Karen Karbo awoke to her usual dread.

It was 5 am, and she was already behind. She still had to meditate, exercise, drink a kale smoothie and practice affirmations, just for a start. Then, of course, she had to lose weight and bullet journal. She had to find an app to be a better mother and a better wife. Another day ahead of measuring herself, and finding herself wanting. 

And then it struck her — she didn’t have to do any of this. 

Right then, that morning, she decided to stop. She decided to decide: I am enough. 

Karbo’s Yeah, No. Not Happening (Harper Wave) posits a simple query: What if women didn’t try to improve themselves? What if we took the radical step of not caring what other people think, and just do what we want? Sounds simple enough, but the execution is perilous. 

And that is the germ of the story.

Karbo painstakingly and hilariously peels back the layers of societal molding that push us to “improve” ourselves. After a lifetime bombarded with messages about being “too much and not enough,” awarded value based on beauty, manipulated by a drumbeat of advertising, scolded to “be nice” and agreeable (read controllable) throughout our childhood — somewhere along the way, we lose our true selves. We end up building what early feminist author Wollstonecraft described as a “gilt cage,” and “adorning our prisons” just to please society.

 To elucidate this, Karbo gives us a quick primer on women’s history, from the neuroaesthenic woman on the “fainting couch” to the Leave It To Beaver housewife to the “you’ve come a long way, baby” woman, and finally, to our current no-win situation. “On the list of female societal pressures, be a Great Mom is number two, after Thin and Sexy at All Times.” Not to mention, hold down a job. As Karbo states, “It’s a completely impossible metric.” 

And through it all, one theme persists: money. 

It’s ingenious, if you think about it. Society convinces women they are not enough. Women pay money to improve themselves, thus benefiting the rulers of the economy. Men. 

And we don’t just have magazines and TV throwing messages in our faces. Now, we are blessed with Instagram and Facebook. So, we have our very own algorithm now, tailored right to our own individual fears of inadequacy, mined straight from the social media database. Of course, we spend money to improve ourselves. Of course, it doesn’t work. And repeat.  

So what if we just said, no more?

“What if you looked in the mirror and just said ‘I am pretty.’ Full stop. Just typing that, I feel like a f-ing revolutionary.” Karbo reels off of some of the many “self-improvery” schemes she is forgoing.

“Celery juice
Reiki nonsense
Mommy wars
Phony baloney positivity
Worrying about wrinkles
Kale, kale … did I mention kale?”

She encourages us all to come up with our own “yeah, no, not happening” lists — starting today. She entreats us to “bid adieu to your imaginary best self, the one you will always fail to inhabit,” asking us to instead embrace our Jungian “shadows,” in which lurk our true passions and desires. 

It’s hard to adequately describe Yeah, No. Not Happening. Sure, it’s nonfiction, but that doesn’t do it justice. It’s a mixture of humor, memoir, feminism and history (herstory?), and all the pieces together make it a one-hundred-percent triumph. By the end of the book, you will have learned some, laughed some and you will agree: “self-improvery” is really just self-imprisonment. We are all building our own gilt cages, one algorithm at a time.

And what if … we just stopped?


Just Let It Happen: “The Joy of Leaving Your Sh*t All Over the Place” by Jennifer McCartney

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Karen Karbo is the author of fourteen award-winning novels, memoirs and works of nonfiction including the bestselling “Kick Ass Women” series. Her first novel, Trespassers Welcome Here (1990) was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a Village Voice Top Ten Book of the Year. Her other two adult novels, The Diamond Lane (1991) and Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me (2001) were also named New York Times Notable Books — and were just re-released in beautiful editions by Hawthorne Books. Her 2004 memoir, The Stuff of Life, about the last year she spent with her father before his death, was a New York Times Notable Book and a People Magazine Critics’ Choice. Her short stories, essays, articles and reviews have appeared in Elle, Vogue, O, Esquire, Outside, The New York Times, salon.com and other magazines.

Karen is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, an Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction and a winner of the General Electric Younger Writer Award. Recently, she was one of 24 writers selected for the Amtrak Residency.