The XX Factor

In Defense of the Defensive Single Girl Essay

No ring, nice nails   

Photo by DenisNata/Shutterstock

Incline your ear to the sounds of the holiday season: the tinkling of bells, rustling of firs, and weeping of single women. Time to obsess, if you’re unattached, over having no one’s hand to hold on the ice rink and no reply when your relatives ask you whether you’ve met anyone nice. The singular snowflake, so lovely in its un-duplicability, seems instead so inexpressibly lonely—or something. The point is, if you’re a single woman around Christmastime, you’re supposed to be sad.

On the Web, single girls are fighting back, sort of. By now you’ve no doubt seen this picture (“Single Girl Reacts Perfectly to Friends’ Engagements”), which shows a group of girlfriends squealing over three newly be-ringed members. One girl, off to the side, mimes shooting herself in the head. The photo has so far gotten more than 17,000 Facebook shares. Then Huffington Post ran a piece called “Is Being Single Really That Bad?” (No, it is not that bad, the story argues, except when “it sounds like a tragic Taylor Swift R. Kelly collaboration titled ‘Make Love to No One.’ ” Comforting.) A law student who blogs at Sister of the Yam wrote a fiery ode to “women who are difficult to love” and thus single. On Thought Catalog, unmarried Chloe Angyal explains that while she and her boyfriend will be spending December in Paris, the city of romance, a proposal will not be happening. “He knows full well that I have no interest in getting married,” Angyal says. “More than that, I would rather—and I’m only being mildly hyperbolic here—gouge my own eyes out with a rusty fork than be proposed at.”

God, yes, I would rather be cast into a pit of flesh-eating aardvarks than have some man tell me he wants to be with me for the rest of his life. As a single girl myself, I liked reading all these single girl essays. Sure, they all sound a little defensive, but they’ve convinced me that single girls still need defense. Even now, no one thinks women stay single by choice.

Consider Tracy McMillan’s 2011 book Why You’re Not Married Yet, which tells women they’re alone because they’re “shallow,” “a bitch,” “a liar,” “selfish,” or “not good enough.”* Or note, as others have before me, how the word bachelor doesn’t hold a lot of stigma—we’re happy to assume an unmarried man of a certain age savors his swinging lifestyle—but a spinster elicits our pity or scorn. In the face of all this judgment, we single girls take to the Internet to try to rewrite the narrative. We like flying solo! We are busy focusing on our career/friends/mental health/pet! We find all the breathless paraphernalia of coupledom—cutesy pictures, fairytale proposals—stupid! We wrestle with our singleness, a status as entwined with a lack of validation as it is with a lack of companionship, in a thousand funny, angry, sarcastic, thoughtful ways. Yet behind so much of it seems to lurk the fear Candace at Sister of the Yam makes explicit: that single women are single because something is wrong with them. That single girls are “difficult to love.”

Meanwhile, the pieces pile up—fretful, defiant, bemused. You get a wistful Jen Glantz observing that she’d “most like if people just stopped talking about me being single like they talk about damaged goods, or animals that are about to get neutered or something silly like gingivitis.” You get Lea Lane insisting that, though unattached, “I’ve sowed enough oats to make oatmeal for the New York Yankees.” Candace’s way out is to accept that she is, perhaps, a tougher sell than the typical girlfriend (whoever that is). “As an antidote to what I guess is my disease of singleness, I have been told that my strong beliefs intimidate men and that I should keep some of my voice to myself,” she writes. “I have also been told that what makes me dynamic renders me an excellent candidate for love affairs that married men think fondly about, but a poor choice for marriage itself. I cannot imagine I am the only woman that has been told she must quiet, calm, and settle down–be more of a lady–before she is acceptable enough to be wifed.”

At Huffington Post, Megan Baldwin urges women to rethink the doomsday cloud surrounding singleness. “Honestly, is it all that bad or are we just holding onto the notion of how bad it is?” she asks. What if we thought of being single not as pathetic, nor as the price of self-expression, but as a chance to chase “whatever it is you wrote down on two pages of college-ruled notebook paper and burned up” as a dreamy preteen girl? Singledom equals possibility and hope, not Häagen-Dazs and Netflix! It is endless fresh starts and partying plus free drinks.  

Maybe that’s unrealistic. But I like the way Baldwin frames being alone as a choice, one that calls to us not because we so love isolation and hate feelings, but because our relationship status is just one of many things we have to juggle. She’s not saying a partner wouldn’t be nice (or threatening to plunge cutlery into her eye)—although certainly some women, like some men, revel in total amatory freedom. But singleness can be voluntary, can be fulfilling, can be the best choice on the table at the moment, even if it’s not always a fountain of bliss.

I did not set out to write a single girl essay. But if I had, I would write that I’m not satisfied with the old narrative calling us desperate or sad (or unlovable: a descriptor that will drive single ladies crazy with insecurity even as they have no idea what the hell it means). I would say that my singleness comes down to a mix of things that sound cliché until you live them: not quite being willing to commit, wanting to figure myself out first, high standards, lack of opportunity, fulfilling—and time-consuming—work. (If there’s some fear or self-sabotage thrown in there too, I’ll try not to stress about it.) I won’t pretend that I love every minute of singleness, though I doubt I’d love every minute of being someone’s girlfriend either.

Meanwhile, though, I’ve noticed a pointed lack of single guy essays. That is probably because society doesn’t view unattached men as failures, so the whole issue fails to trouble them overmuch. Yet maybe it should: While women’s happiness “fluctuates significantly based on the quality of their marriages,” married men are as a rule more content than single ones. So if anyone should be scrambling to settle down no matter what, it’s guys.

Correction, Dec. 13, 2013: This post originally misspelled author Tracy McMillan’s first name. She also misspelled Häagen-Dazs.