Recently, I’ve stopped looking at men. When I’m pottering round the Lanes at the weekend, on the bus to work, or in the park with the dog, it’s not men that catch my eye. Sure, I can still clock a stylish pair of glasses on a whippet-boned face at twenty paces – like the most self-destructive superpower ever – but I’m not looking for them. When I’m people-watching, I’m looking at women now.
There’s a couple of types of women I seek out. The first is the well-dressed, middle-class grandmotherly type. Usually in navy and/or stripes. The sort of person who’ll make a fuss of Noodle, pretending they haven’t noticed him putting paw-prints and dog hair all over their trousers, while telling me about their grandchildren. You don’t have to be a therapist to know what I’m looking for here: another version of my own grandmother.
The other women I look for are the ones who make themselves visible with a striking look. Cropped hair, red spectacle frames, leopard print, a slash of bright lipstick. Clothes or make-up that say, ‘this is purely for me’. I saw a girl with dyed pink eyebrows outside a pub the other day, and minutes later, another with the neatest bob I’ve ever seen – in gorgeous, glossy forest green. Being a woman already means being on display anyway. That “gonna look? I’ll give you something to look at” attitude is something I applaud wholeheartedly. It suggests that the person knows exactly who they are and has realised that life is simply too precious and fleeting for them to be anything else.
Because it doesn’t seem to matter what strides we take in terms of equality, the biggest dreams we still sell to women and girls are those of marriage and parenthood. Of being a partner and mother, not a person in their own right. Look, for example, at the way the wedding industry works – the focus seems to be almost entirely on brides, as if this one day will be the pinnacle of their life’s happiness. If we really were equal, we’d be telling men the same thing, that their happiness will peak when they say “I do”. But we don’t – men can be anything. And I say it all the time but the damage cuts both ways; this narrative thwarts both the ambitions of women who want to do something other than marry and have children, and those of men who would like nothing more.
At one of her book tour events, Daisy Jones & The Six author Taylor Jenkins Reid discussed celebrity culture, and how, as human beings, the issues we’re trying to sort out constantly reveal themselves in the stories we tell. The example she used was magazines’ and tabloids’ preoccupation with the love lives of famous women. The go-to example of this is Jennifer Aniston – a beautiful, talented, hugely successful actor who has laughably been referred to as ‘Poor Jen’ for years because she hasn’t had babies.
When I asked Twitter who else had got the same treatment, I received a flurry of names within minutes: Caroline Flack, Kylie (Minogue, because apparently there’s more than one now), Cameron Diaz, Madonna, Charlize Theron, Sandra Bullock, Kate Hudson, Halle Berry, Jennifer Lopez. Musician Nigel Stonier suggested singer, songwriter and activist Joan Baez who, during her six-decade-long career, has recorded songs in at least six languages and has had an Amnesty International Award named after her – among hundreds of other achievements. Yet she’s still rarely referred to without a mention of the fact that she had a relationship with Bob Dylan.
Don’t get me wrong: having a serious relationship with someone is a thing of wonder. It’s like building a cathedral; it requires constant work and a belief in something inexplicable. Falling in love? One of the greatest adventures you can have, without the faintest sliver of doubt. The giddiness of lust, and the joy of piecing together someone new from the fragments they offer up. The involuntary leap of your heart when their name appears on your phone. The gentle magic of morning conversations soft with sleep. The feeling that home is a person, not a place.
But it shouldn’t be your only adventure. And the fact that women have to put serious work into unlearning that is a damning indictment of how patriarchal our society still is. How wedded – literally – we are to the idea that a woman is only complete if she can tick all three of the ‘career, partner, children’ boxes by the time she’s 34.
And I wonder if this narrative has an impact beyond simply making a lot of women panic when the clock strikes midnight at the beginning of their thirtieth year. I wonder if it makes women who date men more tolerant than they should be. So many brilliant women I know – clever, funny, fiercely loyal, tremendously kind people – have become collateral damage when the guy they’re dating hits an emotional brick wall and implodes. Men are allowed to bumble on not knowing what they want until their forties, and it’s only then that we start to get judgemental, whereas women have never been afforded the same luxury.
This is why I’m looking to older women. Identifying as a woman brings so much bullshit and judgement and so many ever-changing standards that I honestly think women over 40 are the wisest folk around. They have no time for mere boys; they tell those unfocused bumblers to fuck off without a second thought. It’s hard to do that when you’re 29. It’s hard to say “fuck off” to the bumblers and not feel lesser in some way. The world has been telling you for years that you must do everything, and that being a hot, undemanding girlfriend and later, a beautiful bride, are not optional.
And God, replacing that narrative is long overdue. Part of the reason I loved the first episode of Gentleman Jack (BBC One, Sunday, 9pm) was that Anne Lister invented her own life. The original rock star, swaggering round in her top hat, determined to live with a woman she loved, rather than capitulate to society’s demands and marry a man. Imagine having the courage to live like that in the early nineteenth century, for goodness’ sake. Imagine knowing and honouring yourself like that.
I’m not down on love, marriage or babies. God, no. I’m a scared romantic like the rest of us, and I want those things at some point. But I don’t want them to be my life’s mission, my only great achievements. Raising children is, from what I can see, one of the hardest things anyone ever does, and I’m constantly in awe of loving, dedicated parents. I hope I become one, at some point. But there are other adventures I want to have, and that I want to feel as proud of. And I want other young women to feel the same. To feel that they have so many possibilities, that they can swagger around in top hats, living lives they’ve invented for themselves, and that if they don’t marry or have children, they will be every bit as magnificent as people who have.
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