“How are you liking Chicago? Maybe you’ll meet a boy up there,” my Grandma said into the phone, both optimistically and reassuringly.
“Yeah, may-be.” I responded with an uptick in my pronunciation of the second syllable – you know, to denote positivity.
“I said that to your Grandpa the other day, and he said, “well, Jean, do we even know that Brooke likes boys?” And I said, “Well Roger, I guess we’ve never really asked her that.”
Silence. Not the silence of waiting for the next conversation topic to arise, but the silence of waiting for an answer to the question disguised as a statement.
“Yes, Grandma, I like boys.”
“Well, I figured ya’ did, but you never know. I think you’re going to meet one at a wedding!”
The conversation moved on quickly to my grandmother and I’s tastes in men, and to my recent move, and to weddings. And as funny as this moment was at the time, and as happy as I am to hear that my grandparents would be open-minded if I didn’t like boys, it was a subtle reminder of something I’ve noticed as I age and continue to be single – that at some point, I’d crossed the invisible threshold from acceptable-independent-woman singledom to so-what’s-wrong-with-her singledom. And I think that’s mostly because this is something our society is still wrapping its head around – the more recent rise of single women, and how and why they exist.
When I was 21 years old, I wrote, “I wouldn’t mind if my life were anything like How I Met Your Mother in five years or so. I wouldn’t mind at all.” In retrospect, there are a lot of things that are comical about this comment – that I aspired to a life similar to fictional television characters, that I thought being 26 years old was so much older, and that the show ended up taking such a disappointing turn in its future (looking at you, eighth and ninth seasons). But I digress.
On a general level, when I mentioned aspiring to a life similar to that of HIMYM, I was simply envisioning myself traversing the world with my friends at my side. On a more specific character level though, I didn’t picture myself like Lily and Marshall – I hadn’t fallen in love with a boy in my college dorm who I knew immediately to be my soulmate. I also couldn’t envision myself like Ted Mosby – I wasn’t a hopeless romantic, pining over the future person of my dreams and spending my days waiting for him to come into my life. I most clearly understood Robin Scherbotsky, and she aligned more directly with the specific life I envisioned for myself – I wanted to pursue work that moves me, and to live in an area that would be out of my comfort zone, and date here and there, and maybe even acquire a taste for dark liquor. I had a lot of ideas about where I wanted my life to go, and they didn’t really have much of anything to do with marriage. Without fully realizing it at the time, I was making a personal choice that today’s women have the option to pursue – not because we don’t believe in marriage, or even necessarily because we don’t eventually want to get married someday –but, quite simply, because we can.
As a single woman whose job happens to involve spending most Saturdays at weddings, marriage is still a topic that I think about often, which is part of why Rebecca Traister’s book All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation initially piqued my interest. In her book, the author covers multiple topics related to the recent increase in the number of single women in our country: the women who paved the way, the factors and stigmas involved with female singledom, and how this generation – our generation – of single women is making their own waves. I won’t turn this post into a book review, but I will tell you that if you are a single woman, or even if you are the parent/friend/brother/sister of a single woman, this is a heavily-researched, thought provoking book that is more than worth your time.
In Traister’s book, she references a single woman who may have felt as though she was in “a prolonged period of adolescence because marriage had not yet come along to mark its end”. Our society has come a long way in terms of its acceptance of single women as more than spinsters and cat ladies, but there is still an expectation as to what is supposed to eventually come next. My friends would likely suggest that I’m a bit of a singledom advocate – I’m typically quite satisfied in my single state, and tend to get overly enthusiastic about the beauty and exhilaration of the unknown that accompanies it. But it’s important to note that not all single women feel this way – many feel like they’re not following the expected trajectory of coupling up (and the sense of ‘progression’ in adult life that usually follows it), which could be considered the first step in the dog-marriage-house-kids narrative we all understand to be the norm. This can potentially leave these women in a state of unknown, simply because they haven’t accomplished any of these traditionally considered markers of adulthood. Simone de Beauvoir described the way our lives revolve around our relationship statuses quite aptly: we “are married, or have been, or plan to be, or suffer from not being.” I see this in some of my single friends and acquaintances – in these smart, funny, driven women I know and love, I see them anxious and struggling while in this particular stage of life. And as someone who works in the wedding industry, I’ve always sort of felt like I’m part of that problem. I’m one of the people who tell them (or more specifically, show them) that marriage is the ultimate end game, and that everyone is coupling up and finding their soulmates and aren’t their lives beautiful?
I recently photographed a wedding where I ran into a high school friend’s dad at the reception. After catching up about my recent job and move, he then said, “now you just need a man”. Comments like these often come from a good place – he’s known me since I was in fifth grade, and ultimately wants to see me happy and complete. He sees ‘completeness’ for a person in their late twenties as dog-marriage-house-kids, and I appreciate that he wants the best for me, but our visions of what’s ‘best’ are slightly different from one another.
While I mentioned that some of us are single by choice, there are many of us who are single for a variety of other reasons. Sometimes it’s because we recently got out of a long-term relationship, or we haven’t met the right person, or the timing just wasn’t right, or a previous marriage ended in divorce, or we just can’t seem to find anything that sticks. In the spirit of transparency, I also have to tell you that it hasn’t been all girl power and raised fists throughout my years of singledom. I’ve had missed opportunities and swings that resulted in misses. I’ve sadly cracked a few hearts and egos and had mine chipped, too. I’ve had moments of loneliness and moments of doubt. But loneliness and doubt aren’t limited to the single ones, nor are regrets and what ifs. I don’t believe I feel any more alone than the woman who can’t decide if the man she’s been dating for a year is “the one”, or the wife who is having a hard time adjusting during that first year of marriage, or the mom of two who feels swamped and bombarded and overwhelmed all at once, or the empty nester who is unexpectedly struggling to find her sense of purpose and self that she didn’t previously realize she had lost. But no matter what our situations are, the loneliness and doubt are part of what makes us all so achingly human – our moments of weakness are an important reminder of just how resilient and strong we humans can be once we overcome them.
I think often about all of this – my singledom, and the lives of the single women I know, and how others view our lives versus how our lives really look and feel. The visual narratives of female singledom in our society tend to be limited to two stereotypical types: carefree, head-tipped-back-with-her-arms-in-the-air single girl, or sad, lonely, crying-fat-tears-into-her-tub-of-ice-cream single girl. These visuals glamorize and denigrate, respectively, and don’t accurately represent the reality of these lives that single American women are currently living. And it’s because of this lacking, simplistic visual narrative that I’m launching a personal project I’ve been wanting to explore for a bit now – because while I love photographing the lives and love between couples, I also want to photograph single women in these full, rich lives they’re living. These lives that aren’t simply on hold until meeting a significant other, and these women who are doing things that are equally worth documenting.
So, I decided to start in the first, most vulnerable place I could think of; I’m starting with myself. These images are not great works of art, nor do they provide the full scope of my life (balancing my camera on pillows and/or countertops and making the most of the self-timer is much more complicated and limiting than one might think) – but they do show a small glimpse of what my life really looks like. I sleep with pillows on the side of my bed where many people my age instead have a significant other, and I work on projects around my place, and I scroll through Twitter while sitting on the toilet, and I spend time with people I love, and doing things I love to do. While it may look slightly different, my life shares certain qualities with that of a married person – sometimes I’m alone, and sometimes I’m with others, and sometimes it’s mundane or quiet and other times an absolute blast. And in my field, we photograph engagements and weddings and pregnancies and births, but not necessarily the lives of those who aren’t in these stages of life; so, I want to do my small part to change that.
Sharing and beginning this project feels right in this moment because tomorrow, I turn thirty. I’m now entering a stage in life when movies and the media have continually suggested that I should start dating with an end goal and seriously thinking about my biological clock (for real, a free sample of baby formula arrived in the mail for me yesterday), so it feels damn good to be able to say all of this aloud. Maybe I’ll get married someday, and maybe I won’t, and maybe it doesn’t really matter all that much. Because being devoid of romantic love does not mean that we singles are devoid of love in general. The thing is, I am quite wildly in love at this point in my life – wildly in love with my friends, and my new city, and my old city, and being in the presence of my family, and with shadows and lines and the way the light hits the pavement sometimes, and the way the droplets feel on my cheeks on a run while it’s raining, and my work, and good food and a pale ale on a sunny afternoon. I’m so freaking in love right now, and that’s what really matters.
So, to my single ladies anywhere and everywhere – let’s talk. I want to photograph your morning routine and the way your eyes squint when you’re hard at work and your weekly bar trivia with friends, and I want to talk about the things that fuel you and scare you and make you feel most alive. I know I’m asking a lot to be let into your solitary existence to take photographs for the world to see, but you’re living these incredible lives that deserve to be shared, too. Message me if you’re interested, or if you’re curious about how it’d work – and if you’re a person who isn’t single but knows someone who is, shoot this little number their way, because I’d love to potentially hear from them. (Feel free to assure them that I won’t photograph them on the toilet, too – I think one image of that is probably more than enough.)