In 2013, I got an assignment from a women’s magazine to write about how awesome it is to be single. The article was easy to write—I hadn’t had a serious relationship in three years and was not sad about that fact. I loved living alone. I loved waking up alone. I loved leaving town on a whim and cooking according to my own cravings. (Feta cheese dip is an entrée, people. Open your minds.) I wasn’t jealous of friends who poured time and energy into their romantic relationships. Single women were an affinity group, and I relished my membership.
There was just one catch—I wasn’t exactly single anymore. When the editor called me about the assignment, I did not mention that I had recently met a pretty wonderful guy. But when I turned in the first draft, my editor noticed that all my references to being single were in the past tense. I sent her an email, explaining that mentioning my new relationship in the article would make my single-lady positivity less credible. Not much had changed anyway, I assured her, because it was a long-distance relationship. The day-to-day workings of my beloved single life were intact. Reading the email now, it’s obvious how conflicted I felt about my changing identity.
For decades, pop culture and media have set up a clear binary between single women and their coupled counterparts. Whether it’s smug married women talking down to Bridget Jones and Carrie Bradshaw, or the control-freak single woman becoming a better person after finding true love in a rom-com, countless movies and TV shows have been built on the presumed divide between “single” and “taken”—a label I’ve always found loathsome.
Journalists haven’t exactly helped. According to magazine covers, single straight women have eclipsed their potential male partners in nearly every arena—which means that women with husbands must have settled for someone less-than-ideal. The writer Kate Bolick generated a million think pieces in response to her 2011 Atlantic cover story about how she’d never been tempted to marry. I understood where she was coming from. Single women? They drink whiskey at the bar alone and have the power to swing elections. Coupled women plan “compromise” vacations (shopping for her; golf for him!) and buy a lot of cleaning products. Even though I would swear to you that the latter details are stereotypes perpetuated by advertisers, I’d still internalized them. I was certain which team I belonged on.
Until, of course, I didn’t belong anymore. It was a slow transition. For the first year of our relationship, my boyfriend lived in London—5,437 miles and eight time zones away. I lived a bifurcated existence: Happily solo when we weren’t together, happily coupled when we were. When things got more serious, and we started talking about him moving to Los Angeles, I went through a period of mourning for my single life that was not unlike a breakup. I was excited to be with him, but it meant I had to let go of something I considered an important part of who I was.
Starting to share physical and emotional space with another person sparked a minor personal crisis that consumed my thoughts and my journal for a solid six months. I took care to always say, “he and I” rather than “we,” because defaulting to the first-person plural seemed to imply that we did everything together. I had to figure out which of the things I loved about my life were mine, no matter what my relationship status, and which things had to change now that I was taking someone else into consideration. Maybe we made joint decisions about which TV series to watch next, but I could still take vacations alone, I assured myself.
Personal identity is one thing, but presenting a new relationship to the wider world is another matter altogether. You delete Tinder. You introduce someone as “my boyfriend.” You change your status to “in a relationship.” I had the additional burden of figuring out how—and whether—to write about it. Bolick found herself in a similarly complicated situation while writing her book Spinster, released earlier this week. After landing a book deal in “the high six figures” to write about her singleton pride (and her serial monogamist past), she was back in a relationship by the time of her publication date. Which is perhaps why, in the final chapter, she defines “spinster” not as a relationship status but as an ideology or a lifestyle. “I grant that a wholesale reclamation of the word spinster is a tall order,” she writes. “My aim is more modest: to offer it up as a shorthand for holding on to that in you which is independent and self-sufficient, whether you’re single or coupled.”
I want to believe Bolick is right, that “spinster” is a state of mind. But I don’t think it’s that simple. The desire to transcend social categories like gender, sexual orientation, and relationship status is just that: desire. You can be the most independent-minded woman in the world, but if you enter into a relationship, you do have to reshuffle your time and space in order to make room for your partner. And whether or not you believe that partnered women should enjoy more social benefits, you will be more privileged than you were when you were single, especially if you’re part of a heterosexual couple. Just because you don’t identify with negative stereotypes associated with wives and girlfriends—submissive, codependent, nagging, pick any one—doesn’t mean you can up and leave their ranks. Even if you still feel single at heart.
A more controversial example of category-jumping convenience appears in Meghan Daum’s recent collection of personal essays, The Unspeakable. In a chapter called “Honorary Dyke,” she reveals her affinity for Subaru hatchbacks and short hair, and describes her friendships and trysts with lesbians. Despite her lifelong sexual attraction to men, she’s always gravitated toward a certain type of woman, she says, and so she calls herself a “phantom butch.” Daum explains:
It’s not that we don’t want to play traditional women’s roles. It’s not that we don’t want to take care of our families or have beautiful, meticulously kept homes or that we can’t have strong opinions about furniture upholstery or cake decoration or attachment parenting. It’s that we’re going to express these opinions and carry out these practices with a certain anti-girliness, a certain lack of bullshit.
Wow, I thought when I first read this, how insulting. She’s set up an entirely new category in order to separate herself from both negative feminine stereotypes and claimed an unearned kinship with a marginalized group of women, whom she paints with an equally broad brush. “That’s femme invisibility right there for you,” wrote After Ellen’s Trish Bendix.
Daum is not alone in wanting to sidestep stereotypes by claiming a different identity. I did the same thing when I was single. When people asked me, “Are you dating?” I took great pride in telling them that actively searching for a relationship was a waste of my time. I was happy as I was, and if I happened to meet someone, great. But I was not interested in awkward drinks with a parade of boring strangers. I was single-and-not-looking, a sub-category I used to differentiate myself from those other, desperate single women marching to the predictable drumbeat of societal expectations and their biological clocks. I was not like regular single women, I was a cool single woman.
I’m not the only one who’s tried this tactic to distance myself from stereotypes. When statistician Nate Silver was named Out magazine’s person of the year in 2012, he explained that he is sexually gay but “ethnically straight.” He elaborated, “For me, I think the most important distinguishing characteristic is that I’m independent-minded. I’m sure that being gay encouraged the independent-mindedness, but that same independent-mindedness makes me a little bit skeptical of parts of gay culture, I suppose.”
In an interview with The New Yorker, Daum explained that her tone was satirical: “I wanted to talk about the ways in which lesbian culture can sometimes confer a sensibility and an aesthetic that can be incredibly liberating for straight women.” But it’s only liberating because Daum is free to adopt this aesthetic without any of the historical or social baggage that actual lesbians deal with every day. In a similar vein, Bolick tells women they can tap the liberating power of singledom, without the attendant social stigma, even if they’re coupled.
I’m all for finding points of commonality across identities. Wouldn’t it be more radical, though, to simply embrace a no-bullshit, anti-girly life as a straight woman? Or to identify as an independent-minded gay man? Or to navigate the constraints of partnership without pretending your interior life is exactly the same as it was when you were single? To take negative perceptions so seriously that you want to abandon an identity altogether is an appealing short-term strategy, but in the long run it serves to compound the original stereotypes, not defy them.
Maybe it doesn’t even work in the short term. As someone who spent a lot of time assuring herself that she can hold on to her single-lady life even though she is in a relationship, I can tell you that the “spinster within” approach doesn’t sit quite right. Of course I am the same person at heart. Yes, I am still fiercely independent. But I live with my partner, and I take him into account when I make many decisions, big and small. I was proud to call myself single, and now I’m comfortable enough to use the past tense.
Ann Friedman is a freelance writer who lives in Los Angeles.