(...If only every single woman had a group like Samantha, Miranda, Charlotte and Carrie... Photo Source: www.telegraph.co.uk)
In an article in the latest issue of ELLE Magazine (http://www.elle.com/life-love/sexrelationships/a34320/rebecca-traister-all-the-single-ladies-interview-roxane-gay/) writer Roxane Gay interviews Rebecca Traister, whose new book All the Single Ladies covers the rise in unmarried women and highlights single females who have embraced living today. It is no secret that women do live productive and enriched lives unattached, defying old fashioned stereotypes that still exist thanks to The Bachelor franchise, Middle America and Yenta the Matchmaker. Furthermore, Traister maintains, we know of certain historic feats and accomplishments due to single women - women who unencumbered by husbands and raising children, impacted our society at a time when others were homemakers. Traister says that society benefitted from single women and examines lives of those impacting society today.
"When adult women were suddenly living lives that were not subsumed by wifeliness and motherhood, they devoted their energies to social and political causes that altered the nation: abolition, suffrage, the temperance and Settlement House movements," Traister is quoted as saying in the Elle interview. "It was young, unmarried working women in factories who staged the earliest walkouts, which were the beginning of the labor movement. Unmarried women poured into the teaching profession, powered teachers' unions, and founded women's colleges and colleges for African Americans. This stage culminated with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919, which allowed women to vote--though of course it didn't apply to plenty of women in the Jim Crow South.
It is Traister's message that I would like to share with the women I have spoken with lately, women who feel they need to defend themselves to others about why they are not married, why they are not "just settling down already" and why they are "being too picky." The women I speak of range from early 30s to early 40s. Some of them have never been married, while others were married briefly. A third of them are divorced and have children. The one thing these friends have in common is that they all say that are not "single by choice." They express the desire to find their perfect life partner. The ones without children are aware of biological factors. Some have even frozen their eggs. The issue is that Traister's book about the uniqueness in individual single women and the fulfilling, impactful lives women can lead solo, joins libraries filled with antiquated rules for hooking a husband (The Rules) and 2010's shockingly titled Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mister Good Enough by Lori Gottlieb. The message of the latter is debatable, with Gottlieb later attributing its awful title to her publisher. Reading through it at my parents' house, while wanting to burn it, my take is that it's about getting over one's "hang-ups" to change one's definition of Prince Charming. Within reason, that's not outlandish, but what resonated with me was the desperation, advocating a loveless quest to mold a man into marriage material in one's mind, the antidote offered for the "too picky" modern woman.
I referred to Yenta the Matchmaker above and you may have pictured the meddlesome character in Fiddler on the Roof. However, there are Yentas everywhere, some well-intentioned and others questionably motivated. This is especially true for those who are part of a tight-knit or religious community (ranging from the Mormons to the Modern Orthodox Jewish). There is always that person who wants to marry off all of the single folks on this planet and while they may come across as "meaning well," you may walk away from their unfiltered verbal assault feeling like hell. In the interest of full disclosure, I am married, but I used to be single and was a part of a religious community for the majority of that time. I met people who gave me good advice about men and relationships and then I got more than my share of unsolicited WTFs. There was the "wiser married friend" who told me that God put people in my path for a reason and if I felt absolutely nothing on a date, I was meant to reverse that...obviously (the "how" was never explained). God had put him on that date with me for a reason, clearly.
Another Yenta (Yento?) was a highly regarded religious leader who told me that I was "no spring chicken" pushing 26 and I'd better select a mate. He also explained to me that women work differently than men: Sexual desire is aroused in women by the act of having sex, he said in the tone of the all-knowing elder, so not to sweat it if we feel no connection prior to entanglement. I knew this was all wrong but I also knew (AKA was brainwashed to believe) he was a very wise man, literally revered in the community. The toll of being a single woman in a community plagued by such terrible notions and bad advice resulted in my shift from religiosity. It's not uncommon, but I'm surprised more folks have not distanced themselves from my former community due to its dating dictates, misogyny and ignorance about women.
I need to state the disclaimer that there are plenty of religious leaders who give great advice and there are rational, socially enlightened and warm people in every community. My experience would have been entirely different had I just dealt with like-minded individuals. I think that it is interesting when married people scoff at the reasonable standards (i.e. attraction, financial stability) of their single friends when secretly they know that the things you are picky about before marriage only become heightened as you live with a person. For example, my husband thought I would be neat, tidy and organized because I intended (and still fully intend) to be, but he was aware of what he was getting into when he saw my papers strewn about my desk and my dirty clothing on the floor.
For a while after getting married in 2001, I put the thoughts regarding "shit people say to single women" out of my head. Years later, hilarious videos with that exact title would crop up on YouTube. Friends got married, some remained single and others married and subsequently divorced. Then I started hearing the comments my friends would relay, the awful things that were said to them in the singles' scene. While I was relieved the insults were not being hurled my way this time, I was truly empathetic for my single friends, and angry again about what I myself had heard years ago.
Here are some examples of truly outlandish things said to my single friends:
-A mom and divorcee in her 30s was dating a much older, extremely wealthy man. She loved the way he "took care" of her and would never have to worry about her children's financial needs or her own, but physical attraction was a serious impediment. She wanted to "get over" this lack of attraction and stayed with him for many months trying..."Who cares if he's bad in bed?" a close confidant of hers inquired, "Lie there and think of the queen. You won't care about sex 5 years from now. You need a man who can take care of you."
-A matchmaker asked my tall and attractive 35 year old friend to describe what she was looking for. My friend listed all the normal things that came to mind: a professional, smart man, preferably taller than 5"9, physically attractive. The matchmaker looked my friend squarely in the eye and said "Let's just SAY you're 30. Also, we will not say you're over 5"6. I mean really, who do you think you're going to get?"
-Another divorced friend in her late 30s was told "No one gets everything they want. You may end up alone if you don't overlook things. Do you really want to look back one day and say "I could have married him and had a good life" and by another acquaintance but in the same line of interrogation, "One day you will see (your ex) with another woman and you will be crushed."
It is inevitable that some compromise comes in a relationship. I know a guy who always specified he wanted to date girls with curly ringlets. He met a sharp, playful girl with the straightest hair known to humans. They are very happy today. And as for myself, I used to go for guys over 6 feet tall, my husband is not. I don't think about his height today. (In fact, he's a little bit taller than me.) On the personality front, my friends complain that their husbands are lazy or forgetful or have bouts of male PMS that are impossible periods to get through. These are not deal breakers. We, who are in relationships or married, are in it for the long haul and sometimes, there are ocean waves to navigate and surf together. However, I always say that if something is going to bother you at the start of a relationship, it will only become more of a problem later on. You can't entirely change a person. I believe the same thing about women and physical attraction and I find it offensive when men are rarely (if ever) told to give up on physical attraction, but women hear "it's not that important" or "it will come." Is there a guarantee to accompany that advice? Nope.
Over a decade ago, I helped a friend with a business venture from my capacity as a marketing professional. It was a Jewish matchmaking website, the first of its kind, developed technologically to help determine who might be compatible with whom. Only a matchmaker (someone who passes a series of tests and has to present references to ensure trust) can propose the idea of a date to the singles and only at that point (through the forwarding of the profiles by the matchmaker) can members see each other's information. As I was assessing the technology, I noticed a profile belonging to a man 5 years my senior, but here was his age listed as 5 years my junior, 10 years younger than he actually was in real life. This is too easily verifiable, I thought, just ask me! Unable to hold back, I emailed him to let him know I was working on this website and I had come across his profile. "I seem to remember that you were 25 when I was 20," I wrote, "We were friends all those years ago. How did you suddenly become 5 years younger than I am? Aging in reverse?"
Needless to say, he wasn't pleased and wrote back an irate email. "So you caught me. Yes, I am 35, but I want a woman who is in her 20s and fertile. I want to have kids and older women cannot guarantee that. I shouldn't have to settle or be discriminated against because of my age and I should be able to get what I want, a very attractive woman in her 20s."
The thing that struck me then was that here was a man, not objectively handsome or youthful looking at all, a man who had a hard time keeping a job, advertising a big lie to hook the ultimate luscious, fertile goddess. He too was a religious man, and how does one reason with someone whose religious leader likely advised him to go younger in his profile? The more I talk to singles, the more it seems women are being advised by "respected community members" to lower their standards, while men are being encouraged to dream big and out of bounds. Don't get me wrong. That's the way it appears to be balanced, with a few reports sprinkled in about men asked to face the mirror and actually see the hair plugs. I can say that in the community I hail from, the ratio of single men to single women is in the men's favor. Because there are more women than men, a desperation grows like a virus. Men who might not seem too fabulous were you to see them on TV, for example, suddenly take on an allure that would fascinate sociologists. I have seen average looking men in these communities fawned over and catapulted to stud status. I have witnessed the growth of egos, arrogance and entitlement.
I asked 5 women to rank the following in order of importance: PHYSICAL ATTRACTION, FINANCIAL STABILITY, INTELLECT, EMOTIONAL CONNECTION, CHARISMA/CONFIDENCE. I was surprised that they all, without exception, listed Physical attraction last.
Men have told me upfront that they are generally candid about the fact that physical attraction is what hooks them. However, the women, who went into detail about their answers, talked about attraction growing as the result of an emotional connection with an intelligent man. "Maybe I can get over looks?" one woman wrote. Her first pick was financial stability. She added apologetically "I'm embarrassed about my shallowness when I see a man who is good looking."
I feel that Lori Gottlieb's book alludes to that point, getting over our "hang-ups," trying to encourage women to change their preferences and re-prioritize, but experience and interactions have shown me that women are just like men. We too have to be attracted to our mates. What Gottlieb refers to as a "hang-up" may be as innate as a knee jerk reaction. We as a gender may be nearly as intractable as our supposed opposites, the men. All the Single Ladies does nothing to dispute marriage, partnership or having children. What it does is simply illustrate that a woman in her own right has a hell of a lot to offer, and society and history can testify to the prowess of single women... So, a Yenta might ask, "Is she being too picky?" It certainly sounds like she has every right.