Christmas was not traditional in my family growing up, so presents were intermittent. But the year I turned 18, I was welcomed into adulthood by a bumper stack of bestselling 90s dating books: Why Men Love Bitches and Men Are from Mars, Women are from Venus (and lesser-esteemed related reading, Why Men Marry Bitches and When Mars and Venus Collide). I had not known, until then, that I came across as the loneliest teenager in the world.
Written in a tone that swung between “all-knowing best friend” and “extremely mean personal trainer telling you the suffering means it is working”, these books – overwhelmingly targeted at women – took the reader to an emotional bootcamp of sorts, telling them to buck up and put on much needed emotional armour in the hard-knuckled world of adult dating. There was contempt for the women who cared too much and loved too openly, which would scare men away (and the goal was always a man). Nice girls don’t get the guy. If your man is in a bad mood, let him stew in his man cave rather than be a nag. If you don’t respect yourself, he won’t respect you. The contempt, I think, was all the stronger because we were familiar with the type: weepy and prone to fits of hysteria; ready to throw off dignity at the first hint of true love, forever pining for a world more fantastical and beautiful. In other words, someone we all had in ourselves, to varying degrees, and felt all the more pathetic for. As Flaubert reportedly said, Madame Bovary, c’est moi.
I’m not sure how seriously I took those lessons back then, though they were nothing new in the teenage-girl media I read growing up – before the likes of Teen Vogue and Cosmopolitan were liberated to write explainers to Das Kapital, there were how-to guides on dieting, looking good and how to tell if he likes you or likes-likes you.
The world may have moved on since then, but it’s hard to shake the lessons internalised when you’re young. Years later, in 2014, when I was exploring the world of Tinder, confronted with image after image of man holding fish, man quoting Drake lyric, man clearly wanting to be Drake, I too hardened my own armour, made clear that even though I was on here I too thought it was a bit of a joke (bio: “enthusiastic self-starter proficient in Microsoft Excel.”) The weepy romantic in me was locked up in the attic, only free to roam on select occasions. It’s a shame; I feel like life would be a lot more delightfully chaotic if she had the key.