Our Obsession With Self-Improvement and Our Love For Messy Women
On Monday night, Phoebe Waller-Bridge cleaned up at the Emmy’s, winning three major awards for her groundbreaking show Fleabag. It wasn’t surprising: I don’t know a single person who has watched that show and not walked away thinking it was one of the best things they’d ever seen. Ever. The woman-helmed, anti-heroine comedy follows Waller-Bridge’s character as she navigates sex and grief, and the relationships (both familial and romantic) that occupy the awkward spaces between the two. The titular character is messy and uninhibited, highly-flawed and deeply human, and she’s also incredibly similar to so many of the women we’ve loved on our screens and in novels this year. Women like Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird or Marianne in Sally Rooney’s Normal People. Young girls like Amy and Molly in Booksmart or Ru and Jules in Euphoria.
After PWB’s Emmy win, I started thinking about how the women we’ve loved most this year are at complete odds with our generation’s current obsession with self-improvement. There’s a tension between who we admire and who we’re trying to become. We are part of a culture that is addicted to improving every aspect of our lives; our health, skin, domesticity, career, relationships, sex life. We spend our days valiantly striding toward an idealised version of ourselves. It’s a phenomenon that Jia Tolentino, author of Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, refers to as “optimising”, and she’s right: we are obsessed with self-optimisation. Optimising our hair, our collagen production, our work output, our core muscles. Even the girls who claim to not buy into self-optimisation (you know, the girls who’ve never owned a gym membership and let their hair “air dry”) are still participating: “Today, as demonstrated by the cult success of makeup and skin-care brand Glossier, we idealise beauty that appears to require almost no intervention – women who look poreless and radiant even when bare-faced in front of an iPhone camera, women who are beautiful in almost punishingly natural ways.” Ah yes, it’s still there – in fact it’s arguably adding more pressure because now we’re expected to wake up with skin that only requires a cream blusher called ‘Cloud Paint’ to go from good to perfect. In Tolentino’s collection of essays, she also points out that the old and archaic pressures that were put on women to look a certain way still exist today – they’ve just been rebranded: “Beauty work has been labelled “self-care” in order to make it sound progressive.”
But why are we so obsessed with self-improvement when it’s another woman’s mess we love the most?
I have two theories, and you probably won’t like either of them. The first is that we secretly get satisfaction from seeing someone “worse off” than us. Someone who hasn’t optimised themselves to the same level that we have. We revel in the possibility that we might know something (about medicinal mushrooms or therapy or sex) that they don’t know yet, and that feeds the deepest most narcissistic parts of ourself. Terrifying, right? The second theory is that we’re all just f*cking exhausted. The constant pursuit of self-improvement is exhausting. So to conceptualise a world – if only for the duration of a thirty minute Fleabag episode – in which a woman can just exist, where she can be the least great version of herself and no one cares (!) is soothing.
PWB’s character is not in the business of self-improvement. Well, not really anyway. Sure she dips her toe into therapy to try and make sense of her grief and self-loathing, and yes she abstains from sex to appeal to the (world’s sexiest) priest she has a crush on, but she’s not interested in changing the body she was born with or suppressing the inevitable signs of ageing on her forehead. In the first episode of season one, a feminist lecturer asks who in the crowd would give up five years of their life for a perfect body. Fleabag and her sister are the only ones in the audience whose hands shoot up, before they exchange embarrassed looks and lower them back down. In another episode she confesses: “Sometimes I worry that I’d be less of a feminist if I had bigger tits.” In another one she steals a 20 from the wallet of a guy she begrudgingly picked up on the bus because she needed someone to accompany her to a family fathering. Fleabag is messy. She is self-destructive and selfish but she’s also sympathetic, funny and incredibly self-aware. In other words: she’s us, when we’re not self-optimising, and she makes a damn good case for it.