At the supermarket, the person scanning my groceries was talking to the person bagging my groceries about another employee. She said that the other employee was stressing out about her job, but she had nothing to be stressed about: “She has no husband, no kids. She has nothing! I have a husband and two kids.” Then she looked at me as if she expected me to agree with her.
I have been thinking about singlism – the stereotyping and stigmatizing of people who are single – for many years. I’ve done research on it, talked about it, and written about it. I should have been extraordinarily well-prepared to respond. But I was left speechless. The supermarket was crowded, and the practitioner of singlism went on to scanning the next customer’s groceries before I managed to say even one word.
I don’t mind her belief that single women are generally less stressed out than married women. Research suggests, for example, that single women who are not dating are less stressed than those who are. But the thought that a single person is never justified in feeling stressed out on the job, just because she is single and has no kids? No. That’s not okay. That’s the form of prejudice I call singlism.
Much worse, though, was the claim that, unlike the married woman with her husband and two kids, the single woman “has nothing.” That is a claim that dismisses as worthless every other person in your life other than a spouse or kids, and every other experience or pursuit that gives your life meaning. It is stunningly bigoted.
It is days later and I’m still not sure what I should have said. Maybe: “I’m 65, I have been single all my life, and I have no kids. But I don’t know why you think that means I have nothing.” I welcome you to contribute your better suggestions to the comments section.
I went home after that, and during a break from working, I read from the novel, This Is Where We Live. It wasn’t the respite I was looking for, because that book was also marred by singlism. Here’s what the author said about what one of her main characters, the married Jeremy, was thinking:
“Sometimes, Jeremy thought his friend would be single forever, living in his musky bachelor pad with only a dog for company, clumsily hitting on waitresses at restaurants, eventually dying in his La-Z-Boy while a Dodgers game played on mute.”
The book is considered a work of literary fiction, by a respected writer, published by a great publisher, and reviewed by prestigious publications. And yet, the author is peddling tired old insulting stereotypes about single men.
That wasn’t the only example in the book. The other protagonist, a married woman, lists the home she shared with Jeremy that she now wants to sell:
NEW LISTING: Lovingly renovated two-bedroom bungalow in Mount Washington. Fully remodeled bathrooms; new electrical, roof and hardwood floors; weatherproofed French doors onto a deck and views all the way to downtown. Charming period details throughout. A dream starter home for a lucky couple. $589,999.
The book is fiction, but I see a lot of this sort of thing in actual ads – an appeal to couples, and only to couples. As if their money is worth more than single people’s. As if a whole big demographic segment — and a highly relevant one, too — can simply be marginalized or ignored when you have something to sell.
Unlike some very serious and even life-threatening examples of singlism, the instances I have been describing here are all small stuff, light as feathers. But the small stuff is endless. It follows single people from supermarket check-out lines back home to the novels they open in search of some enjoyable down time. It contributes to the perpetuation of hurtful stereotypes. And as all good students of stigma know, you can get crushed by a ton of feathers.