thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

The Dating Obsession

In books, fashion, feminism, gender, reality TV, Television on January 9, 2013 at 1:42 pm

Chelsea H.

The summer before my junior year of college, I worked at a family-owned business that sold paint, spas, and above ground pools.  Strange combination, I know.  The owner of the store and I got along  well: he was a good boss, he and his wife paid well, and sometimes he shared a beer or two in the back with his employees after closing.  It was a great summer job.  But it, like my then-single situation, wasn’t to last.  My boss, for one, was determined to change the latter.  He told me once that I was “too great a person to be alone.”  He then advocated that, if I wasn’t finding men to date in my classes at school, I should look elsewhere.  I pointed out that the bar scene was not really my thing.  He asked “don’t you buy food?  There are men at the grocery store.  Don’t you do laundry?  There are men at laundrymats!”  I noted, always the pragmatist, that with laundry machines in my garage, I wasn’t about to sacrifice my quarters just to find a boyfriend.  I would rather save them for a soda machine.  Quarters, that is, not a boyfriend.

But his comments made me think.  Yes, I was single.  Yes, admittedly, I was lonely.  But why did being a great person mean I ought to be half of a couple?  Couldn’t I be just as great being just me?  And why is it “just” me?

Why not – me – ?

That fall, I met the man who became my husband.  And I have to admit, I can’t imagine being alone again.  I love our partnership.  I would feel lost without him.  But that’s because we’ve grown together and learned to rely on each other in a way that makes both of us more, not collapses us into co-dependent halves.  I accept, but do not love, when people ask me where my “other half” is.  I love living with, spending time with, and traveling with this man, but that doesn’t mean I have to be with him constantly, and his is not the only relationship I feel desirous of cultivating.  As society would see me, I’m ridiculously heteronormative.  And that makes me fit in perfectly.  Because society demands perfectly paired coupledom.  And though I recognize that this is not the only state of being in which individual human beings can be content, it is the most accepted, the most belabored, and the most advertised.  And I think this is a problematic, stagnant way of thought that stigmatizes and discriminates.  It’s a too-expected, too-relied upon binary we need to break.  I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite being in a happy relationship saying coupledom is a bad thing.  It’s not a bad thing.  It’s just not the only thing.

I’ve been thinking about this idea for a while thanks to an unlikely source: TLC’s makeover reality show What Not To Wear.  Now in its tenth season, WNTW finds women (and sometimes men) who suffer from fashion mishaps and, by having them ambushed by Stacy London and Clinton Kelly, bringing them to New York, gifting them with style rules, sometimes harsh critique, and $5000, teaches them how to dress, how to shop, and frequently how to increase their own self-confidence and sense of value.

And that is all great.

What’s not always great, in my eyes, is the go-to approach Stacy and Clinton adopt in trying to convince each week’s contributor that her style needs fixing.  Sometimes these women are single, sometimes they are married or dating, sometimes they are divorced.  Sometimes their style is holding them back in their developing, skyrocketing, or collapsing careers.  Sometimes they nominate themselves and are desperate to start over – their closets and their mindsets.

But almost without exception, the first thing Stacy and Clinton want to know is status.  And I don’t mean class.  I mean dating.  “Are you dating?”  “Do you want to be dating?”  “Don’t you want to find Mr. Right?”  They have asked this of everyone from divorcees to widows to college graduates to The Facts of Life‘s Mindy Cohn.  And most of the time, this works out fine.  The contributor says yes (why wouldn’t she?), Stacy and Clinton suggest that changing her wardrobe will make her more desirable to the opposite (and in rare cases, the same) sex, and they move on with the makeover.

But the really interesting and, I think, important cases are when the answer is unexpected.  When Stacy asks “Are you interested in dating?” and the contributor says “No.”

Let’s look at one telling example.  Season 8’s Azi, according to the WNTW makeover site, “is a single 31-year-old psychology professor living in Washington, DC.”  Rather than being ignorant about her own appearance, Azi dressed in a mixture of college undergrad and bohemian frump on purpose: she wanted to disrupt common perceptions and force people to understand that a woman can be smart, professional, and enterprising without being a fashion plate.

At 31, Azi moved fast into the professional world.  As someone barely graduated from a doctoral program and just 30 herself, impressed is an absurd understatement for how I feel about her career.  Yet one of the first questions Stacy and Clinton asked was about her dating status.  “Are you dating?”  “Do you want to be?”  And Azi replied, truthfully and beautifully, that while she wasn’t opposed to relationships, being part of a couple was not her top priority and not something she was interested in actively pursuing.  And Stacy and Clinton couldn’t seem to let it go.  Didn’t she want, they asked, to be prepared just in case?  What if, while out with the girls, Mr. Right was a few seats down at the bar?  What if she met someone?  Shouldn’t she be ready – by which they meant, of course, shouldn’t she be appropriately dressed so as to attract rather than repel him?

And Azi wasn’t convinced.

And I say good for her.  Though Azi went through with the makeover and though she seemed reasonably pleased with the results, she did not back down from her feeling that finding a man was not the number one goal she should be pursuing, and the show depicted her as, not a failure or lost cause by any means, but as a challenge and a bit of an oddball.

This happens on numerous episodes of WNTW, and while I applaud the women who are independent and focused on themselves as more than just the future Mrs. Someone, I am always simultaneously yelling at Stacy and Clinton for this little box of normativity they seem to think everyone falls into.  Especially because they don’t.  Clinton is gay.  Though he is now married to his partner (according to Wikipedia), for a long time he couldn’t get married, and yet he had a thriving career, personal friendships, and – I presume – self-satisfaction and happiness.  Stacy is, at least as of 2010, single.  She has an incredible career, a sharp, sassy personality, and a strong sense of self-worth.  Neither is half of a typical married couple.  Yet in almost every episode of their show, they ask a woman whether she is.

This push toward hetero coupledom is so incredibly pervasive.  Even a gay man and a single woman, both of whom understand that marriage is not everything, turn to this straw man as a potential motivator for women to get it in gear.

And they aren’t the only ones.  Yahoo “news,” if we can call it that, routinely provides self help “articles” on making oneself more attractive to the opposite sex.  How to attract someone through diet, exercise, style, and sometimes even makeup, and how to avoid repelling them (ladies, did you know that men don’t like sparkly lip gloss because it might be sticky, so they won’t want to kiss you?  Why should the potential of them kissing you dictate what you wear on your lips?) are frequent topics.  But last year, a short video on Yahoo Shine made me sputter with protest (warning: the video begins automatically with an advertisement).  The Yahoo reporter interviews author Tracy McMillan about her new book Why You’re Not Married… Yet.  McMillan discusses personality traits that inhibit women from being part of healthy relationships, loading her language with just enough sex appeal and shock value (“number one, you’re a bitch”) to attract (I presume) the average Yahoo reader, and she offers advice to help women overcome these traits and cultivate relationship success.  But one of her early lines really bothers me.  She says the book is working to “this is not a book about finding a man, but it’s about working on the stuff that’s going on in you that’s either preventing you from having a great relationship or maintaining a great relationship.”  She goes on to advocate “loving yourself,” and while this includes ideas like being kinder or being more considerate (to whom, one wonders, if not the man you’re supposed to finding?) she also adds the compelling and completely not rage-inducing quality of “maybe I should be willing to date a shorter man” as something that, in short, is part of “becoming a better woman.”  Despite her first statement, this certainly reads to me like becoming a “better” woman boils down to becoming a woman who is ready to be part of a couple.  Being a “better” individual means ceasing to be an individual.  It means being a half in a relationship.  Attached = better.

I’m not alone in noticing this either.  University of Toronto professor Michael Cobb has given an interview in the wake of his new book Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled.  In it, he points to the stigma we place on single people and the social expectations we have about relationships.  Why, in a world where divorce is almost as common as marriage, do we insist upon couplehood as the ideal?  Why, when there are beautiful, fulfilling relationships that do not involve sex or legal commitment, is being a wife the ultimate end?  Why are single people incomplete – just waiting around for the other person who will bring meaning and totality and fulfillment to their lives?

Admission: I haven’t read Cobb’s book.  I read the interview I’ve linked to here and these are my thoughts based upon that interview and my own observations. 

I have thoughts about this.  I don’t like those thoughts.  It’s tradition.  It’s the norm.  It’s based on long-developed, male-dominated, media-controlled social expectations.  Women are fine, but they are imbued with reproductive powers and therefore in need of a man to fertilize them, and by extension, similarly in need of that man to support, protect, and provide for them (and their offspring).  But today’s world is – regardless of your religious, political, or social beliefs – disastrously overpopulated.  We aren’t living in the fourteenth century anymore where two thirds of the European population were just wiped out and therefore created new human beings to live in that world is an extreme priority.  We are engaged instead (pun intended) in a world where finding fulfillment should be based on other things.  That’s not to say wifehood and motherhood is not the “right” path for some people.  If we’re being honest, I am probably one of those people.  But if I weren’t, that shouldn’t mean I am somehow worth less, and it shouldn’t mean I am abnormal.

Obviously I’m seeing this from a female perspective.  In addition to telling us we should be thin, tan, beautiful, sexy (as if that weren’t enough), mass media also demands that we either be in a relationship or be actively seeking a relationship, lest we be deemed failures.  I don’t know what (or how much) weight this carries for single men, though I suspect it is similar.

This leads me back to WNTW.   Despite its progressive attitude toward other social issues (sexual orientation, body image, weight, height, profession), WNTW aggressively, insistently perpetuates this standard.  I’d like to propose that instead of focusing on whether a woman’s appearance is bound to secure her a proposal, Stacy and Clinton shift their reasoning.  Isn’t it time to, instead of asking whether a woman wants to be dating, focus on how she feels about herself and what she as an individual considers success?  If she brings up the issue herself, great.  Focus on that.  But if, like Azi, her interest is cultivating respect, self-worth, and intelligence that are not soldered to finding a guy, can we come up with reasons why dressing (professionally/fashionably/creatively/sophisticatedly/what have you) according to Stacy and Clinton’s perceptions could help her in these goals instead?  If our first inclination is always to talk about how singlehood could become coupledom, singlehood remains a step on the way to something more – a state of pre-makeover that it is society’s job to root out and “fix,” rather than a legitimate, valuable, worthwhile sphere of existence.

(Oh, and I’m going to keep wearing sparkly lip gloss.  Because even though my husband likes them a lot [and I’m glad of that], they are my lips, not an extension of his.)

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  1. Great stuff Chels.

  2. Chels, I don’t think it’s hypocritical at all for you to be noticing this social pressure towards coupledom. In fact, I think it’s incredibly important for people that are in “normal” married relationships to add their voices to this critique. Because I have found that if I point this problem out as a single woman, critics tend to dismiss me as simply angry due to my singleness. Like, “Oh, if you were married, you wouldn’t think this was a problem anymore.” It’s great for people that don’t have that automatic censure applied to their perspective to speak up about this too! Thanks for writing this. I really, really enjoyed your piece!

    • Melissa,
      I thought of you a few times while I wrote this – I’m glad you appreciated it! It’s even more aggravating considering that we live in a society that claims to value individualism, but seems to punish people who don’t follow the cookie cutter “right” mode.

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