The truth about “ending up alone.”
“You have to find someone. A companion.”
“You don’t want to end up all alone, right?”
I heard these words at home and other places in my community while growing up. People close to me transmitted the belief that, essentially, I alone was not enough, in the form of jokes, comments, judgments, and even silence. I wasn’t the only one, either. The girls in my school repeated similar words like a mantra. The books I read, the chick flicks I watched, and the advertisements I saw reinforced this idea every day.
“You must find someone,” men and women, but especially women, told me, their words highlighting their own tired faces and worried thoughts.
I was born in Brazil in 1992. Feminism had progressed enough by the time I was growing up that marriage did not necessarily have to be the biggest goal in women’s lives anymore. We could take contraceptive pills and control how many children we had. We could vote, work, go out, and have fun.
But we still couldn’t, still can’t, be alone. Being alone is a certificate of failure.
“Poor thing, at that age she’s definitely on the shelf,” people still whisper about single women. “She studied so much, worked so hard. I think she became too picky, too demanding. She should ignore the next guy’s flaws and get on board. At least she won’t be alone.”
By 13, I already knew that I should have someone in my life. I remember being the only one in my classroom that hadn’t yet been kissed. Some of my classmates made fun of me for this fact and I felt less feminine, ugly and unwanted, because of it. I desperately wanted to fit in but felt left out. Alone. The worst parts of being unkissed, however, were things I couldn’t hear but could feel: my friends’ pitying looks, their whispers behind my back. I began to feel a huge pressure on my shoulders, and soon enough I became my own worst bully. I didn’t like myself very much during that time, and in my head I kept repeating everything that was wrong with me, reasons why no one would ever want to kiss me.
When I was 16, I felt lucky to have a boyfriend, but not always happy. Being with him required denying myself a lot of things I wanted. My friends and I upheld the idea that having a boyfriend meant you had to spend a lot of time with him, so that’s what I did even when I prefered to be with my friends or family. As I started to fill out my college applications and prepare for another phase of my life, being with him all the time went from being a bit annoying to unacceptable, so we broke up.
When I was 20, I was boyfriendless and was back to thinking something was wrong with me. At the time, I was convinced that women just like difficult guys: We were destined to be attracted to guys who ignored us and hurt us, and doomed to reject the good guys who wanted to treat us well. My close friends and I felt like it was our responsibility to change men, to improve them. I told my friends that I refused to be with a man who didn’t treat me well because it seemed better to say that instead of stating that I was unable to be with someone at all.
When I was 23, a close friend told me that her purpose in life was to fight for gender equality. At that time we both worked for the international youth organization AIESEC in Uruguay. For one year, we worked side by side on many projects that were based on the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. Each one of us had a favorite goal, and my friend identified the most with goal number five, which states the U.N. aims to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”
At first, I judged her. Of all the world’s problems, I wondered, was gender equality so important? Given the hunger, war, and sheer misery that plagues the planet, I didn’t understand why gender equality should be a priority. But her devotion made me curious, and that curiosity ended up being the fuel that put me into motion.
I started researching, reading about, and questioning what “gender equality” really means. I started talking to people who knew more about this subject than I did and therefore started to hear different things about feminism from different sources. I watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie point out why we all should be feminists in a TED Talk and listened to Emma Watson’s United Nations speech, which explained why gender equality is an important cause for men and women. I read “How To Be A Woman” and saw “He Named Me Malala,” and began to realize that all of these women’s stories and perspectives seemed similar to mine — not because we had all lived through the exact same things, but because we felt the same way about equality. Soon, I was engaging with other girls in my community and reaching out to local NGOs that advocated for gender equality to find out more, and discuss our views and ideas about gender equality and feminism. I was awakening.
What especially and immediately resonated with me, though, was how this new way of thinking didn’t assume that being alone was the worst thing that could happen to a woman. Instead, I began to believe that I didn’t need a boyfriend to be happy and that I definitely shouldn’t put others’ ideas, opinions, and desires above my own. I felt free from the pressure to make the “right” choices to be a “good girl.” Instead I felt all of these women were telling me to make my own choices. And so I did. I left behind the people who made me feel worthless and got closer to those with whom I could develop a positive relationship. I started echoing the feminist concepts I was learning to other women and men in my life.
Leaving behind the beliefs that I assumed were correct for so many years has been a slow process, but also a rewarding one. This path of discovery has made me feel at peace with my choices, has helped me say my own opinions out loud, and has released me from the guilt and the pressure I felt trying to be someone I’m not. I understand now that I will never be “alone,” because I will always have myself and that’s indeed enough. In fact, I look back and realize that listening to the repressive voices that encouraged me to mutilate myself and my essence for the benefit of others, to shut up my voice because it didn’t seem to fit, is what made me feel truly lonely. Now I know that when we feel free to be at peace with ourselves, we’re never alone.
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