Now, I have a confession to make: I used to love silly self help books. I mean, granted, I read a lot of things, to the point of nerdly compulsivity. But I used to think these books were cute, in an absurd kind of way: "How to land a man! How to keep a man! How to know if your single status is due to some kind of hex!" I found them quotable and funny and mostly harmless.
And then I grew up.
Because it's not just the self help books, or the talk gurus, or rock stars. These days, even charming metro strangers are quick to offer seemingly sage advice like: "now what you must do is never ever call him. He will, if love inspired, appear upon a unicorn at dawn."
Much has been said about sexual shame (thank God), but romantic shame is subtly different. Romantic shame is a culture which siren calls women towards self help books and talk show hosts; romantic shame is the thing that needles women into personality contortions that will allow her to be "wifey" or "queen" like. Romantic shame is the thing that seeps through movies and pop psychology; subtly implying to women that their natural way of energetically being in the world is not enough (or is too much) to inspire anyone into partnership. The female love life, like the female body, is a place where scrutiny has become the established and expected norm.
Too many otherwise good people will, leeringly, turn their mind to a single woman, or a recently separated woman, or a woman who's struggling with a partner. They'll give long winded pseudo psychological lectures; with the onus often being on her, her self esteem, and what she did to create so many problems.
Let's say a woman, 35, goes to a party. Someone asks her about how her partner is. She awkwardly says they might be moving- he got a new job. This fully grown employed woman has now opened herself up to a barrage of interjections and unwanted advice; advice that would never have been offered to this 35 year old had her gender identity been male. The next morning -- brunch time! -- she's annoyed. She wants to talk about what's next for her, and decide if moving is the right thing: and while she gets some sympathy, she also gets a great deal of thinly veiled condescension: "well you don't exactly have a ring on your finger," a prim voice offers. She stares into her mimosa. Wishes she hadn't come.
Maybe the reason I see this dynamic so clearly is because, as an adult, I've so consciously avoided it: my friends are grounded honorable people who don't do these things. Any of the people I brunch with, or coffee with, or study with, would respond to any love story with a patient: "well what do you want to do next?" or "How are you feeling about this? What do you want?", or, if I really pushed them: "Well here's what I see happening here....". These are women who, in living their own purpose, have no desire to pick apart the actions of others- especially in the realm of love and romance, where things grow mysterious so fast.
Women emphatically do not need to behave in any specific way to attract the right person. Nor do they need to internalize the behavior of the wrong person, when a bad affair happens (as they will). So long as women are told their attractiveness is correlative to their worth, they're being told that the deepest part of their psyche is ultimately public domain, up for referendum, and outside the strictures of their own agency and instinct. I can't think of anything more undermining for intimacy than that.
Here's the tragedy -- and it really is a tragedy- not only is this toxic culture of intimate criticism pumping women full of unnecessary cynicism and self doubt- it's also incredibly bad for all kinds of love. Not just romantic love, but friend love: community love. Parent, child, grandparent love. Sexuality is unlike any other part of our person: it's tied to our ability to generate; our ability to create. It is tied to who we are and how we conceive of ourselves at an intimate spiritual level.
I am a student of empirical psychology. I identify with data, science, and facts. Any competent psychological program in the country will teach you to distrust your first reactions. The intuitive desire, of course, is to assume that "I am human, psychology is the study of humans, so I must know the things already!" but if psychology were a useless discipline, if people were all organically well adjusted, we'd live in a much different world than the one we inhabit.
The danger of a culture which lends endless platform to comedians and talk show hosts is that these people aren't peddling anything other than their own arbitrary opinions -- arbitrary opinions which are often grounded in gendered norms of history, power dynamics, and shame. Opinions based in sensationalism and performance. Opinions that, at the end of the day, exist to earn money and fortify careers. Be your best self, the screens scream at women: except not like yourself, at all. The best of these cultural icons tell women how to better love men, and the worst of them tell women how to better manipulate men. Few, however, are telling the truth: that somewhere, out there, is someone who's going to love you exactly as you are- if that's even something you're looking for.
Because let me be clear here: you, human, the way you are, are someone's romantic, sexual, social, and emotional fantasy. No matter what you're struggling with, or how much you weigh, or whether you over or under shared on that first date: you're going to turn someone on so much they do insane things to stay with you. And here's why: humans do not fall in love rationally. EVER. The way pop psychology in the media approaches love isn't just gendered and derogatory: it's also fallible in the worst possible way. We're taught to strategize about love; to treat it like a game or job interview. The result being, of course, that you may "earn" a relationship title, but it won't be a love story -- and in the process, you'll have bargained off some of the best parts of yourself.
So screw the patriarchy. Be the best parts of yourself -- and sometimes even the worst ones. And yes, totally: do yoga, go running, be nice to your co workers, and try not to be an alcoholic. Chase the best woman you can be, and chase her for your own benefit. Make it about you, and your loved ones, and whatever God you choose to believe in. Be sane, but if you can't be, don't worry about it all that much. You're going to get called crazy anyways.