Desperate, luckless, promiscuous... unattached women are tagged with their fair share of labels. But there's one that Dolly Alderton finds more provocative than any other.
The year is 2013 and I’ve just come back from one of the worst dates of my life. I walk into my apartment where my roommate is watching telly with her boyfriend. “How was it?” she asks. “Awful,” I say, grabbing wine from the fridge and taking a swig straight from the bottle. “He didn’t ask me one question, talked about himself all night, turned up already drunk, bit my lip when he tried to kiss me and pushed me against a wall so hard in an attempt to seem passionate, I think I’ve got whiplash in my neck.” There’s a brief pause. “So you really don’t see it working?” “Um. No. Did you not just hear what happened?” “It’s a shame,” she says. “I just think he sounded so perfect for you.” “How?” “He’s tall, he’s handsome, he’s successful, he owns his own house,” she says, gesticulating pleadingly. “I’m not going to forgo a boyfriend with any personality or ability to snog just because he’s a property owner,” I say. “I just think you’re being too picky,” she replies. “Sorry, but I do. If you want to meet someone, you may have to lower your standards a bit. Nobody’s perfect.” Her boyfriend nods in silent, sage agreement. Sound familiar? I’m not surprised.
“You’re just too picky” has been commonly thrown at me and my single girlfriends for all of our late 20s, and it is increasingly driving me more and more mad with every year I get older. It crops up when I have the audacity to complain about a date and usually comes from my smug coupled friends or my mother (of course). Sometimes even a few of my close male friends feel free to share their opinions which make me feel like crap – as if I have totally misjudged how high I should be aiming in life. The worst thing about the slur is the extended assumption that I should be grateful that anyone would even want to have a tepid glass of pinot gris with me. And that the reason I am still single is because there is something inherently wrong with my approach to the dating world. As if dating isn’t hard enough, I’m made to feel bad about the way I go about it. Thanks for your support, guys! But how much of this pickiness is us being fussy and how much is it us having high, solid expectations for ourselves? I think it may be the latter: this alleged “pickiness” may just be the word given to describe the fact women have grown more confidence about what it is they want. We don’t have to sit around doing tapestries at home waiting for a suitor to choose us and ask our parents for our hand in marriage anymore; we work, we’re sexually free, we can ask men out, we can swipe left and right. We have the freedom of being able to choose a partner, after thousands of years of being chosen. Similarly, it can’t just be a coincidence that our supposed increase in fussiness has overlapped with the increase in popularity of dating apps. So many of us now meet as strangers, based solely on looks, rather than friends of friends or people with a social context. Maybe it’s possible we think of dates as being disposable?
"Maybe this word describes the fact women have grown more confident about what they want"
Instead of giving them a little time to grow, we put them on the “no” pile and move on to the next. As male and female singletons have adapted to the new dating scene, my theory is this pickiness is simply an extension of natural evolution. Well, some would disagree. According to behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings, being extra-selective when looking for a partner is more commonly female than male: “Women tend to have a more specific type of man in mind,” she explains. “Many women have a long shopping list which if they don’t find in a potential partner, they won’t pursue. Examples might include looks based expectations – hair colour (or simply hair at all!), height, good teeth, nice smile. Or lifestyle preferences – job status, location, age, education, sporty.”
These criteria ring bells with me – I have been known to not fancy a man on the sheer basis of his penchant for short-sleeved, button-down shirts (Hawaiian, patterned, plain, any of them), no matter how hard I try to look past it. I have another friend who only dates men who play rugby (she likes their shoulders and crooked noses) and another who only goes for tall, blond Nordic types. But that’s what happens when forced to shop for a prospective partner online. You end up having to hone your criteria as this is all you’ve got to go on. Jo says that the selective functions of dating apps can only take us so far. “Interestingly, the one thing that an app can’t do – however sophisticated they have become – is legislate for chemistry. In the real world, it’s very possible, and much more common, for women to fall in love with someone who isn’t their traditional type, where other factors such as personality, voice and charisma kickstart those butterflies.” Here’s the conundrum: while only searching for men who we think are the men of our dreams, we are potentially missing out on the man of our dreams.
We’ve all heard stories about women who fall in love with the man they’d never have gone for. Gemma*, 32, is 178cm and always thought she’d end up with a bloke 183cm or taller: “Any average-height guy made me feel so big and manly,” she says. But after much encouragement from her friends, she reluctantly went on a date with a man who was 8cm shorter than her. Two years later and the couple now lives together. “He made me feel more like a woman than any other big, tall man I’d been with,” says Gemma. “I had been searching for the physical, when really what I wanted was someone who made me laugh and made me feel relaxed and sexy. I found that in a short guy.” Jo tells me that pickiness in women could also be to self-protect: “Some women, particularly those who have been badly hurt or who may not yet be ready to date again, become extra picky as a defence mechanism.” This certainly rings true with me – I chose bad guys because I was familiar with the tragic cycle of the bad guy.
Then a few years ago I was out for dinner with friends, complaining about the guy I had met the week before. He was what I thought was my perfect type – a cocky musician I’d seen play in a local bar and beelined for him afterwards. We had stayed up all night drinking and kissing and I left him floating on a cloud – only to never hear from him again. “OK you’ve got to let go of this guy-in-a-band thing,” my flatmate said forcefully. “What do you mean?” I asked. I looked around the table at my friends’ worried faces and realised I was in the centre of an intervention. “You are so obsessed with finding this man,” another friend chipped in. “That I think doesn’t exist. If you want this tattooed, rockstar pin-up that everyone fancies, well, he’s probably not going to be very nice to you.” “That’s not true!” I protested. “There are plenty of egotistical rockstars who are also really good boyfriends.” “Like who?” My flatmate sighed. “Name one.” “Lenny Kravitz?” I suggested limply. “Lenny Kravitz is celibate because of his religion,” another replied. Point taken. The ideal man in our heads encompasses all sorts of fantasies that can’t quite co-exist. There is a chance I could meet the curly-haired, bad-boy musician I’ve always wanted – but with it I’d probably have to compromise some other more important things: would he be kind to me, would my friends like him, would he make a good long-term partner or father one day?
"Many women have a long shopping list which if they don't find in a potential partner; they won't pursue"
Or, I could meet the man who is all those things – sweet and funny and loving. But perhaps the only guitar he’s ever picked up in his life is the miniature plastic one you use for Guitar Hero. So how do I feel now when people I know and love call me picky? Fed up, slightly insulted, but also a little more willing to be proven wrong. The joy of getting older means you relax into the idea that things may change. In my early 20s, I used to be so resistant to criticism and advice, convinced that what I thought then was set in concrete forever. Now it has been proven to me time and time again that I might get things wrong
or my attitude may change. So, if so many people who care about me are saying they think I might end up with someone I don’t expect, perhaps it’s time I chew on this a while. I’m not willing to negotiate my standards; I’m not willing to compromise my desire for someone who sets my heart and soul on fire. But I am willing to try dating men I wouldn’t usually go for. And if I hate it –I’ll just go back to the wannabe rockstars.
In the end, the thing that has really helped me “broaden my mind” (my preferred choice of phrase to “stop being so picky”) is to remember how far away I am from perfection. After all I’m slightly too tall, slightly too loud, slightly self involved with slightly wonky teeth. I would hope that when prospective partners meet me, they’d take a compassionate leap of faith to look past those flaws and also see a woman who is kind and curious about the world and trying her best to live and grow in it. So if that’s an open mindedness I expect from men, it is only fair that I exercise the same. But don’t tell me I’m being picky just because my leap of faith still won’t stretch past short-sleeved shirts – Hawaiian, paisley or otherwise. I’m working on it. OK?