. She lives in Portland, Oregon.