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50 Shades of Single

shadesofcolorIn my writings on single life, I have a lot to say about singlism, the ways in which single people are stereotyped and stigmatized and discriminated against. That includes – for single women, especially – the derogatory terms that have been hurled at them.

In her new book, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own (which I reviewed for Psych Central), Kate Bolick reminds us that single women have not always been portrayed in entirely demeaning ways:

“She’s selfless: Lady Liberty, Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa. She’s charmingly eccentric: Mary Poppins, Holly Golightly, Auntie Mame. She’s powerful: Rosie the Riveter, Wonder Woman, Joan of Arc.”

Bolick also describes many different shades (okay, maybe not 50) of people who live alone:

  1. “The recluse or hermit – the secular person who shuns human society in all forms – tends to be regarded as eccentric, usually with disdain.”
  2. “The loner is romanticized as a rebel, as long as he’s a he…”
  3. “Social aloners” such as monks and nuns “live alone with like-minded people.”
  4. The “gregarious recluse” is “easily drained by being around others, but…energized by parties and conversation.”
  5. “Turbulent aloneness” is practiced by those who have turbulent romantic relationships and end up “seesawing between periods of intense connection and isolation.”
  6. The artist or bohemian is the “most glamorized version.”

In discussing the many shades of meaning ascribed specifically to single women, Bolick noted:

“Which is also to say that in spite of her prevalence – demographers say one-third of every female population is unmarried – the single women is nearly always considered an anomaly, an aberration from the social order.”

In contemporary American society, the proportion is greater than a third, and more likely (depending on how you count) greater than half. We single people – single women and single men – are more like the norm than some oddity in need of explanations and quirky appellations.

By pairing the “Spinster” title with the subtitle, “Making a life of one’s own,” and by just about everything else she says in the book, Bolick is trying to reclaim the “spinster” word, shaking off all its old frumpy connotations and infusing it with something altogether admirable, as has been done, for example, with “queer.”

In a particularly compelling section of the book, Bolick interviews the eminent social psychologist Hazel Markus about her notion of “possible selves” – “our ideas about who we wish to someday be, as well as who we’re afraid of becoming” (Bolick’s paraphrase).

We are, of course, in dire need of more of those positive possible selves for single people. As Markus noted,

“We need much better and many more models. We need movies where women are attractive and interesting and have great lives and may not be married.”

She then added the profoundly important point that images and imaginings are not enough. We need institutionalized supports:

“Schools, workplaces, laws, norms, the media – they all need to make it clear that there are other ways to be a woman or a member of one minority group or another.”

Abstract red swirl image available from Shutterstock

50 Shades of Single

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single." Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2015). 50 Shades of Single. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Apr 2015
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