This is a cold war: On romance

By | February 14, 2011

Sometimes I think I’m just a strange bird, my loves, and not only because I think of “Fat-Bottomed Girls” as a love song (and I do — it is also a sex song, and sex is often a part of love, though I affirm the right of others to take a different view of things — I can only speak for myself, after all).

My feelings with regard to Valentine’s Day are nonexistent, neutral, null; I have a lack of reaction to it. I usually forget that it’s happening. This has always been true. I have a romance problem, or rather a romance deficit. This is not to say that I have experienced a lack of romance, but that I lack an appreciation for romantic gestures. Passion, I understand. But romance has always made me vaguely uncomfortable. There is a pressure associated with being a female-identifying person on the receiving end of romantic shenanigans: I feel expected to giggle and coo, to blush and smile sheepishly, most of all, to be grateful. I’ve always felt a bit guilty about my lack of proper response to romance. Is my inner ladyness defective?

During the summer of 1997, between my sophomore and junior years of college, I spent four to five nights a week hanging out with a friend who’d recently broken up with a long-term partner. We usually spent time at my place, sometimes at his, listening to music and talking, sometimes watching a movie. Unfortunately, this led to my developing a brutal and overwhelming crush. Poetry was involved. Oh yes. At the end of the summer I revealed my feelings in my usual candid (albeit understated) way and suffered the worst response of all: the non-response. The “Oh, okay,” response. It was a tragic let-down, and no amount of copious props from my friends for my willingness to be honest could cushion the blow. I didn’t understand their amazement anyway: I had always been honest with people when I liked them. Sometimes it worked out; sometimes it didn’t.

My crush took the low road and decided to blow me off altogether after that. This decision still astonishes me, as I had made plain that even if nothing came of my confession, I cherished this person’s friendship — and I had been a good friend as well, supportive and reliable, regardless of my more-than-friendly feelings. I ran into my former crush in a local cafe immediately before an afternoon class the following January, and the interaction even six months later was stilted and awkward. By then I was over it, and I was mostly angry with myself for allowing my usually-sharp sense of people’s character to be misled with this individual.

Then I went to class and met the guy I would eventually marry. My interest in him at that point was exclusively physical, as he was obnoxious and arrogant and occasionally insufferable (still is). I tipped my hand early. After a few false starts, we were dating regularly, and what I’d planned on being a no-strings rebound turned into an epic lifelong project of a relationship that continues to this day. Since then there have been ups and downs and catastrophes and superlatives and awesome good times and it’s still a surprise to me that it’s even happened.

I never intended to get married before I was 30, if at all. My lack of interest in romance was always something about which I felt a sharp ambivalence. Shouldn’t I feel something? Am I frigid? Even as a teenager, while I had physical interest in (and physical relationships with) other people, I did not long for the sweet prom date, the stroll hand-in-hand on the beach, the kiss in the moonlight. I felt as though I was broken — in this way as in so many others — that I was deeply, deeply flawed, and I didn’t know if I wanted to be fixed.

On last night’s Grammy Awards, the criminally underrated Janelle Monae performed “Cold War”. I first saw the song’s intimate video (embedded above) in August of last year, and wrote half a blog post about it before I lost the thread of why it affected me so profoundly. Monae’s work speaks to society’s outcasts in a manner far too subtle for many people to hear — it requires us to stop talking, for once, and listen. The video consists entirely of a bare-shouldered Monae in close-up, singing the words to a lonely audience. At one lyric she falters: “I’m trying to find my peace / I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me.” She tries to shake it off, tries to smile, to bring it back, but she can’t and instead she cries. In three minutes and forty-four seconds, Monae embodies the frustration, the forced facade, and the sheer abject sorrow of finding oneself on the margins of culture and society, again and again and again. She dances a little at the bridge, bobbing her head around like this is nothing, this is who I have to be, and tears come anyway.

I would wager that most of the resistance to Valentine’s Day finds its roots in a similar desire to not be marginalized, to not be reminded that culturally, if you have no relationship — or at least no strictly defined, socially-acceptable relationship — you do not matter, and that you are not valuable until someone else loves you, that without that external validation your life cannot be complete. In this way we are taught to rely on outside approval for our self-esteem, and how well it’s worked out for all of us. Valentine’s Day is a day when even those who don’t generally question social constructions stop and notice that they suddenly feel terrible about themselves for no good reason, just because they are single, or at least not monogamously partnered.

This compulsion toward self-recrimination and reproach is grotesque and unjust and I wish I could tell everyone to ignore it — that it comes from nothing and it means nothing. Whether you long for the dizzy heights of epic romance or you want nothing to do with that, whether you prefer to be partnered or prefer to be solitary or prefer to not be pinned down or prefer not to have sexual relationships at all: there is nothing wrong with you. You’re not perfect — no one is. We are all damaged and flawed. We will all change over the course of our lives, sometimes by tiny shifts and sometimes by leaps and bounds. But there is nothing wrong with us, and when we hear otherwise it’s only the vapid babbling of a culture that defines us and places limits on our experience and calls us wrong.


sarah m. on February 14, 2011 at 4:05 pm.

It’s good to know there are other non-romantic people out there. I’m not a romantic. I’m one of those people who wants the blender for valentine’s day. I never got why practical gifts were somehow an ‘affront’ to love.


baconsmom on February 14, 2011 at 4:26 pm.

OMG, yes x a million at the “practical gifts are an insult” idea. Why? I want a kick-ass food processor, why should my husband get me flowers instead? What tasty thing am I supposed to make with flowers?

The best present I’ve ever gotten from him is still the KitchenAid mixer I’d coveted for years. So much mixer lust, satisfied on one lovely Mothers’ Day.


sarah m. on February 14, 2011 at 5:16 pm.

A kitchen aid mixer is my most wanted appliance. *drool*

This past Christmas I got a stick blender from him, which I adore. My birthday last year was a really good digital kitchen scale. I love that he’s happy to buy me the practical things I want.


i-geek on February 14, 2011 at 8:14 pm.

My husband gave me a KitchenAid mixer for Christmas a couple of years ago. It still makes me giddy.


Michele on February 14, 2011 at 5:27 pm.

IMO, a “romantic” gift is a thoughtful one, a personal one. If you receive a blender because that’s what you, personally, want, I consider that much more romantic than a generic dozen red roses. 🙂


purplekeychain on February 14, 2011 at 6:09 pm.

agreed. it’s all relative to who you are. a romantic evening for me is a beer and a really good kung fu film with my husband. for some, it’s roses and wine.


sarah m. on February 14, 2011 at 8:40 pm.

I agree with you 🙂 the most romantic gift is the one with thought and attention put into it!


Zanna77 on February 15, 2011 at 10:55 am.

I love practical gifts and they are swooningly romantic to me. “You care enough to know I desperately needed and wanted that immersion blender.” How hot is that? Or now that I am married and have kids I love that I get a candy bar and a note from him. Making an effort in the midst of our very busy every day lives to check in and say, “You are awesome. I am glad we are building a life together.”


April Arthur on February 14, 2011 at 4:13 pm.

I have never been into romance, preferring rather to be candid and honest with my feelings. Luckily after our first date, where I told him if he opened the door for me one more time I would break his arm, my husband understands how I feel. I prefer practical to frivolous gifts, after all a plant for the yard lasts much longer than a bouquet of flowers no matter how pretty they are. Good to know there are others out there!


Ashley on February 14, 2011 at 5:12 pm.

I didn’t really understand the importance of romance until I got into a relationship that lacked it. My first love was very romantic, naturally so, and he was only 18. I appreciated it, but then a few years later I got with a guy who was 25 and didn’t know a thing about romance, and I craved it.

I don’t like romance if it feels forced, but I guess I was lucky enough as a high school senior to experience it in a way that doesn’t feel forced or cheesy, and I miss that.

I feel like so many people have forgotten about romance. I feel like it has died. We all need to take a trip to Paris. They know how to sweep someone off of their feet.


Zanna77 on February 15, 2011 at 10:58 am.

I am not sure Paris would work for everyone. That’s the whole thing about romance isn’t it? So deeply, deeply personal what you find romantic. My husband ordered pizza for dinner last night because I came down with a cold unexpectedly and couldn’t cook. Then he cleaned the kitchen and helped our kids get to bed by himself (things I usually help with) and I found that more achingly romantic than any number of Parisian get-aways.


purplekeychain on February 14, 2011 at 5:43 pm.

Lesley, I have been reading your blog for a long time and, while I can’t lay claim to know you, it’s posts like this that make me feel that we are so kindred in spirit because we share so many of the same experiences and feelings. I wish I was half as able as you are to articulate my life’s ups and downs in a way that doesn’t require a thesis. I have very few relationships outside of the one I share with my husband, and absolutely none with other fat people, so it’s hard for me to intimate my feelings about life and love and happiness and how they intersect with, and have been affected by, my fatness. So when I read your posts, it’s like I’m having a conversation with someone who actually understands exactly how I feel and it always, every single time, brings tears to my eyes

I have always hated holidays, namely because of the obligation they imply. When I was single, I think I wanted nothing more than to be the girlfriends who received roses and candy and jewelry, even though I never felt that I deserved those things “until I lost all this weight”. My most memorable V-day was about 8 years ago, a friend and I stopped at a flower shop so he could buy his partner some flowers. I remember rambling the whole time about my favorite flowers, because I was terrified that a pause in conversation would give him time to stop and say “So what are you doing for valentine’s day?” and I didn’t have an answer, beyond “I’m going to get drunk and hopefully pass out long enough that. when I next wake, it will be Feb 15.” He eventually ended up buying a huge bouquet of sunflowers, which were my favorite, and I helped him pick out a vase and all that. As we left the store, he turned and handed the flowers and vase to me and said “Happy Valentine’s day!” and for the first, and only, time in my life I was speechless. I had never felt so special or loved before in my life. And it was then that I finally understood that I didn’t have to be someone’s romantic partner to feel special on v-day. And it also made me realize that a special day isn’t needed to show your friends and the people you love how much you care about them. It can happen any day, and in any way. It helped me to understand that my self-worth wasn’t determined by my desirability to others. And once I figured that out, I’ve been a much happier person.


Lesley on February 14, 2011 at 9:57 pm.

This story just made me so happy. I’ve had a couple similar experiences, so disarming and astonishing in the most wonderful way, and your sunflower story took me right back there. Thank you for sharing it.


Zanna77 on February 15, 2011 at 11:00 am.

I love that! Sunflowers are my favorite too! Until I got married I had never spent a Valentine’s Day with a significant other at all. It is my Mom’s birthday and I always regarded it through that lens, a day to celebrate my family and my friends. I sent my friends dumb little elementary school perforated edge cards until I was in college, or made dinner for my Mom, or was busy planning some elaborate dessert to share with my sisters.


Sarah TX on February 14, 2011 at 6:13 pm.

So it’s Valentine’s day again, and I sent my spouse this card by email, and he sent me a text I think.

I never really understood romance (especially not heteronormative “guy buys flowers and/or jewelry” romance), I suppose because I was never romanced. The ‘Dude didn’t sweep my off my feet – I liked him quite a bit but I wasn’t crushing on him or “madly in love” or whatever, not at first. And by the time we did “fall in love”, we were already essentially living together.

Sometimes when I think I want Romance, what I really want is to feel like I am human, that my needs are heard and understood. Does this sort of attention have to come from a romantic/sexual partner? I don’t think so – much of the time it is my friends/family who validate my needs and do thoughtful things for me. But it’s really easy for companies to shame men into providing a sort of thoughtless Romance predicated on cheap mylar balloons and stuffed teddy bears.


Lesley on February 14, 2011 at 9:54 pm.

That card is completely brilliant. And I dig your assessment of what we may really be asking for, or expecting, when we long for capital-R Romance.


Lumi on February 14, 2011 at 7:48 pm.

Were that I had the energetic wherewithall at the moment, I would respond to Lesley’s brilliant-as-always blog post, and y’all’s terrific responses, but alas I do not. So, I will share the following factoid: in Finland, today is known as Friend’s Day (Ystävänpäivä). In that spirit, Happy Friend’s Day, you awesome fatties (and not-so-fatties, too)!


Lesley on February 14, 2011 at 9:52 pm.

I love this!


Ruth on February 14, 2011 at 8:29 pm.

Wow. Awesome video and song. Thanks for sharing it. It does, “hurt so much”, doesn’t it?

I haven’t been into romance since I was a teenager (when I longed for it and had none). I feel it’s usually trite. I’m like you: passion YES, romance, EH.

And I am SO cynical re: V-Day. Hallmark can keep churning out their stuff without my monetary contribution, thank you very much. I love hubby, he loves me, but we’re just not into that stuff.


Natalie on February 14, 2011 at 9:02 pm.

This post really speaks to me. I too feel romantically null and wonder if it’s a part in me that is broken. I could go into messy personal details but I won’t. But thank you for writing today, and every other day that you write.


Lesley on February 14, 2011 at 9:51 pm.



S on February 14, 2011 at 9:16 pm.

Gotta tell you, seeing Monae at the top of a post on this blog pretty much made my night. First time I ever saw that video (which was also the first time I heard the song), I cried. She’s incredible. Also, you. Incredible.

Also, the part where the back-up singers, well, back her up: “na na na, na na na, na na na na na nothing wrong with me!


Lesley on February 14, 2011 at 9:51 pm.

Fact: I cry every time I watch that video. Every time. There is something in that moment where she is trying not to cry, trying to grin and play it off, that grabs at a tender part of my soul.


foreveropera on February 14, 2011 at 9:50 pm.

I feel this way about not wanting children. It can be very hard not to wonder what’s wrong with me that I have no desire to have any. It seems to be a central part of being a woman, and yet, it’s the last thing I want.
Anyway, beautiful post as always.


JonelB on February 16, 2011 at 5:25 am.

I have no wish for my own larvae-things either, I’d be a horrible mother and my genetics suck.
But yeah, lately I’ve been having to deal with “get married, have kids” backlash from ATHEIST GROUPS I’m part of….seriously, atheism does not need to intrude on my body autonomy, religion does a good enough job.


Willow on February 15, 2011 at 12:03 am.

I watched the video, and it did not affect me emotionally one way or the other. I hate that they Autotuned her voice, which immediately alienated me, not to mention made me wonder if she can actually sing well without Autotune. And I’ve become so cynical about celebrities’ motives, I wondered if she was faking the crying / emotional upset. Oh well – to each her own.

V-day sounds like shorthand for “Vagina Day” for me. Would it be “D-day” for certain couples? (Not trying to make a joke, being serious.) V-day… hm. Must we abridge everything? Sometimes I wonder just how George Orwell was able to see what the future was going to be like… Reminds me of a Sheri S. Tepper novel, A Plague of Angels, in which the protagonist, Abasio’s, grandfather gives a quasi-rant about how the refinement of human speech allows our thoughts and expressions to have more nuance and complexity. Abbreviating everything eventually leads to our using the abbreviation instead of the abbreviated thing (“bra” comes to mind) and I… just feel a bit cynical about Valentine’s Day and society and people in general.

I feel like society expects me to have sex with my husband on this day, even though I recently underwent a LEEP (AKA “cone”) procedure and have pain Down There almost all the time (despite my GYN’s assurances that I’ve healed fine, etc., etc.), which makes sex uncomfortable. Why can’t I be one of the Happy People just for one day? Just one fucking day.


Veronica on February 15, 2011 at 5:07 am.

While I am quite romantic in some ways, the traditional things expected of man-woman romance has always given me the heebejeebies. Seriously, if you’re going to look into my eyes and tell me they are like pools you feel like you’re drowning in, you better be prepared to see some of that water irl as I cry tears of mirth.


JonelB on February 16, 2011 at 5:23 am.

“I see the reflections of the stars in the sky, dying in your eyes, and I want to spend forever getting lost in those reflections.”
Oh dude, even if he was a good poet I would DIE LAUGHING, literally gasping for air as I choke back tears from laughing so hard, and later getting hiccups from so much gigglage.
also “Limpid pools” XD


CraftyLuna on February 15, 2011 at 5:56 am.

I think there’s a difference between real romance, and commercialized generic “romance”. Real romance, imo, is when your partner does the little things hir knows you like, pays attention to you, shows you in the ways that are specific to you that you are loved and appreciated. Doesn’t take you for granted. Keeps up at least some of the gestures and behaviors they used in the beginning of the relationship, when they were still in the wooing stages. Something that says “You know how when we were first going out I couldn’t wait to be around you, couldn’t get enough of you, wanted to impress you, wanted so bad for you to like me back? Yup. Still feel that way.” And that’s going to be expressed differently in different relationships.


Teri B on February 15, 2011 at 10:13 am.

Honestly, I have so many friends like you–who say the same thing about not “getting” romance, feeling vaguely uncomfortable by its expectations, not needing it… and all of them have found a life partner, and are very happy together.

Meanwhile, I *want* the stuff you are “supposed” to want–I like long moonlit walks, yes, and sweet gestures, and presents–and I don’t mean receiving, my idea of romance is not something “done” to you as a girl, but something you and your beloved create together–and I *want* to be married, but find myself single long after all my “nonromantic” friends.

So honestly it seems to me that you are not the broken ones, you are the ones who are perhaps much better suited to love and life.


Lipton on February 15, 2011 at 6:23 pm.

What is romance, really? A friend of mine wants to one day be a published writer of romance novels, and yet whenever I read one of the many, ubiquitous titles published in that genre I rarely, if ever, recognize anything in them that I consider romantic.

But then, my less-than-zero experience with romantic relationships is rather outside of the norm. And I’ve reached a kind of peace with my eternal singleness. Really, the only way it’s impacted my life in the past year has been when I was trying to get a student loan to study for the Bar and I really could’ve used someone to cosign it. That and someone to do the dishes because law school + fibromyalgia = a metric buttload of dirty dishes.

I tend to call Valentine’s Day “VD-Day” mostly because I think I’m hilarious, not because I have any great hate for the holiday itself. Because it’s either a day that celebrates some Christian dudes named Valentine who died or it’s a day that Geoffrey Chaucer thought should be romantic because it was the day the “fowels chose their mates”, and either way I’ll still spend it the same way I spent the day before, surfing the internet. I might be alone but, fuck, sometimes life’s just easier that way.


JonelB on February 16, 2011 at 5:18 am.

My reaction to romance:
A friend, for Valentine’s day, posted this picture on facebook:

Conversation ensued:
“….Can I borrow a nickel?

OP: Oh Jonel, you have no romance in your soul!
(though that would be hilarious)

Me: I’m well aware, but now I’m laughing my butt off at the idea of that actually happening.
What can I say, my sense of humor, it controls me.

OtherDude: ‎1) “Oh yeah, how did that pun contest thing go?”
2) “I already submitted ten puns. You know how many won?”
3) “…?”
4) “No pun in ten did.”

OP: ‎:( you people.

Me: Romance: We’re too busy giggling to serenade you.

Most of mine are “…” “…” and then some line, such as “You have some sharpie on your face.” or “There’s something in your teeth.” or “I really gotta know what you use on your skin.”

OP: Oh dear.
I was still laughing at it later. This is really my reaction to romance though, not swooning, not happiness, a picture on facebook or a tweet or whatever, just a joke and random giggle at how redonk it really is.
Significantother and I spent Saturday out shopping for ingredients for a recipe he picked out. That was good enough. We had fun cooking and it meant more to learn a new recipe than it did to just go out to eat somewhere.


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