Book Review: Up for Renewal by Cathy AlterFitness & Workouts, Food & Wine, Shopping & Style — By Holly C on April 9, 2010 at 6:00 am
by Holly Corbett
LG Executive Editor
I don’t see the downtime spent waiting in airports as wasted, but actually welcome it as a chance to catch up on all the reading I’ve been meaning to do. I love going to the Hudson News and scanning the glossies’ headlines: “The Top Ten Adventures of a Lifetime!”, “Eat More, Weigh Less!” and “10-Minute Happiness Tricks!” Oh, the downy comfort that accompanies bold-faced promises of fast fixes and action plans for simplifying huge life goals into ten easy steps.
Still, I can’t help but wonder if magazines are kind of like low-fat brownies-they look and smell delicious on the outside, but when you really bite into them, you realize they’re lacking substance and only leave you craving more? Can they really deliver on their promises? So I was eager to read Up for Renewal: What magazines taught me about love, sex, and starting over, which chronicles Cathy Alter’s year of religiously following the advice of glossies with a specific self-improvement goal in mind each month. She writes, “By the end of my subscriptions, I would have gotten rid of my upper-arm jiggle, crawled out of debt, hosted the perfect dinner party, run a mile without puking, asked for a raise, rehauled my apartment, and faked the perfect complexion.”
These may not sound like especially lofty goals, but something I was reminded of while reading this book is that it’s not working towards some huge future ambition that brings me an overall feeling of happiness. Rather, the stuff that makes me feel most content are of the everyday ordinary moments-it’s waking up before the alarm goes off because I got enough sleep and have extra time to sip my vanilla-flavored coffee. It’s laughing with my sister on the phone while walking home from the office. It’s being able to go for a jog in Central Park on the first really warm day and smelling the lilacs. If I don’t have these little moments, the big stuff just seems too overwhelming.
While Cathy acknowledges the ridiculousness of thinking that magazines can transform her life, she also questions, “Why can’t a cerebral, unconventional, authority-questioning woman still believe in the power of the perfect mascara?” But she’s no pollyanna. She was coming from a dark, messy place when she reached for the bright, immaculate promises of magazines: Recently divorced and 37-years old, she was having sex in her cubicle with her arrogant officemate, resigned to eating popcorn for lunch, chain-smoking cigarettes and drinking wine like it was water, and amassing debt from seeking retail therapy. Maybe starting with the small stuff, like following Real Simple‘s advice on how to properly wrap a sandwich, was one path to self improvement.
And it was: By the end of her first month, Cathy mastered sandwich wrapping and dappled in having a nutritious lunch by making sliced turkey, smoked chicken, and egg salad sandwiches. She writes, “I realized that in a small way, I’d overcome my resistance to doing something, even something as insignificant as grappling with Saran Wrap. In the aggregate these trivial accomplishments-baby steps actually-did add up to quite significant things…maybe what’s contained inside these magazines shows the reader a perfectly aligned future where they won’t eat junk food for dinner or become mired under the weight of a cruel and uncaring lover…” Because once she started doing little things to take care of herself, she became a little less likely to let another person (be it a friend, co-worker/sex partner or her mother) treat her badly.
Cathy’s transformation didn’t happen over night. But the baby steps she set for herself over 12 months-from fitting in exercise with daily walks that turned into bonding time for a flailing friendship, to facing her fear of camping so that she could share the experience with her newfound love named Carl-Cathy gradually discards the unhealthy habits, relationships, and attitudes that were blocking her from feeling proud of herself and comfortable in her own skin.
So, do I believe that women’s magazines hold the secret to inner peace after reading Cathy’s memoir? Of course not. But I do believe that anything that prompts me to keep pushing myself, whether it’s reading an inspiring story or wandering through a new town without a map, helps make life seem like an even greater adventure. Cheers to Cathy for turning a self-destructive path into a road to greater self-acceptance, and for letting us share in her journey along the way.