Heather Havrilesky, known to her readers as The Cut’s advice-giving “Polly,” dishes out the kind of wisdom you’d pay hundreds of dollars and sit on a therapist’s couch to hear.
Polly, simultaneously as sensitive as your gentlest friend and as honest as your mom (who, let’s face it, really is always right), answers readers’ cries for help with a perfectly balanced combination of wit and candor. She is at once deeply empathetic and no-nonsense, delivery truth-bombs wrapped in the most beautiful of prosaic little packages.
“Ask Polly,” is a true breath of fresh air. Havrilesky addresses seemingly everything you’ve ever been plagued by, from dealing with a less-than-equal friendship to bravely coming to terms with your own shortcomings, and she does it all while managing to save room for the occasional Kanye shout-out.
About two years ago, a friend sent over a Polly link she thought I’d enjoy. I was hooked. Since then, I’ve been a weekly reader of Havrilesky’s column. I can’t get enough of the way she upends our expectations; this is not a warm and fuzzy advice column, rather, it’s “feel-good” because it’s full of her strong-willed, deeply feminist, no-bullshit fearlessness. I’m also a frequent visitor to her Twitter account, which sparkles with feminist spunk and sarcasm. I’ve looked to Polly in my own times of anxiety and poured over her words which, even when they don’t apply to me at all, manage to stick with me and change the way I think about how I interact with the world.
It’s no surprise, then, that when I heard Havrilesky was publishing a book, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy right away.
The aptly titled How to be a Person in the World: Ask Polly’s Guide Through the Paradoxes of Modern Life is a rare joy, and its diverse spread of essays make it a must-read for ladies at just about any stage of life. These essays are, of course, useful when they’re about something you’re facing – but How to be a Person… actually provides so much more than just a way to troubleshoot your latest woe.
In the first few pages of How to be A Person in the World, Polly answers a bride-to-be who fears she’ll be overshadowed if she lets her always-glamorous and attention-getting sister bring her new boyfriend to her wedding. In comes Havrilesky with a reality check, reminding “Selfish Bride” to think about what it is she’s actually trying to celebrate on her special day. “The more you try to control all of the variables,” she writes, “the less happy you’ll be on your wedding day. The more you think, ‘This is my day! It must go perfectly!’ the less you’ll be able to experience the real point of the day…so stop it.” The lesson here is, of course, a good reminder for the budding bridezilla, but it’s also a beautiful perspective check. Like “Selfish Bride,” we all get jealous – what if we could follow Havrilesky’s advice: admit our envy, anticipate feeling it, even, and then move on – because, as she so rightly points out, whether it’s a wedding day or a regular day, we only ever get one “shot at sharing [it] with grace and generosity and kindness.”
It’s with this same straightforward-meets-sincere tone that she speaks to the challenges of being a woman. In the chapter entitled “Reckoning, Anger, and Obsession,” she writes something I’d like to print out and tape to my mirror. “By simply showing up and being a woman,” she tells us, “you’re asked to satisfy an incredibly tangled and contradictory set of demands. You are supposed to be assertive but not too assertive,” and the list of all-too-familiar standards goes on and on. No wonder we ladies are prone to lots and lots of contradictory feelings. To feel these feelings, though, Havrilesky tells us, is a necessity far too many women see as a luxury. Our world is one that tries to tell us to be only one thing, to feel only honorable and entirely unselfish feelings. Instead, Havrilesky gives us permission to “be mortal.” After all, she writes: “The women I admire most are women who never pretend to be different than they are.”
In How to be a Person in the World, Havrilesky meets us where we are. As she’s spent her life penning replies to so many women — to the anxious, the envious, the broken-hearted, the ambitious, the homesick, the self-conscious, the body-obsessed — she’s been writing to the many parts of each of us. Her essays are diverse in subject matter, but, in each, you’ll find a similarity at the core. In her essays, and in her beautiful book, Havrilesky invites us to be complicated, flawed, and real, no matter how much we think we’re supposed to be neat and tidy and fit nicely into all that’s expected of us. How to be a Person in the World is as much a guide to the up and downs of 21st century life as it is a permission slip to boldly take up more space. After all, Havrilesky writes, “the world has told you lies about how small you are.”