Declaration of Independence

You're female, successful, single, and prefer your life that way. So why are you still seen as an object of pity? Abby O'Reilly argues that women are still put under immense pressure by friends, family, and the dominant culture to 'bag a man'.

, 26 September 2006

Bridget Jones first highlighted the plight of the thirty-something singleton in a world geared towards the heterosexual couple. But it still seems these days that even at 22, if you’re single and female, you’re written off as damaged goods and pushed so far back on the shelf that you’re literally unable to see your own ass for dust. Fact. And how do you know this, I hear you cry? Well, because I am that wilted wallflower. Although I’ve never been one to shy away from an opportunity to hide my more than ample derriere, lately I have been feeling under so much pressure to try and ‘bag myself a man’ that I’m starting to feel that everyone believes there will soon be only two options open to me.

Either, I will have to buy myself a cat. Then another. Then another and another. Until, by the time I’m 25, I will have single handedly cultivated an army of man-hating pussies ready to wreak chaos on cock city while, at the same time, I sit at home marinating in my own urine and terrorising the local kids by pressing my sagging, naked breasts against my living room window every time they’re out to play. Or, on the other hand, as the average lad-mag reader might see it, I could play the rug muncher card. Goose-step out of daddy’s closet wearing timberland boots and leather trousers, sporting a crew cut, and scratching my phantom balls before clearing my throat and professing in a voice three octaves lower than normal how much I like to go down on women. Surely it has to be one of the two? I mean if, at my age, I’m not actively seeking a relationship I must either be asexual (and destined to die a bitter old spinster), or a closet lesbian, right? Well, that’s the way everyone seems to see it anyway. Yes, it’s a sad fact that if a heterosexual woman is of childbearing age and has no interest in maintaining a serious relationship with a man, society has to try to find an explanation for her decision.

if a woman has no interest in maintaining a relationship, society has to find a reason for it

Apparently, until I find a man who will make me a ‘wife’ and, more than likely, a ‘mother,’ the definition of my person is open to public discussion. I’m not independent, just single, apparently; defined by my perceived failure to get a man. We continue to be public property until our ownership is passed from our father and on to some reluctant tosser who wants dinner on the table by 5.30 everyday, and doesn’t know his arse from his elbow. Maybe this is too archaic a view to hold water in a culture that will allow us the choice as to whether or not we want to go on top, but be under no illusion, if we wear the trousers, it’s only because they think they’ve given us permission to do so, and nothing is conceded without a price.

I initially came under this scrutiny as a singleton when I returned from my first term at university. For some reason making that step into higher education automatically meant that people who were, at the most, acquaintances began to take an unhealthy interest in my sex life, not only wanting to know whether or not I was doing ‘it,’ but if the person with whom I was potentially indulging in these clumsy, drunken fumblings was likely to pop the question in the future. Unfortunately for them, they were always met with the same answer, and as the time passed, their questioning has slowly changed from,’Do you have a boyfriend?’ to the more sympathetic, ‘Are you still single?’

The last friend who asked me was so overwhelmed by pity, that she almost burst into tears, and I had to sit her down and reassure her that it’s ok, I will find somebody. Not my ideal evening scenario, but what can you do? I couldn’t conjure the perfect boyfriend, or make up an elaborate fabrication of the ideal man who treats me like a princess, because in all honesty, at the moment, I don’t really relish the thought of sharing my double bed with anyone other than myself. It wouldn’t be such a problem if it didn’t seem that everyone was waiting with bated breath for me to finally roll home one day using a different name and announcing that I’ve finally found a man who will look after me. Happy days.

You must be lonely and unhappy, sat at home dreaming of your Prince Charming

The most difficult aspect of being single is having to constantly provide an exposition of your personal life and sexuality to complete randomers who feel that they are worthy of an explanation as to why you’re on your own, which does nothing but perpetuate the narrow-minded belief that this is not normal. If I was in a relationship it’s unlikely that every Tom, Dick and Harry would want to know the minutiae of our intimacies, (well, unless they were right nosey bastards), but as a single woman suddenly I’m on show, because I’m yet to be owned. Because, obviously, you can’t be happy? Surely not? You must be lonely and unhappy, sat at home listening to Alanis Morisette on repeat, over-indulging in a variety of pastry based goods and dreaming of your Prince Charming who’ll sweep you off your feet and hurry you to his penthouse on Canary Wharf in his new Jaguar. Or, maybe not.

It’s hard. I mean how do you explain to somebody who’s been in a lovely, fuzzy relationship for more years than you’ve had hot dinners that you don’t find anything more nauseating than morning breath, an upturned toilet seat and a pair of his ‘n’ hers bath robes? The very thought makes me want to gag. You can’t, and instead you have to pretend you’re longing for something you don’t really give a fuck about in order to hang on to the last vestiges of normality in the face of those who consider you some sort of sexual leper.

I’m in good company, though. This is an attitude that extends beyond the hoi polloi, and single female celebrities are also subject to the scrutiny of the relationship police who can’t wait to see them draped like an accessory over the arm of some eligible, pigeon-chested young beau.

single female celebrities are also subject to the scrutiny of the relationship police

Denise van Outen, having been propelled into the media spotlight at just 23 as the bubbly co-presenter of Channel Four’s The Big Breakfast, soon became a national treasure. Denise was a beautiful, independent Essex-girl, who wasn’t afraid to laugh at herself, which was refreshing at a time when attractiveness was almost always equated with stalwart seriousness. Now, at 32, Denise has re-located to Los Angeles, where she has worked non-stop, and is enjoying her lifestyle, even though she is yet to catch herself ‘a keeper.’ She’s done well for herself, and many, like myself, would consider her a strong female role model, although for Cosmopolitan and the likes her status as a single woman automatically knocks her out of the running. It’s disheartening, since Cosmo, as such a influential monthly, could be doing more to elevate the status of the single gal, although instead it negates the professional achievements of women who are yet to pair up.

In her recent interview with Cosmopolitan, unnecessary emphasis was placed on Denise’s lack of a relationship, so much so that she responded by emphasising “I’m having a brilliant time. I’m not sad and I’m not lonely!” The fact that she even had to make this statement, and that it was such a central issue of the article, is testament to the sceptical regard with which the independent woman is still regarded in a society that still positions men as the primary bread winners and achievers, with the role of women little more than that of squeezing out sons and heirs at will. It’s perfectly acceptable for a man to be considered successful even if he has not got a partner, but for us, the extent of our professional success while we are on our lonely lonesome is used against us as evidence of how our lack of a man has led to our unfulfilled existence, something for which we have had to compensate.

It’s acceptable for a man to be considered successful even if he has not got a partner

It’s not surprising then, that single women are considered inadequate, especially since the concept of the couple is one that has been so readily and profitably exploited by the media. Peter and Jordan, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Chantelle and Preston (well, when I first drafted this article anyway)… daily rags and celebrity weeklies are saturated with images of the perfect celebrity couple, all of which function to make you feel like a failure, although in reality many of these couples are just as unhappy and frustrated as the rest of us. It’s just that the prospect of financial loss encourages them to look just that little bit more enthusiastic about it.

Maybe this is a bit cynical. But why else does everyone in celebsville always seem so much happier than everyone else until some ‘family friend’ exclusively leaks all to the press? Posh and Becks have been marketed as a couple, and it’s not surprising that out of all the members of the Spice Girls, Posh has achieved the greatest financial success only because of the ‘happy family’ image which their PR people cleverly pedal to the press. Let’s not forget that, although perhaps a little harsh, without each other, they’d be nothing more than a washed out pop star and a footballer who’s seen better days. It’s the wholesome image which they perpetuate that keeps them at the top of their game, creating a romantic ideal to which we can only aspire, which is why the allegations made by Rebecca Loos were so damaging. That’s not to say that they are not very happy together, and I’m sure they have a loving family, but what this incident showed was that under their seemingly infallible veneer was evidence that they were just as susceptible to relationship problems as everyone else.

It seems that our culture in in thrall to the idea that no woman is as good on her own as she would be with someone else. America recently crystalised this idea, and sparked much controversy by the release of federal guidelines that all women who are physically able to conceive, (that is those who have just started menstruating to those who have not yet gone through the menopause), should consider themselves in a constant state of ‘pre-pregnancy’ (as discussed on’ The general consensus is that women should abstain from alcohol consumption and any other activities that could be detrimental to a developing baby, regardless of whether or not they plan to have children or are sexually active.

all women should consider themselves in a constant state of ‘pre-pregnancy’

Surely this goes against womens’ fundamental human right to freedom of choice? And if women are forced to take responsibility for a child that more than likely may never exist, what implications will this have for abortion? Does this mean that instead of protesting outside family planning clinics pro-life activists are going to set up camp outside MacDonald’s warning of the dangers increased cholesterol could have on an as yet unformed foetus, and threatening to blow up our happy meals? Will we be banned from theme parks just in case we could potentially one day get knocked up?

Despite the idea of ‘pre-pregnancy’ being satirised by the American media, the very suggestion is symptomatic of a much larger cultural malady, and the continued support that is given to a disproportionately male dominated judicial system that rates the need of man to find top-notch incubation for his seed above the recognition of female individuality beyond her capacity to reproduce. It’s unnerving, since whatever happens in the States inevitably finds its way across the pond, and pretty soon we’ll all be smelling of baby sick, dribbling over baby grows and wearing nipple pads faster than you can say ‘get it out,’ and that’s even if we haven’t gone and ‘got ourselves up the duff.’

It’s an idea worthy of the most lurid works of fiction, not dissimilar to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian vision in The Handmaid’s Tale, and it seems increasingly that unless we are willing to give ourselves entirely over to the patriarchy we are considered somehow less feminine than our apron-wearing counterparts. For every step forward we make, we’re forced to take three leaps back, because although on a superficial level society appears to encourage women to pursue high-flying careers, our male counterparts feel increasingly threatened by our independence and whether they admit it or not, some of them would not be averse to a return to the days where all women had to worry about was whether they’d ironed the right shirt for their husband. Far be it for a woman to want to hold on to the last vestiges of independence, or enjoy the lack of pressure and responsibility that comes with sex outside of relationships, before she is reluctantly moulded into Suzy homemaker.

choosing not to commit should be considered a valid option

Maybe this is a little bit melodramatic, but in my experience unless you have a partner, you’re often placed in a position where you have to excuse yourself for nothing more than being yourself, which is probably more symptomatic of the insecurities of those asking you than yourself.

As a long-term singleton, thankfully I’ve never had a problem socialising with my friends, most of whom are in partnerships, and I’ve accepted my status as the eternal Starsky without the Hutch. In fact, I often enjoy being single, as I am able to do what I want without worrying about the consequences, and if I get so off my tits that I can’t remember what I’ve done, there’s no one there the next day to point the finger and tell me what a complete prat I made of myself. It’s quite liberating to know that when I go out of an evening the only person I’m likely to embarrass is myself. The only awkwardness on such occasions only ever arises if other people have a problem with the set up, where they assume that I feel uncomfortable because I am on my own. To make matters worse this attitude often emanates from those who don’t know me well, not from myself or my friends.

Until I, and indeed we, are accepted as valid facets of the community, with unique identities independent of the intimate relationships we may or may not form, I’m not ready to commit myself to a partnership with a man that could threaten to destroy my emerging identity, and change the way in which I am perceived by those around me. Plus, this way I almost never have to sit through the football or worry about trimming my muff. Result. That’s not to say that relationships are the spawn of the devil, surely not, just that those of us who choose not to commit should be considered just as valid a facet of the community as everyone else.

Abby O’Reilly is doing an MA in American Studies at King’s College London. She’s still single and has been ‘on the shelf’ so long she could do with a good dusting down. She is yet to buy her first cat. She wiles away the hours by laughing spontaneously, sometimes in response to a joke.

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