I have a long and complex history with New Year’s resolutions, and by long and complex, I mean every year for a month starting January 1st I body shame myself roughly 120% more on a daily basis than I do the rest of the year. For the last eight years, whether I’ve admitted it to others (or myself) or not, come midnight on December 31st I concoct some fantasy in my head in which this year I get healthy, this year I lose weight, this year is finally the year in which all the clothes in Topshop finally feel like they were designed for me. Now, I am a big supporter of body positivity; I truly believe that every body is beautiful, no matter its size, and I know that size really has very little to do with health. I know that the whole ploy of the advertising world pushing gym memberships and diets on us in January with the same frequency as the Kardashians pushing sugar bear hair vitamins is just a way of exploiting our insecurities and very little to do with encouraging a healthy lifestyle. However, despite objectively knowing and understanding all of this information, every January I still turn from the self-aware, put together feminist that I am (trying to be) the rest of the year into the insecure, image-obsessed girl who is every marketing executive’s wet dream.
the whole ploy of the advertising world pushing gym memberships and diets on us in January…is just a way of exploiting our insecurities.
Last January I finally did something different. Instead of looking at the things that I dislike about myself and punishing myself for them, I looked at the things that I do like about myself, or things that make me happy. Recognising these allowed me to then make resolutions based on expanding on these. For me, this meant reading one new book a month that wasn’t for my degree in order to turn what has become work back into something I do for enjoyment and escape. This also meant listening to one new album a month, partially because I was no longer taking time out to actually listen to music rather than just as background noise, and partially because the percentage of my music library that was made up by 90’s pop music was becoming embarrassing. For me, this turn away from the media-endorsed idea of reinvention and towards the Pinterest endorsed idea of self-care was genuinely revolutionary. At the end of the year, although I didn’t quite manage every month, my resolutions were a reminder of time that I had taken to actually look after my mental health, rather than reminders of something I had yet again failed to do and what I viewed as a failure of physical health.
In recent years, the culture of New Year’s resolutions, health (read: weight loss) related or not, has become even more toxic. The recent commodification of ‘productivity’ has created a market for everything from podcasts to books to life coaches to dry wipe calendars, which puts more pressure on us throughout the year to use every minute of our day to do something that is somehow viewed as valuable. Self-care is often being excluded from this. And, with the introduction of Inbox Zero and productivity/resolution based apps, even your phone is constantly harassing you to do something that, by January 3rd, you know you absolutely do not want to and most likely will not do. The use of things such as SMART targets, originally devised for work and school, is now spreading into our personal lives, making it increasingly difficult not to feel like you are just resisting become an efficiency machine. In some ways, these do seem to make goals more achievable. For example my resolutions do in fact unintentionally follow the SMART system. However, failing to achieve these goals is now viewed as even more inexcusable. For me, in a perfect world resolutions would be acts of enjoyment, not discipline. And although the act of self-improvement is fundamentally very hard to criticise, when it comes from an external pressure, rather than an internal desire, it is hard to believe it is really what is best for the self.
failing to achieve these goals is now viewed as even more inexcusable.
Much of the psychological research surrounding why we making resolutions at the start of a week, month or year concludes that we like it as it distances ourselves from our past; we can excuse our past ‘mistakes’ as being last week/month/year me, and essentially see ourselves as a new person. Yet, despite this pretense of new beginnings, many of our resolutions involve dragging up the same old insecurities and dislikes about ourselves, year on year, pulling ourselves backward rather than pushing us forward. The focus is too often on self-punishment rather than reward, ending up with the only real change being a decline in mental health and emotional wellbeing, eventually accepting that this may not be the year for us, again. This is not to say that resolutions are fundamentally bad, or to condemn the instinct to improve oneself. But it is evident that the narrative surrounding resolutions and this time of year needs to change.