The curse of the has-her-shit-together girl.

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A rare moment in between glasses, braces, and bad bangs. A Bat Mitzvah miracle.

I was a middle school anthropologist. I’d observe the ways of the local youth, puzzled by their culture, feeling utterly removed from and obsessed with their behavior. A constant watcher silently getting straight As and trying to blend into the peeling gray paint on a row of lockers.

It was sometimes referred to as being shy, but I like to think of it as absorbent. I was soaking up things around me, taking them in, processing them, letting them become my societal education. Sometimes I had to be quiet and still in order to take them in. I wasn’t shy, I was busy.

I entered public school in 6th grade. I spent my elementary years in private education, at a Hebrew school that had to close down because there weren’t enough kids to fill it. By the time I left 5th grade, there were five of us in my class. To go from an intimate group of jewish kids to a massive public school district where I was the only jewish kid was the equivalent of leaving your job working the cash register at a mom & pop general store and going to work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange the next morning.

I went from school uniforms that required no sense of style whatsoever to actual clothes that I did not know how to dress myself in. I always had the same kids in every one of my classes. Now it was a random assortment that shook like a snow globe with each passing period. I knew the name of every person in my elementary school, knew every teacher. Now I had to remind people of my name five times a day. And none of them could pronounce it. They’d all been together since pre-school. They knew how to exist in this milieu. I did not. I couldn’t find my way around the school’s labyrinthian halls for a month.

Lost in cultural shock, it would take years before I felt like one of them, an actual teenager who knew the unspoken language and could communicate with others in her age bracket instead of fearing them and freezing solid each time someone noticed my presence. I was so much less savvy than them, and terrified that they’d notice.

In addition to just being new, I was also just really, really different. I never did the things typical Texan teens did. I never played sports, never went to church, I didn’t own makeup until college. I never felt like I belonged in their world. They spoke more aggressively, with more authority than like…kids, and dressed with a maturity I didn’t grasp. I was their age, but still younger than them somehow. Everything scared me, embarrassed me, confused me. Honestly an orientation would not have gone amiss.

I’d been dropped off inside a tribe of pubescence with the communications skills of a traffic light and the confidence of wet toast. I don’t think I took a deep breath until my senior year.

But the most foreign activity to me, by far, was dating. What. The. Fuck.

Everyone “dated.” Everyone had a boyfriend. Everyone had a boy they were “taking to.” Huh?

What even was dating in middle school? Remember when everyone used to “date” for like a week? Girls would have “boyfriends” for a handful of days, sometimes hours, the extent of the relationship reaching no further than finding each other at passing period and holding hands on their way to the next class. A meaningless musical chairs exchange of partners, almost as if they were acting out a version of courtship they read about in a book. Nobody knew what they were doing, but they were giving it a good try.

I remember the hallmarks of middle school relationships. What seemed to matter most was that people knew they were dating, not any of the dating activities themselves. Getting flowers and a balloon tied to a stuffed bear on Valentine’s Day. Sitting next to each other on the bus to a field trip. Wearing his Starter jacket. I gained knowledge of all this through observation, of course. I didn’t actually do these things, good heavens.

Back then it took little more than a passed note to form a relationship. Yes, a note, intricately decorated with flowers and vines in the margins and frothy, expressive female teenage handwriting throughout, all gloriously brought to life in №2 lead. The early origins of text messages, now hermetically sealed in glass and saved for the aliens to discover one day. I hope they find my endless drawings of human right eyes with cateye makeup impressive.

I was never one of the girls with a boyfriend. There wasn’t one early teen adorably awkward courting moment to my name. I never held anyone’s hand on the way outside during a fire drill, never kissed anyone after school before climbing aboard bus #45, the one with the “apartment kids.” No one asked me to dance, ever. (Using the term “dance” very loosely of course, we were 14 and mortified. It was more like shifting feet to music and avoiding eye contact.)

This actually still upsets me: I also never had a homecoming mum. If, by the way, you’re not from Texas, google “Texas homecoming mum” and have a lovely afternoon. That visual assault of ribbon and glitter was a badge of popularity, a sign that a boy had asked you to the homecoming dance (and also to the football game, naturally, this is Texas). Girls would walk around the halls, mums to the floor, cowbells (yes, they have cowbells) clanging along, reminding me how unwanted I was with each passing step.

This explanation of my lack of romantic socialization isn’t a woe-is-me thing, it’s just groundwork. I wasn’t societally raised to think of myself as part of a pair. I was a solo act, taking in the trappings of teenage human interaction but understanding that they weren’t for me After awhile I became accustomed to the fact that I wasn’t the kind of girl who had boyfriends. I didn’t like it, but I accepted it. That was for other girls, not me. You know the friend you have who “can’t be alone,” who “hops from one guy to the next?” I’m not her, I think this is why.

Not that I didn’t want relationships. Of course I did. I would have loved to have a hand to hold, a partner to go through life’s terribly awkward teenage sexual experiments with, but I never did. I left for college without ever passing the real prerequisites, and spent my early twenties figuring out the things most girls learned at 16.

I never understood how they did it, the popular girls, in their Wrangler jeans so tight you could read the date off their spare change. I figured it just wasn’t my time to understand how women attracted men, that I’d figure it out later.

For all my longing though, I moved through those formative years with acceptance, just learning through observation. What choice did I have? This is the way it is, I’m not a boyfriend girl. Fine.

And I had help! My mother was raised on marriage as the predominant societal “supposed to” and was determined not to raise her daughter the same way. Even if I’d been pursued by boys, they’d have found the drawbridge pulled up, my mother standing guard with a flaming spear. I wasn’t allowed to date under her roof (allowed, LOL, like it ever even came up). I was instructed, from Bat Mitzvah age onward, that you don’t date “until you have your career.”

Which was actually a huge comfort. Oh, so that’s when boys will like me! When I have my career! Amazing, I can totally handle this. If I have one skill in life it’s getting good grades, which in my middle school mind of course translated to glowing professional success.

I always thought that’d be my time. Once I had my career, and was a grown-up, successful writer (or if my grandfather was answering for me, a doctor or lawyer), I’d have a great job and cool house (I wanted a loft like my cousin Michelle) and everything would be awesome. That’s when things would work out for me. That’s when I’d become a boyfriend girl.

By then I’d be an adult, far away from school where I was insignificant. I’d be on my own, in full command of my life with years of experience helping me unfreeze and live a life without fear. No one would know I’d ever been unwanted. Plus, I’d have achieved the life stage at which Mom says humans date — this sounds like a plan to me!

But of course it doesn’t happen that way. Our lives and careers are ever-evolving, there’s no one moment where a switch flips and we’re suddenly “done,” a fully baked human ready to be frosted with the sweetness of coupledom. You actually do need to date before you have your career, because you have to learn how. I never did. I was not a boyfriend girl then, and I’m not a boyfriend girl now. But FYI I love my career.

I was on my way to damn decent educational future. I never saw myself as lacking just because I didn’t have boyfriends. But that didn’t stop me from wanting that joy, that extra, to add onto the life I already had. As a kid I was always so keenly aware that it was out of my reach. The world would dangle it in front of me, showing me what was possible, you know…for other people. The constant observer, the middle school anthropologist always reminded of things that other people achieved so easily, as if this culture was hellbent on making me jealous.

And we didn’t even have Instagram yet.

***

It’s my hope that the gender norms of old are thrown out with my generation’s bathwater. I hope the kids currently in middle school grow up without the double standards I’ve been soaking in since birth. I entered the world in the summer of 1982, I was a teen in the 90s, a twentysomething in the aughts, and in my mid-30s when a woman lost a Presidency for being unlikable to a man who looks like someone stuffed horseshit into a bad suit.

My shorts had to be a certain length so that my thigh area wouldn’t be too distracting for boys. I attended pep rallies for football and basketball games while volleyball and softball games happened almost without the knowledge of the student body. I tested well for trumpet and snare drum but played the “girl” instrument, the clarinet, instead. I was told that boys mature more slowly than girls, and should be forgiven for it, rather than expecting boys to rise to the challenge of the more mature sex.

I am still living with double standards. Those societal kicks in the shins that favor men over women with comedic potency. You know them, they’re not new. A man is accomplished when he sleeps with multiple women, while a woman with an identical sexual history is a slut. An authoritative professional man is a real go-getter, but a woman just like him? That bitch.

If a single man has a successful career, a great home, a labrador, more than one bath towel, and a hobby or two, he’s seen as “the whole package.” Neatly tied with a bow and the beaming pride of every bragging synagogue bubbie. A real catch.

But not a woman. If a single woman has all that, a great career, a beautiful home, a pet, matching glassware, if she has it “all together,” she’s not the whole package. She’s too much of one. The has-her-shit-together woman isn’t seen as a “catch.” She’s seen as too focused on her career, someone who doesn’t need men, and even — watch this — someone who turns them off.

There’s a word they like to call her: intimidating.

The word intimidating first entered my life in my late 20s. I think we’ve established that my life up until then wouldn’t merit the word. Instead I’d have been called something like…timid, or prone to speechlessness, with a temperment not unlike that of a feral cat. I think our late 20s are when women earn that particular accolade. It coincides perfectly with our first jobs that don’t suck and the further development of our self worth, go figure. Intimidating wasn’t a word assigned to me until I did exactly what I’d always wanted to do, exactly what Mom told me to do. When I reached the goals I had for myself, when I felt “ready” to entertain the idea of really finding a male partner, society had to break the bad news.

I grew up. I had a career, a decent apartment, matching dining chairs, and I felt ready, really ready to have company, male attention, and love. It wasn’t a planned thing, there wasn’t much of a coming out party, instead it happened gradually over time, with hard work.

The bitch of it was, the way I’d always approached my life, and worked toward confidence and achievement, was apparently the very thing hindering me from the thing I wanted. I knew what I wanted, I was ready for what I wanted, and because I presented a pretty damn good offering to what I wanted, I was scaring it away.

When intimidating came around, I’d been single for a year or two. I was dating all the time, but no one was ever really interested in me. They’d go out to a rock show with me, have sex with me, your typical twentysomething Saturday night out, there were no unique components to it that made those interactions personal. They were going through motions of nights they’d spend with anyone. There wasn’t anything about me they were interested in, it was more just participating in culture. I was being used for a purpose, instead of being desired for being me.

It became really frustrating, being used like a human bottle of Smartwater, and I didn’t understand why it was happening. I thought I was presenting a very datable human to the world. Wouldn’t someone want to spend their time with a woman who was independent enough to get herself to the airport? Knew the proper way to wrap a gift? Made a spectacular lasagna from scratch?

I never learned how to attract the opposite sex. I’m not sure I’m any the wiser now. I thought working on me was what I was supposed to do, and eventually someone would see what I’d worked hard to become and fall in love with it. The naivety, good lord.

***

I hate the way people describe me. I hate the way they describe single women, too. They nearly always get it wrong. I hate the words they use. They never think about what I’m really supposed to take away from their descriptions.

I’d discuss my lack of partnership, my apparent repellative qualities, with friends. They’re who intimidating first came from. “You’re intimidating.” “You’re no-bullshit, you know what you want, and you’re intimidating.” Suddenly I’d gone from shrinking middle school violet to unflappable Army boot camp drill sergeant, isn’t that the tits?

I always wondered what I was supposed to take away from those conversations. Am I supposed to…enjoy bullshit? What does “no bullshit” even mean? And how does a woman who is not “no bullshit” behave? Where did they get this idea about me? How do I act that tells people this? I don’t walk around saying “I’m no bullshit,” so what gives? Does that mean I’m harsh, aggressive, too tough? I’m apparently giving off vibes I didn’t know I possessed the skills for. No bullshit. I mean for all the good these descriptors are doing me just go ahead and tell men I collect porcelain dolls and require everyone who enters my home to wash their hands before petting the cat. (I don’t actually do either of these things, hi fellas.)

What people really mean by “no bullshit” is actually just this: I know I deserve to be treated well.

I know that I deserve more than flaky men who take two days to respond to a text. I know I deserve more than men who only want to make plans with me if it’s “a group thing.” I know I deserve more than a man who acts like he’s doing me a favor for giving me a morsel of attention. That’s no bullshit.

Then there’s “knowing what I want.” What are people really saying about me when they say “she knows what she wants?” I know they’re saying another phrase that scares men away, but again, what is a woman like if she doesn’t know what she wants? How is her behavior different, and are the words they use to describe her less terrifying to the opposite sex?

I think it’s an extension of “no bullshit,” honestly. The idea that I think I’m worthy of having someone commit to me, the gall. Again with the double standards. A man who’d let a woman string him along, not make him a priority, he needs to get out of there — he deserves better. A woman in the same situation is just fucking dating.

Knowing what I want is just another notch in my empty bedpost. Another quality I’m proud of that repels men away like citronella for semen. I think I deserve someone who really wants me, and who makes that clear. I’m unwilling to entertain fuckboys who string women along, doing just enough to keep a woman interested, and then panicking at the first signs of a relationship. As if relationships are actually lethal demogorgon monsters who spell certain doom. There is nothing as scared and skittish as a man on the brink of a girlfriend. Pussies.

It makes me think…should I not know what I want, in order to get it? What kind of operation are we running here? Do I have to do less, achieve less, feel less confident in myself in order to attract, rather than repel, the opposite sex?

I often feel like I’m being punished for having my shit together. All the things I’ve assigned accomplishment and positivity to all my life, all the things I looked forward to achieving, are all so easily spun as things that made me unlikable to men. That is really fucking unfair.

There’s one single woman who’s never intimidating: The Mess. The scattered, wrinkled skirt, phone battery almost dead chaosmonger — society’s little sister. She’s the one who’s always fucking some random artist, always has a hot, nameless date at weddings who wears a skinny black tie and has tattoos just barely peeking out from under his shirt cuffs. She’s fighting them off with a broomstick — wait, no just a regular stick, she doesn’t own a broom.

She’s not scaring away anyone, just the opposite. A mess doesn’t have any qualities that repel men. No, no, her noncommittal nature toward everything from apartment leases to breakfast cereals makes her a hot ticket item. She’s attracting guy after guy with a life scattered among whiskey bottles and dead plants while I sit across the room with my bills on autopay wondering why I’m still not a boyfriend girl.

Eventually I figured something out about society. About how society views and treats women. A man can have his shit together any way he wants, and the more together his shit is, the more attractive he becomes. The more a woman has her shit together, the more the world punishes her — if a piece of that “shit” she has together is not a man.

Since I grew up a little differently, thinking I needed time to build myself on my own, I did it wrong. As if the world said to me, “Oh, you think you’re a complete person without a man? Fine. Now you’ll never have one.” It’s the cruelest punishment, working to become the adult I always wanted to be, then realizing that I’m the kind of adult nobody wants.

I don’t think single women should fear the word intimidating. I know we’ve been trained to. But I think it has the extremely dangerous ability to hold us back from our full potential, because we’re afraid of being “too much.” Too successful, too powerful, too…something that’s going to shrink his dick, so be careful. I think it’s possible to exist for ourselves, fully, without being in constant fear that being who we really are is really off-putting to men. If that’s true, if I’m so intimidating that I’m scaring men away…good. I think those are the kinds of men I’d want to keep their distance.

In my lifetime, I’ve had more bouts of pneumonia than relationships. I was not, and am not a boyfriend girl. The world has raised me, and I have raised me, understanding that I’m kind of on my own here, and since I’m really proud of what I’ve become, that’s okay. I don’t “need” a man, I want one — and there’s a big goddamn difference. Now if only society would stop confusing the two.

For us, us shit-together girls, convincing society of the difference between need and want is exhausting. Showing the world it’s possible to live a whole, accomplished life and still have the desire and deservedness to have company and love is so much harder than it should be.

I’ve always been just me. No, not just. I’ve always been me. A me who’s studied hard and worked hard and put effort into building a wonderful world around her. A whole, complete person who would enjoy sharing that world, not out of need, but out of want.

I still observe, and watch. The world will always continue to show me the things that have come to other people that haven’t come to me, and societal packaging will always try to tell me that I don’t have those things because of who I am, even if — maybe most certainly if — I like who I am just fine.

There’s a desire in me to have those wonderful perks of being alive, those partnered experiences. I’ve never had a choice to be anything other than who I am, to grow at the rate that I did, to absorb societal inputs at my own pace. What I believe is that at some point, someone who is also proud of who they’ve become will be happy to spend time with someone like me. Maybe I won’t intimidate him, maybe I’ll make him feel lucky.

Maybe he wasn’t a girlfriend boy, either.

___________________________________________________________

Shani Silver is a humor essayist and podcaster based in Brooklyn who writes on Medium, a lot. If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy The Reason We’re “Still” Single.

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NPR once called me a humor essayist, let’s go with that. Host of A Single Serving Podcast. shanisilver[at]gmail

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