“Nature abhors a vacuum, and society abhors a woman on her own”, I tweeted drunkenly and loftily in October 2020, and honestly, I stick by it. Our society is not built for the uncoupled, and no one is made to feel this more acutely than women who are mostly single, by choice or otherwise.
Over the last couple of years, there’s been a noticeable rise of what I guess we’d call “single positivity”: books, magazine features and email newsletters offering wise, eloquent – and crucially, reassuring – thoughts on the joys and difficulties of solo living. I have loved and been comforted by much of it. But there is something about the genre I’m not completely at ease with; when I read a piece from it my reaction is so often, “I love this, but” yet I always struggle to finish the sentence, to articulate exactly what it is that leaves a strange aftertaste behind.
I’ve written things that could be categorised as single positivity myself; I can bang on at insufferable length about how I learnt more in the two years I spent single and living alone than I did in the entirety of the preceding 28 years. I’m still signed up to Nicola Slawson’s The Single Supplement despite now being in a relationship, because I genuinely love her writing. Pinpointing precisely where my issue lies is difficult, because I strongly believe in a writer’s right to tell her story. I know that seeing your experiences reflected back at you by media and culture is important, and online spaces where women can share the truth about their lives are invaluable. For what I hope are obvious reasons, the last thing I want to do is tell anyone what they should and shouldn’t write about.
Maybe it’s simply the fact that once again, a perfectly valid way of living one’s life is being turned into a product – and it is women who are being targeted. If there is single positivity content out there being aimed at men, we’re not seeing very much of it. Male writers do not appear to feel obliged to produce books and features on the state of their singledom. Yes, “are men doing it?” is a glib and often unhelpful point to make if you want to have a nuanced discussion about equality, but it is true that men are not forced to explain their decisions in the way that women are. Treating the state of being single as special and worthy of lengthy commentary does the opposite of normalising it. So the existence of a female-dominated single positivity movement feels a little like it plays straight into the hands of the forces that demand women to defend their choices over and over and over again.
Admittedly, criticising a women-led movement feels like shaky territory for me to be in, because “things made by and for women” is a category that still has to fight for the space and respect it deserves. It’s well-known that women will read male and female authors while men are generally more reluctant to read women writers. I’ve spent enough time with male musicians to know that a lot of them still wince when they have a female singer-songwriter recommended to them. And if you simply haven’t had enough petty rage in your day, go into the comments under any online article about beauty and skincare: someone going by the handle Dave_69 will be declaring that red lipstick looks “fake” or asking why anyone would spend £30 on a cleanser when children are dying in Yemen.
But I don’t think inventing a whole genre of writing in order to ratify solo living addresses the real problem: we need institutional change to make life easier for people who are not part of a couple. Without that, “single positivity” sits alongside “mental health awareness” and “girlboss feminism” in its usefulness, or lack thereof. When the problem is structural, the thing that needs to change is not how we talk about it – or at least, not just how we talk about it. We need it to be affordable for a person on a full-time salary to live alone in a city. We need better conditions for renters, more affordable childcare (parents can be single too!), and improved access to contraception and abortion. We need all of these things – and plenty more I’m failing to think of right now – if we are to make society work as well for single people as it does for couples. And we also need to look at what we celebrate and ask ourselves if we could perhaps do better. A female friend told me recently she felt her family were more excited when she got engaged than when she was awarded her PhD, which is exasperating, to say the least.
Or maybe my issue with single positivity is far more basic than I’m admitting: being single is a state that can change in an instant, and so to make “single positivity” a large part of your personal brand looks simply short-sighted. It can be difficult to grasp in your younger years, but so much of romantic relationships depends on sheer luck. I was lucky – nothing else, just lucky – to meet someone at 21 and spend seven years with him. We were unlucky to grow apart rather than together. Everything in life ebbs and flows; few things are as fixed and as permanent as you think they are. So if you don’t want to be single and are actively looking for a partner, you really could meet the next love of your life tomorrow. In the words of the inimitable Heather Havrilesky: “People who believe in life-changing love are the ones who find it”. It’s not easy – actually, it’s horrendous; dating is gruelling and there are a lot of broken people out there – but I am a romantic and if you want love, I believe it’s on its way to you (it just might be taking a fucking long time). And if you do want to stay single, then you probably don’t need to be told why it’s OK – you are, I’m guessing, just cracking on with the business of living.
Turning your singledom into a brand feels a little like just another way of defining yourself by your relationships, and we do not need to limit ourselves like that. We can dream bigger, both as writers and as women.