Sod this, let's go for a wine

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The quest for perfect is over. Author Emma Forrest calls for a 2013 free of pressure, where real women reign…

One of my true heroes here in LA is Richard Simmons, who came to fame as an Eighties aerobics instructor but still teaches three times a week at his Beverly Hills gym. There is no other class in this city where people who are very elderly or overweight can exercise as part of a community, one where we have all signed up to have a 65-year-old Jewish man dressed in a kilt (or as Black Swan or Rainbow Brite) bark, as he blasts Gloria Gaynor: “You will NOT survive, I will follow you home!” I remember the first time I stirred his ire, with a half-hearted jumping jack: “Hell no!” he snapped, “I did not waste $40 of make-up for this shit!”

I mention Simmons to illustrate this point: at some pivotal moment in his life, Richard must have realised he was not like other people, that he was an eccentric and an outsider and that there are even doctors who might cast him on the spectrum of mental illness. Instead of trying to fix himself, he parlayed that madness into his fame and fortune and a life where he feels good and makes others feel good. New Year’s resolutions should always be avoided if you want to be your best self. They are like methadone – as damaging to the body and soul as the very thing you’re trying to quit.

Impossible Goals

This is, I acknowledge, easy for me to say: I published a whole memoir about manic depression. My life is literally an open book. Since the moment Your Voice In My Head came out, I’ve gone on first dates and job interviews knowing that strangers know the absolute worst of me. Happily, that publication coincided with the end of my desire to try and be anything but myself. I learned a lot, as I was writing it, from Dr Lastname, the anonymous psychiatrist behind the website When I told him about this essay he nodded sagely.

Most of the problems that people initially bring into a shrink’s office are the equivalent of New Year’s resolutions, including ones related to mental illness, other hard-wired brain shortcomings, and relationships, and they’re usually fairly destructive.

For example, a resolution like ‘I won’t let myself get depressed this year,’ sets you up to become even more depressed when depression shows up, uninvited, in spite of the purposeful daily exercise, acupuncture, and regular eight-hour psychotherapy sessions you’ve put yourself through. “Similarly, ‘I’m going to stop drinking,’ is a resolution that causes less sobriety, not more, for those who have proven many times over that strong will alone can’t make them stop and that much more help will be needed (furthermore, it’s never a good idea to pledge to get sober on a night devoted to getting drunk).”

Do you like exercise? No? Then you’re not going to just because you will it so. What you can do is find exercise that goes beyond the focus on body (Simmons always says, “I am happy to be your court jester”). What about your work life? Have you made resolutions to take on things that you are bad at?

My editor at Bloomsbury, Alexandra Pringle, politely asked me, several books back: “Do you struggle with structure or are you a non-linear writer?”. “Um,” I answered, “the second one?” hoping she wouldn’t push me. She didn’t ask me to become plotmeister twist turner (which is learnable but would have entailed learning). She asked me to decide. That decision encompassed a lot: it meant I am never going to sell a vast amount – non-linear books don’t become bestsellers. It means doing what makes me happy, with a cult readership, and selling just enough to get by.

Ultimately, I’ve applied that conversation to all areas of my life. There are very few men with whom I make a match. I tried to be the right shape for the wrong men (some were kind, brilliant, beautiful men I wanted to bend for) and guess what? It never worked out. I’ve ended up marrying someone f*cking nuts – a totally different flavour to my f*cking nuts – and it fits. Our neurosis, traumas and talent fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Of all the things I adore about him, I admire most his individuality. In the first three months of marriage we did pre-emptive couples therapy and it made our relationship so volatile, it almost broke us up. Everything fell into place when the very wise rabbi who married us said, “What are you both like? Who did you both marry? Why did you imagine either of you would change? You won’t.”

Dr Lastname concurs: “You just have to start with acceptance. Don’t be ashamed of that jerk who lives within, but be proud of how well you manage it. Instead of resolving to stop procrastinating or to start getting organised, accept the fact that your personality is organised to avoid or delay doing what you really need to do, and it will take you lots of time and many tricks to keep yourself on track (at least when you can remember where the track is).”

Suit Yourself

The point is, don’t let perfectionism or self-hate motivate you to make any resolutions. “Choose only those resolutions that are necessary to solve major problems with your work, family, and/or ability to have a good (new) year. Don’t resolve to be a better person, just to be better at being who you already are,” says Dr Lastname.

Which is the perfect time to talk about the imperfect Lena Dunham. In life, the star, writer, director and producer of TV show Girls is a massive over-achiever. On the show, Lena’s character is messy of body, desire and direction. Real-life Lena has found success on her terms, without tweaking her writing style or her figure, both of which take up more space than we are used to seeing in a female heroine.

I am hoping this may do away with the “faux-messy woman” like Kate Winslet and Tina Fey (who lost many dress sizes so she could graduate from Saturday Night Live writer to performer). There is nothing wrong with that, just as there’s nothing wrong with excellent rhinoplasty – but there is something deeply wrong with maintaining a lifelong diet yet making your comic persona, “I’m the chubby girl who eats what she likes!”

There’s something wrong with saying, “I would never have plastic surgery” if, in fact, you have. If pressed, I have more admiration for Gwyneth Paltrow and her open pursuit of perfection. I think it is less oppressive to women than the double standards of the aforementioned. I remember my first ever New Year’s resolution, around nine, putting aside a tuna sandwich and after an hour of solidly looking at it, when no-one had noticed and I hadn’t lost weight, unwrapping and scoffing it. It tasted miserable, as if the filling were failure itself – not just keeping me fat, but keeping me short and bad at maths.

In 2013, let’s add things instead of taking them away. Let’s live this year with the joy of Mick Jagger on stage – who, I must say, very much resembles the most committed old lady in the front row of Richard Simmons’ aerobics class.

Picture credit: Rex Features

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