There’s a very specific look people give you when you tell them. It’s a unique mix of confusion, sympathy and a little dash of fear. No, I’m not confessing to a criminal past, a terminal disease or passing interest in rollerblading in my youth. The truth is, I’m an attractive, successful, smart woman with a clean bill of health and not even an overdue parking fine weighing on my conscious. The bomb shell? I’m over 30. And still single.
From questioning the plausibility (“I just don’t know why you’re single…”) to helpful advice (“Maybe you should get out there more?”) to rallies of inspiration (“Go for the bouquet, girl!”), we know you’re just trying to help. But what we’re too polite to tell you is, you’re not.
When it comes to discussing the rising number of single ladies in Australia – last count in 2008 had us at 51.4% of the female population – the media jumps at the chance to use one of two cultural touchstones: Bridget Jones or Sex and the City. This is really just shorthand for sad singles or slutty singles. We must be one or the other.
In fact, SATC has become such a flip caricature of sex-hungry singledom, punctuated by designer handbags and disposable boy toys, that the real message has been forgotten. Sex and the City was about choice. In the words of Carrie herself: “Being singleused to mean that nobody wanted you. Now it means you’re pretty sexy and you’re taking your time deciding how you want your life to be and who you want to spend it with.”
If power is defined by agency, single women are disempowered by assumptions that our footloose and fancy-free nature has nothing to do with choice. In reality, the opposite is true. “I think many women are more consciously choosing to remain single as they’re more aware of the pitfalls of bad relationships,” says Lyn Fletcher, CEO of Relationships Australia. “Women have a lot more options these days in terms of careers and lifestyle choices. It’s less common for women to marry simply because it is the ‘done thing'”. Like denim-on-denim and dial-up, the done thing is changing.
If you can’t work out why your attractive, erudite and sweet co-worker Betty is still sans ring, it’s probably not due to a lack of offers. It’s probably more to do with the fact that the used cars salesman you’ve been trying to set her up with isn’t exactly her own personal Mr Darcy. Betty also knows statistically speaking, partnerships formed in the early 30s and onwards last longer than those forged in the white-hot hormonal overload of our early 20s. Single now does not mean single forever. But Betty is sure to find someone. She’s so smart and successful! It must just be too intimidating for men.
And this is where we get into the guts of what is truly the most offensive thing about comments made to single women. We know that when you tell us we must be too smart, or too funny, or even too damn attractive for most men – to the point it sends them running away screaming in fear – you are trying to flatter us. But the majority of such comments are rooted in the assumption that there’s something wrong with us. We’re too picky. We’re too independent. We’re not out there enough. We’re out there too much – we need to relax, and let it happen. We’re not doing that. We’re not letting it happen.
You know what? There’s actually nothing wrong with us. Actually, we’re just fine.
Despite what you may think, single women do not spend every waking hour obsessing about our unwed status. Sure, we can relate to Bridget Jones, a bottle of a wine and a good bawl, but that’s once in a blue moon, not a Friday night ritual. A recent study in Journal of Health Psychology showed that the more time a single lass spent ruminating on being single, the higher she experienced overall life dissatisfaction. So bringing up our singledom, even with the intention of flattering or supporting us, is not achieving your aim of making us feel good about ourselves. (If you haven’t noticed, we rarely ask how many fish there are in the sea).
Philosopher Alain de Botton maintains you can’t have it all. “We hear a lot of talk about work-life balance: nonsense. You can’t have it all,” he maintained in his delightfully sexy British accent. “Any vision of success has to admit what it’s losing out on. Any wise life has to accept there is an element where we’re not succeeding.” So while single people may not have a partner, this often means we have time to excel in other areas, like pursuing our dream job, hobby or bod. (It’s well-documented single people hit the treadmill more often).
If you’re still not convinced that our singledom needs to be constantly referenced and lamented, imagine this: svelte Betty sits down with you at lunch, and with the hushed whisper of a co-conspirator says, “I just don’t know why you’re a little pudgy.” Her blonde head shakes in disbelief. “You just don’t seem like a size 14. So really, when do you think you’ll lose those few extra kilos?” You glance nervously at the KitKat in hand, and stutter out, shocked, that you don’t know. “Don’t worry,” Betty says, patting your hand gently. “It’ll probably happen when you least expect it.”