This picture has been floating around the internet lately, and the woman on the bottom left has provoked varied reactions—declarations of support as well as some serious reproach.
As somebody who was single until the age of 33, and who lived through A LOT of engagements, I want to weigh in.
I get it. I don’t know that woman, but I get what she represents.
I’m married, living what I suppose most would call a “traditional” lifestyle, and I’m not the least bit offended by this woman’s reaction to her newly engaged friends. Nor would I be offended if she were my friend and reacted that way to my engagement. In fact, I’d expect it, because that’s exactly how I always felt as a single woman when my friends and colleagues got engaged.
Is her pose in the photo in bad taste? Well, yeah. And assuming that it wasn’t done with the group’s knowledge, she’s got plenty of awkward moments ahead of her as she tries to explain why her friends’ happiness made her pantomime suicide.
But I get it.
I don’t think we women should kid ourselves. However far you think we’ve come in recent decades, there is no—I repeat, no—guarantee of social approval like choosing to get married and having a family. I could go on and on about how brides get treated like princesses, how they’re legitimized in a way single women never get to be. But there are great books out there that do that already (Jaclyn Geller’s flawed but definitely-worth-reading Here Comes the Bride: Women, Weddings, and the Marriage Mystique, for one).
What I can say is that I’ve been that woman in the corner of the picture, waiting for the crushing sense of worthlessness I’d feel whenever the next person flashed a sparkling solitaire in my face. Who was afraid that when the next engagement among colleagues was announced, she’d yell something horribly socially inappropriate and throw a heavy breakable object. The woman who so often realized, when out with a group of friends, that she was the only one there not married or engaged. Who felt alien. Who viewed engaged and married women as an unfairly exalted class privy to some arcane knowledge.
I was that woman who would walk by jewelry stores, wanting to go in and try on diamonds, but feeling like too much of a fraud to do so. Who would agonize over why less attractive, less interesting women were worthy of husbands. Who daydreamed about her own wedding even as she scorned the institution of marriage and all its trappings.
I was that woman who had regular meltdowns at family gatherings because an unmarried woman, even if she’s in a relationship, still gets treated like a little girl. Who felt completely defeated by a string of failed relationships. Who truly believed that her parents would love her more if she could get off the serial monogamy train and just stop fucking up. Who entered her thirties with HPV and a shitty attitude and a closet full of her exes’ useless crap that she was too sad to throw away.
Who, putting aside her desire for tulle and Jordan almonds and social approval, was deeply afraid that she’d never find the right person to make a life and a family with.
When I was that woman, I was never allowed to express my feelings—except in the privacy of my journal or my therapist’s office—even though so many times I was thoroughly exasperated with the façade of social conformity. I love this picture because it gives that woman a face. Who cares about the solitaire-flashing, giddy, newly engaged or their entourage of admiring hopefuls, which we’ve all seen before? This picture belongs to that woman in the corner, who right at that moment cracked enough to let through the truth.