For straight and bisexual women, two things are always going to be mixed up: the desire for men and the desire to meet societal expectations. There’s a lot of convenience in having your sexual orientation line up with what most social organizations—families, communities, workplaces, and so forth—expect. But there’s a not-so-delightful twist. Except in rare circumstances, a woman’s desire for men is represented (in media, movies, and so forth) as a desire for a heteronormative picket-fence lifestyle. As I put it in a 2011 blog post:
[Y]oung straight women experience attraction to men—find men sexy, interesting, etc.—without this necessarily having anything to do with attraction to stability, conventionality, ‘a boyfriend,’ ‘a husband,’ etc. Yet female heterosexual desire is always assumed to be the desire for a relationship, for a father for theoretical children.
Unless a woman is very clear that she’s just looking for something casual, and not open even to the possibility of something serious developing, ‘looking at guys’ reads as ‘looking for the status that comes from male attention or commitment.’
Add to that the further blurriness between women’s opposite-gender attraction and female beauty. Our society understands female desire as the desire to be thought beautiful by a high-status dude. While I’m sure there are cases of that around, there’s also the thing where a really hot guy gets on a subway car and damn. And “hot,” in this understanding, isn’t a euphemism for saying that the man looks like he holds a steady job.
Enthusiastic female heterosexual attraction is understood, in our culture, as a woman wanting to be told she’s gorgeous, and dreaming of a conventional home life. On the one hand, most people want to be thought attractive, and few among us of any gender are going to reinvent the relationship wheel. But for women, attraction is mingled in a unique way with… wanting nothing too exciting out of life.
Which is where the feminist handwringing comes into play. Two recent (yes, Valentine-pegged, but don’t hold this against them) personal essays explore the perspective of being a heterosexually coupled woman with qualms about that identity. In Brooklyn Magazine, writer Maris Kreizman discusses her path to love. A path that involved nothing more than chance:
I didn’t settle. I’m glad I remained stubborn until I found someone who delights me and challenges me every single day. It was easy. Josh made it easy for me to love him, and so I did, and so I do. And I deserve his love. But if he hadn’t come out to that particular bar that night, if our paths had never crossed, I’d still be me.
Laurie Penny, writing in the New Statesman, urges female readers to hold off coupling up. (“Particularly young women. Particularly straight young women.”) Reason being, that sort of love often involves disproportionate, unreciprocated sacrifice.
Today, whatever else we are, women are still taught that we have failed if we are not loved by men. I’ve lost count of the men who seem to believe that the trump card they hold in any debate is “but you’re unattractive.” “But I wouldn’t date you.” How we feel about them doesn’t matter. Young women are meant to prioritise men’s romantic approval, and young men often struggle to imagine a world in which we might have other priorities.
And here’s where her point converges with Kreizman’s: “Women,” Penny writes, “learn from an early age that love is work. That in order to be loved, we will need to work hard, and if we want to stay loved we will need to work harder.” The handwriting may strike some (me) as a bit much. But is it?
Consider Emily Weiss’s wedding-beauty roundup on her site, Into the Gloss. In preparation for her wedding, Weiss—to be fair, a beauty editor and entrepreneur for whom doing and documenting all of this was, on some level, work—went in for just about every beauty routine you could imagine and (as is the tradition in out-there, outrage-bait beauty writing) a good number that I didn’t recognize. “Clean” eating (which is to say, highbrow crash dieting) and, lest that not be pseudoscientific enough, colonics. There was something called “microcurrent” that—much like, say, getting off of a chair—apparently lifts your butt.
And did she look flawless on her wedding day (I’m sure you’re wondering), “I was 8/10 happy with how I looked…pretty good!”
There’s some skepticism in the comments, but not a lot of it. (Beauty-blog comments generally tilt positive.) One reader asks, “Anyone else want to get married now solely because of this post?” Gosh. My reaction to the post—and my feminism is generally qualm-free—was to be vaguely ashamed of my own pre-wedding primping, which was limited to a manicure, a pedicure, and a futile attempt at hair straightening on what turned out to be a rainy day.
All of which is why I so appreciated Kreizman’s alternative vision of coupledom:
I’m here to tell you that I didn’t do anything differently than I normally did. I didn’t fundamentally change any part of myself to finally find a happy relationship: I didn’t read a slew of self-help books and start going to SoulCycle to Get Right. I didn’t try a new dating app or a new therapist, and I didn’t arrive at some place of spiritual enlightenment at the end of which I announced to the world, ‘I am ready for love,’ with my arms outstretched in the air. Reader, I got lucky. That’s it.
Also! This line: “My before and after photos look almost identical, except I’m not alone in the after one.” Imagine that! No microcurrents required. No (ahem) colonics.
Kreizman opens her piece by reassuring readers that she’s coupled, but not like that. She still identifies with her single self:
Sometimes I’m still shocked to find myself in a loving, happy relationship. It’s so off brand. I spent the majority of my adult life being alone, happily or unhappily, bitterly or less so. Being single was an important part of my identity for so long that even now that my romantic life has become fulfilling, joyous, easy, I still can’t completely part with my single lady angst.
Penny offers a similar quasi-apology, and a similar team affiliation:
I’m not single right now. It’s sad that I felt I had to wait until that was the case before publishing a post like this. Part of me, I suspect, wanted to justify myself, to prove to you that I could attained the love of a man-shaped human, and thereby be an acceptable female.
When it comes to Penny, it’s hard not to think her own particular case—she wrote a big piece for Buzzfeed in the fall about identifying as “genderqueer” as a straight woman. When I read it, I found myself struck by just how much of her experience I identified with. She notes that, growing up, she “often felt like [she] was a gay boy in a girl’s body,” but was mocked for this by her female peers.
Transitioning is of course its own struggle, which goodness knows your garden-variety straight cis chick shouldn’t appropriate. But the feeling of liking guys, but not doing so as a girl, in that girly way where the entire point is to snag a man; I don’t want to say it’s a universal female experience, because nothing is, but it’s not especially uncommon. You can be a boring cis hetero married lady who identifies as an occasional browser of the Lululemon sale rack and still think, yes, been there.