In her memoir, Amy Poehler says that getting older makes you invisible to some degree and then she goes on to extol the virtues of invisibility, one being X-ray vision. She says that when people look at you less, you can see through them more. That entire passage resonated deeply with me. I am not old, but there are other ways to become invisible. Being poor, being a child in a house that believes that children should be seen and not heard, being unattractive, all of these things can make you invisible and I have been all of these things. My invisibility gave me time to step outside of my environment, out of my skin and observe the world around me, an experience that left an indelible stain on my worldview.
At some point or another, the concept of Pretty Girl Complex arises in conversation with some of my female friends. When I meet a woman who is short on personality or critical thought, I immediately think, “Ah, you must have been really pretty as an adolescence.” When the first thing people notice about you is the superficial, there is no desire to develop below the surface. Meanwhile, those of us who were not traditionally or culturally beautiful have to develop other skills to be noticed: wit, charisma, intellect. Well, that used to be my rationale for PGC, but after having read Yes, Please, I think Poehler may be on to something. Maybe there is not a dearth of desire for self-development, but time and space. When there are so many people paying attention to you, there is no room to sit back and analyze the world around you. You are the object of desire and the object cannot also be the subject.
This was not my struggle as a teenager. I had really severe acne, I didn’t know how to style my hair (all two-inches of it), I was overweight and all of the access weight accumulated in my gut which gave me the appearance of being perpetually pregnant, and I had maybe three outfits to my name and I use the word outfit very loosely. Boys were not checking for me, girls either for that matter. I didn’t have friends, much less boyfriends. I didn’t really have a social life until the end of high school, which means that I spent all of those hours in school lost in my observations and daydreams.
That degree of social isolation made my interactions with boys as a young adult very unique. For one thing, I was extremely awkward. I was oblivious to any attention being paid to me and when I wasn’t being oblivious, I was running away in abject terror. The awkwardness has abated over the years, but I still don’t understand flirting. One of my friends swears that I do it all the time; therefore, I must be lying. But, unintentional flirting is just as problematic as not being able to do it at all, if not more so. Flirting is a power that needs to be harnessed. Uncontrollable flirting makes one feel like a mutant who is wreaking havoc all of her life before Professor X has trained her to control her powers.
The lack of dating in my adolescence not only gifted me with awkwardness, but it bestowed upon me a unique perspective on relationships and dating. I can’t relate to most depictions of single women that I see on television. If a show centers on a single woman, it is guaranteed that 75% of the plots will center on dating escapades or the protagonist lamenting the fact that there are no dates to speak of. I feel so detached from these women because I can count on my hands the number of dates that I have been on and quite honestly, it doesn’t keep me up at night. (I’m waiting for the day when there is a show about a woman that doesn’t revolve around her love life or lack thereof. Parks and Recreation got pretty close, but that’s a conversation for another day.)
I question relationships and their conventions in a way that frustrates those around me and the answers I receive are a vexation to my spirit as well. Once, a friend told me that I needed to be married because I needed someone to tell me no. Apparently, I am living a wild and crazy life and I need someone to rein me in. Her comment reminded me of this one time when I was riding in a car with my sisters, dad, and stepmother. My stepmother wanted to visit her mother and my dad didn’t want to go, so he said no. She readily accepted the denial, but my sisters were silently seething. My dad felt our disgust, so he pretended to change his mind and say, “I mean, we can go if you want. It’s your choice.” She didn’t disappoint him in her response. “No, no. It’s your job to advise me on what is right. When my father was alive, he was always advising me on what to do and I hope that until I die, you will always be advising me on the right thing to do.”
As much as her words nauseated me, I was delighted by her candidness. There is an infantilization of woman present in heterosexual relationships that adhere to the patriarchy (there is an infantilization of men as well, but that topic will be visited at a later date) and I had never heard any one own that truth so bluntly before. I have zero interest in being patronized in this way because I am not interested in reliving my childhood. I love that scene in Waiting to Exhale when Angela Bassett tells Loretta Devine that she doesn’t want to be remarried because she “tap danced for a man for eleven years and [she] is not going to go out and get a new owner.” That is the definition of childhood to me, pandering to the wishes of adults and depending on their judgment – however misguided it may be – to make decisions for you. As Queen Bey has declared, “I’m a grown woman and I can do whatever I want.” For what reason would I sacrifice this pure joy and freedom and why is that necessary?
I cannot be alone in my views, but everywhere I turn, someone (usually a woman) is espousing the doctrine of a traditional, patriarchal marriage structure to me. If it works for them, then it’s fine but I have a hard time believing that with all these unique individuals in the world, there is only one model for heterosexual relationships.
Something else is at play. More people are craving something more, something different, but difference has a cost. There is no roadmap to different and tradition comes with a tried and true script. In my late twenties, I feel the race against the clock. There is only a limited amount of time to explore and try to figure out your place in the world and if you can’t get it done in a timely manner, then it is time to slip into one life’s many conventions. It’s like a game of hot potato. You don’t want the clock to run out on you and find you a spinster or some vagabond.
For my friends who are closer to thirty than I, their stress is more pronounced. This one has a boyfriend who treats her well, wants to marry her, but she doesn’t love him and doesn’t know if she ever will. That one loves him, but feels their lives are running in different directions. What happens when boy meets girl, boy likes girl, boy wants to marry girl is not enough? Our parents didn’t prepare us for this; the movies weren’t much help either.
And then, I see all these married friends who are constantly grieving about certain characteristics or actions in their spouse and I always have to ask, “Did you not see this before?” To which they reply, “ Well, I wasn’t thinking about that. You don’t think about those things when you’re dating.” Really? What is that time for if not to contemplate compatibility? It must be the Scarlett O’Hara Syndrome.
At the beginning of Gone With the Wind, Scarlett is obsessed with getting married because any Southern belle who is worth her salt gets married soon. When she can’t marry the man of her fantasy, she rushes to marry the first guy she could get to propose and then wakes up in a couple of days to the reality of being a wife to someone she doesn’t even know, much less loves and respects as a life partner. My peers and I have seen many before us fall prey to Scarlett’s fate and we are trying desperately to reject that, but we don’t have a model for anything different and no reason to believe that there is more or time enough to wait for it.
I haven’t been exempt from the pressure either. Before my last year of law school, my mentor informed me that if I “graduated from Harvard with two degrees and no man, [I] was an educated fool.” Her jab spurred me to pursue a relationship like nothing ever had before. I met a guy and, on paper, we seemed to be the American dream, or more specifically, the Cosby Show dream. We hung out for a couple of months before it was clear that there was no future for us as a couple. Those two months taught me plenty.
In the beginning, I didn’t recognize myself. After we hung out, I would think, ugh who are you? I was a shell of myself. I didn’t exhibit any of my personality because I didn’t know how to be myself and make it work. The girls I saw in relationships were nothing like me and I was so anxious to check relationship off my list before graduation that I just tried to imitate what I had seen before.
It was him who said no to a relationship. When I think back on that time, it makes me sad to realize how willing I was to diminish myself for a relationship and the approval of others. But, that experience was also empowering. It taught me that women aren’t inherently oppressed in relationships. I had agency in that situation and it was my choice to decrease. If that relationship had progressed to something more and I looked up down the road, wondering why I didn’t recognize the woman I saw in the mirror, I would have had no one to blame but myself.
I find joy in the fact because if I had the power to debase myself, then the power to nourish and protect what is beautiful about me is also within my grasp. To quote Rilke, “If you manage from your own resources, from your own disposition and nature, from your own experience and childhood and strength, to win your way towards a relationship…that is wholly your own (not influenced by convention and custom), then you have no need to fear losing yourself and becoming unworthy of your best possession.” A relationship per se is not the problem; it’s the compromising of the self for the sake of satisfying conventions. I’m not a conventional person, so abiding by conventions would mean forcing my peg in a square hole.
After I dusted my ego off, the guy and I went on to be friends and our friendship continues to grow. We make each other laugh, we share our hopes and dreams, and we debate and discuss current events. I couldn’t ask for more in any relationship, platonic or otherwise. When we hang out, I can’t help but to contrast our current interactions with the beginning. Why, when the possibility of romance was lingering, were we incapable of interacting this way?
It’s funny. I always imagined that the lack of relationships in my adolescence had given me a renewed perspective on male/female relationships, but it turns out that I had, in fact, internalized the trite Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus norms and was just responding to them differently. My abstention from relationships wasn’t a rejection of those norms; it was just delayed conformity.
But deep down, I honestly believe that men and women don’t have to fulfill traditional gender roles to have a successful relationship. Despite all of the people in my life telling me that I’m being naïve, heretical, or silly, I believe that this can work. I haven’t had the privilege of seeing in my practice often, but my gut tells me that it can be my reality. I can achieve what Rilke longed to see.
“And perhaps the sexes are more closely related than we think, and the great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in man and woman, freed of all sense of error and disappointment, seeking one another out not as opposites but as brothers and sisters and neighbours, and they will join together as human beings, to share the weight of sexuality that is laid upon them with simplicity, gravity, and patience.”