In a lot of ways, our culture loves change. We celebrate enlightenment and self-improvement; we love makeover stories, romantic comedies, and the triumphant return of washed-up and/or drugged-out celebrities. But while we loudly praise transformation, we hate it too. “They’ve changed, man.” You can just hear the smug hipster saying that about anything from a band to a restaurant to a former friend. No one wants to be called a sellout. We celebrate metamorphosis, but for every person applauding the shining new butterfly, there just as many caterpillars sitting around talking about how they liked her better before she had wings.
From a very young age, women are defined by how they exist in relation to others. We’re identified by who loves us and why, and labeled accordingly. Whether we have a lot of friends (popular, cool, queen bee) or don’t (loser, outcast, nerd); whether we have a lot of sex (slut, whore, easy) or don’t (virgin, prude, spinster); whether we are nice to others (sweetheart, doll, good girl) or not (bitch, snob, crazy). As adults, these definitions shift, and we become defined by more formal relationships: wives, girlfriends, or single women. Careerists or homemakers. Moms (and from there, stay-at-home or working) or childless women (the very phrasing of which implies that something is missing).
“My friend got a boyfriend and now she’s not fun like she used to be.” “My friend used to love her job, but then she had kids and now all she cares about is her baby.” “My friends don’t have kids so they don’t understand.” “My friend got married and now she only has time for her partner.” We’ve all heard statements like these. Discussions about the ways people change in their twenties and thirties tend to be framed as either women changing who they are for men, or as women changing who they are when they have kids. As a culture, we’ve bought into the idea that a woman’s interests are tied directly to her relationship status, and never the other way around.
I experienced this firsthand not long after I started dating Eric. Even though I was pretty open about wanting a relationship in the months leading up to meeting him and never really saw myself as the all-star batter for Team Single (probably because most of my friends were in relationships), I got labeled as the happily single girl. Which I was! I loved being single… but then I loved being coupled! Not a personality change, not a big deal!
But I quickly learned that it was a big deal. Because even though I never said or did anything to indicate that I felt this way, people (mostly people on the Internet) saw my singledom as a declaration of war on coupledom. They saw my enjoyment of going out and banging random dudes from time to time as the defining thing about me—even though I spent way more time lounging around at home, cooking for my mom, and hanging out with my coupled friends. I shared all of these activities with other people, but the activities tied to my relationship status—my “slutty single girl” behavior—is how they chose to define me.
Us vs. Them
In her book Catfight, Leora Tanenbaum posits that women are typically defined in relation to men because of our lower status in society. She writes:
“…we grow up longing for male approval because men are the ones with power. Many women compete over the things men value, such as looking sexy… as women, we come to believe that male approval is more significant than female approval, and that a relationship with a man confers more status than a relationship with a woman.”
If Tanenbaum is correct and women are in competition over the things men value, then what other way would we compete if not in teams?
There are plenty of benefits to associating with a team. A well-known label allows you to stand for something without having to say much at all. “I’m a Democrat.” “I’m a Red Sox fan.” “I hate the Red Sox. Go Yankees!” These labels are certainly convenient. They help us identify ourselves and find like-minded people with whom we can form communities. And many of us are desperate for community.
The nuclear family has taken the place of what was once a much greater community (and even still, that is only applicable to those of us who have intact nuclear families). More and more, Americans are moving away from family and friends, and are less likely to be members of churches, synagogues, or other multi-generational communities. We’re missing the support and safety net that a strong community provides, so we seek to create that unity elsewhere. But the substitute communities many of us attempt to form in our adult lives are smaller, less established, less diverse, and far less multi-generational. Hell, some of these communities exist mostly on the internet (hey, APW!). These days, we search for community the easiest way we know how: based on the way we’ve been identified our entire lives. It’s why new mothers are advised to join a new mom’s group. It’s how we all ended up here on APW. Sometimes we find what we’re looking for, but sometimes these communities “other” us more than they help us form new bonds.
The problem is that even though most of us know there is far more to our whole selves than what can be gleaned from a relationship status, we go to bat for our team more often than we might realize. When resources are limited (in some cases these are precious intangible resources like cultural acceptance), solidarity matters. But what we call solidarity is just an illusion; in reality, once we’re put on a team, the only thing we seem to fight is other teams. In order to validate ourselves in a world that still validates so few of women’s life choices, it helps to feel like your choice is the right one. So we buy into the idea that the women on other teams are different from us—and inferior. To change teams, then, is seen as an act of betrayal.
More Than an Archetype
Being accused of such a betrayal hurts. Worse still is the implication that change and personal growth, whether real or perceived, is a mark of weakness or disloyalty. The underlying message is, “Women don’t know what they want!” It’s condescending, and it’s toxic. The idea that women are fickle excuses just about everything from dismissing women’s voices (most of us have to fight to have our opinions on even the most mundane things taken seriously) to straight-up discriminating against us (not hiring young married women because of the prevalent idea that “she’ll just get pregnant and quit”). No matter what we say we want for ourselves, there is always someone ready to tell us, “Aww, that’s cute… but you’ll change your mind!” (And then someone else ready to be disappointed in us if we do, in fact, change our minds.)
But why are people so quick to assume women only change due to relationships? Both women and men struggle to define themselves in their twenties and thirties. Serious romantic relationships and babies tend to happen during this time, sure, but so do new jobs, cross-country moves, health scares, sexual exploration, financial reality checks, exposure to more diverse ideas and opinions, evolving relationships with parents and siblings, and so many other things. (I actually believe that new relationships are not what change us; maybe we get into these new relationships because we’ve changed. Perhaps the new spouse or the babies are not the cause, but the result, the last—but most visible—way we make others aware of a change that has been happening privately for quite some time.) Still, you rarely hear someone say, “Well, my friend was $60,000 in debt and decided to do something about it and now she’s not fun anymore.” Instead of believing that a relationship status is just one type of label, we let that become the whole of a woman’s identity.
But if we really want the ability to grow and change as people and to form lasting bonds with others, we must remember that we’re more than a relationship status. We’ve got to open ourselves up to the possibility that spending time with the kind of people living lives that are radically (or maybe just a little) different from ours can be a very good thing. If we expand our understanding of women’s identities beyond the bullshit, one-dimensional archetypes, we can recreate the communities that we used to have—the ones where the child-free folks will watch your kid for a night so that you can go out (I will so do this for you!)…where the married women throw the best parties when you get a promotion, because they know how important it is to have the kind of support you need when you’re experiencing a major life change (I will also do this for you!)…and where we are allowed to be messy, funny, smart, creative, sad, uptight, loving, generous, tough, selfish, open-minded, kind, helpful, vain, aggressive, afraid. And maybe in relationships and maybe with kids, or maybe not. In other words: our whole selves. I would like to be on that team very much.