At this early stage in the year, many people who made New Year’s resolutions are still half-heartedly ploughing on with them. They are still trying to maintain that, this time, everything will be different: the kale will be juiced, the gym membership will be fiscally rationalised. I never lasted more than three days with my typical, arbitrarily chosen, health-based resolutions. For me, they were things like “I will do 500 sit-ups a day” or “I will eat no sweets or carbohydrates except for every second Friday”. I think perhaps they didn’t take because not only did I lack willpower, I also never really meant them.
I had learned, after all, to want to change myself from our culture, not from a craving that grew within me. I learned that I should want to change, and acted as though I did want to change, until eventually that feeling became real and self-sustaining. I learned to fancy and hero-worship boys from television, pop songs and magazines in the same way, years and years before I felt the stirrings of any genuine desire. I learned that was what girls did, and performed my practised passions with sterile ease on safely androgynous boy band members and teen movie stars who were so painfully pretty they could have been one of my dolls.
This is how I learned from women’s magazines and Bridget Jones’s Diary that constant self-criticism and a determination to change wasn’t a system flaw, but rather an innate part of being a woman. To relax or to remain the same was in itself a source of shame. That was its own failure. It was a way to bond with each other, too, to let the vicious self-hatred leak out around friends. It made everyone level with each other.
I remember being about eight years old and an older girl asking what I’d like to change about my body. I reflected on this and then decided I might like it if my teeth were a bit whiter. She laughed at my answer knowingly and, indeed, only three years later I would be weeping in my bedroom mirror for hours at a time, beholding my totally normal prepubescent body with such painful and sharp regret that I remember thinking I would cut large chunks of it clean off, were I capable of such things.
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What does it mean to wish you were different to how you really are? You want the habits, sure, the salads and the sit-ups, but really what you want is to be a different sort of person. You don’t want to be you – the same old boring, lazy you, who hates the new health kick completely but struggles on with it until the sweet release of death. You want to be the sort of person who wants to do these things. This person is not you at all any more, not really. It’s been a long time now since I’ve had any sincere belief in the power of thinness to bestow happiness or moral superiority, and a long time since I’ve made those inherently doomed resolutions.
I’ve been reminded, lately, when thinking about all that wasted past self-loathing, of what Orson Welles once said about Woody Allen. “He is arrogant. Like all people with timid personalities, his arrogance is unlimited. Anybody who speaks quietly and shrivels up in company is unbelievably arrogant. He acts shy, but he’s not. He’s scared. He hates himself, and he loves himself, a very tense situation.”
Self-loathing, in the end, is a way to exhibit self-obsession. And 2020, among all the other things it did, gave most of us a truly horrible amount of time for self-reflection. So what would I change about myself, then, if not my body? What would make me better?
I’ve always thought my characteristic failing was that I need people too much; I never want to be alone. Years ago, back in Dublin, I had moved into a flat on my own after a bad break-up and was struggling to stay in it alone. Every evening, I felt an overwhelming urge to leave it and find people, find noise, distraction and company. I complained to a friend that I wasn’t able to be on my own. “But why should you be on your own?” he asked, “if you don’t want to be and you don’t have to be?”
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Last year made me realise he was right. There’s no glory in being alone, in and of itself. Before Covid, I stayed in maybe one or two nights a week, and always felt vaguely guilty about how much I went out. I had somehow accepted the idea that being grown up implied mandatory lentil stews, box sets and 10pm bedtimes, and generally being in more than out. Now, of course, I regret no outing at all, not the grotty pointless ones I regretted even as they were taking place.
I miss Ireland and my family horribly, so perhaps the main thing I would change about myself this year is a willingness to hop on the ferry more often than I had been doing before the pandemic. I’d like to do more performance events – readings, group shows, collaborations with artists – which is how I started writing, and which ebbed away as my more formal writing career developed. I’d like to see more of all those friends who live a few hours away, in Yorkshire, Newcastle or Edinburgh, who I used to visit only once or twice a year.
I did exercise consistently in 2020 for the first time in my life, not out of a desire to be thinner (which was never going to happen with all my “innovative” cooking, involving adding an extra pound of butter to all recipes), but because I cultivated a paranoia that a total lockdown would be applied, forbidding walks outside, and my leg muscles would atrophy. I’d like to keep that up, and maybe add some yoga to help the back pain I’ve suffered from hunching in terror all the time and bracing in the freezing wind on interminable daily walks. Basically, I’d like to do things that help sustain who I already am, rather than transform into someone else entirely. I’d like to be more of myself, and not the less I once aspired to.
This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control