Advice To My 26-Year-Old Self
The iconic former editor of Vogue Paris, Joan Juliet Buck, reflects on a life well lived, and maybe how she could've lived it a little better
Joan Juliet Buck is the acclaimed author of The Price of Illusion, the former longtime editor of Vogue Paris, and a novelist, critic and essayist. Her work has appeared in multiple magazines over the years — Vanity Fair, Vogue, Traveler, The New Yorker— and most recently Harper’s Bazaar, The London Sunday Times Style and T magazine.
I kept diaries all along, so I know exactly what I was thinking.
First of all, eat something. I know it feels glorious to weigh so little, but living on cappuccinos and grapefruit is going to make your stomach ache. Also, if you ate more, your skin would clear up. And by the way, those tetracycline pills the doctor prescribed to stop the pimples? OUT. They’ll turn your teeth yellow by the time you’re forty and mess up your microbiome.
You can throw out the blue mascara.
Your heels are so high that streets stretch out forever, and distances seem impossible. But you’re not going to stop wearing them, because they make your legs look longer. I know. I’m you, many years ahead, and I want you to know some things I wish I’d known then.
Stop asking for permission from others; they won’t necessarily care what you do, or they’ll have an agenda for making you choose one thing over another. They won’t thank you for following their advice, and you’ll end up doing things you never wanted to do. Pull back into your own agenda. Figure it out.
Stop dating the standup comic because you want to be a standup comic. Drop the guy and grab the mic.
Stop thinking you’ll be punished for getting your way; that’s not true. You’ll be punished for not standing up for yourself.
And as for the punished business, stop fretting. The imagined catastrophes that wake you in the middle of the night are not going to happen. There will be some weird events along the way, but even if you just dreamt that a rogue planet crashed through the window, the world is not going to explode in a fireball.
I’d like you to be less anxious, more confident, more grounded. How can you be so ready for adventure, and also so fearful? Work and romance swirl you into an exhausting vortex of high and lows and endless drama. Yoga isn’t yet fashionable, no one you know meditates. You have a mental picture of lighting a candle and doing some deep breathing while wearing something loose and gray, but it’s just a picture. Find things that are good for you, that aren’t work, romance, social life or shopping. You’ve dropped ballet, though you’ll take it up again at 36, but right now you need to connect to the collective focus at the barre with live piano music while your feet in pink leather slippers do the rond-de-jambes and the entrechats you learned at 5, because there’s joy in that class.
Don't get in your own way. Stop overthinking every situation to try to be one step ahead of the worst possible outcome. Your energy must go to what you desire, not what you dread. It’s easier to walk when you're not shooting yourself in both feet.
Each time a relationship ends, you think that you’ll never love or be loved again. It wasn't true at 16, it’s not true at 26, and it won't be true forty years in the future.
And when you fall in love, don't concoct reasons why it can’t work, and hurry to turn it into a memory instead of a future.
Lighten up. Not everything is a drama.
And now a touchy subject. You have high standards, which makes you kind of arrogant. Your taste in men is quirky, and sometimes abysmal. You believed the fairy tale that Anais Nin spun in her diary about living alone outside Paris, a free woman throwing herself into passions. You set out to be like her, independent and unencumbered, and will wonder, over the years, how she managed to pay the rent. You don’t yet know that the rent was paid by her husband, a banker. An actual banker.
I sound like my grandmother, but frankly, if you were as much of a free spirit as you pretend to be, you’d be taking more drugs, sleeping with more people, and living in a Volkswagen bus in Morocco
I’m asking you to reconsider the words ‘security’ and ‘stability,’ to rein in the contempt you feel for ambitious people who earn good money. I’ve heard that some of them are kind, reliable, funny, intelligent, warm, even sexy. It turns out that a partner who can support you is useful for writers who want to give all their energy to writing.
And for god’s sake, start putting some money aside. I sound like my grandmother, but frankly, if you were as much of a free spirit as you pretend to be, you’d be taking more drugs, sleeping with more people, and living in a Volkswagen bus in Morocco
But instead you’re the tense and responsible correspondent for Women’s Wear Daily in Italy, where you write about movies and the arts as well as fashion. It’s an exciting job full of surprises and hard deadlines, and there’s no one to back you up. You just ran away from the violent man you were living with in Rome, you’ve got a single bed in an extended-stay hotel in Milan, you’re determined to concentrate on work, and you’ve just fallen in love. Despite the single bed.
Twenty-six is the year of peak adventures, wild opportunities, and the beginning of wisdom. You’re about to start trying to balance your love of the trivial with your attraction to the depths of intensity.
And next year, at 27, you’ll finally write something that expresses your doubts, your anxieties, and that weird arrogance of yours. It will run in Vogue, and your dream will come true when a letter arrives from a publisher asking if you’re working on a novel, which you are. But, typically, you will wait two years to answer him, until after you’re married. Imagine you’d answered him the next day. How many more books would you have written?
My final piece of advice is something the great love of my life told me years after our romance was over, when we were at last able to have a clear conversation.
He said, “You were always writing the whole script, you never gave me room to figure us out. It was as if there was only one person in the relationship. I wish you'd let me in.”
So listen: Let the other person in. Don’t try to figure out the whole story from the first day. Open the windows, open the door. I swear, it’s safer than you think. It really is.