Every 6-8 months, in yet another effort to connect with someone when leaving it up to chance leads to encounters that are few and far between, I make a new profile with some online dating service. I became so enraged over a year ago with two dating services that I demanded to have my profiles not simply deactivated but destroyed. Believe me, you have to go through a lot to make that happen, but it was worth it to know that my pictures could not be used in advertising or the many thousands of dead-end profiles that never go away.

So this past weekend, I made a new profile on a different site. Not a difficult task–much less to fill out than before–and in an hour I had one posted. My first mistake was to swipe the wrong direction when I was trying to just dump a lot of matches quickly. I swiped to ACCEPT and to send something that said I wanted to meet them. That resulted in a deluge of mail. Ugh. And it was my mistake for not reading what to do. But I received one email that looked intriguing, and the man asked if I wanted to meet.

I wrote back, “I dunno…maybe?” And I explained, “look, I just activated a profile, I’m having cold feet, not feeling so good about this now that the profile is live, can I think about it?” So he was nice and said of course, and after several more hours reading up on other guys who clearly were not a match, I relented and said to the first guy, “your profile has very little info. Can you tell me a little more about yourself?”

He did. He told me he was a teacher in a local school district. Well, that lowered my guard. I can talk to people in academia, no problem. I have much in common with educators and feel less worried about that initial meeting than I would otherwise. And since teaching is so important–my career is the biggest thing in my life, mainly because I teach what I like to write and read about in my free time–I do “click” with teachers often.

So I said “sure, let’s meet.” We made arrangements to do so today after work. I actually saw one of my Artemis archetype classes right before going to meet him, and let’s just say I was glad for that.

Don’t get me wrong. This guy is one hell of an eligible bachelor.  In fact, I feel like some women might call me crazy for telling such a handsome, athletic, intelligent, and polite prospect that I really didn’t think I was sold on the idea of dating anyone, period. This is true–I am a little ambivalent about giving up the  freedom of my singledom for couplehood. But the greater issue is that I just sensed that he wasn’t right for me. Eventually I realized that the reason was the same thing that has caused me to back away from seeing the last person I met a few months ago, as well as the same reason why I don’t respond to a majority of queries I get in writing

And it has everything to do with why I’m teaching the Artemis seminar.

Before I met this man,  I had been talking with my class about the documentary I showed, MissRepresentation, which opened their eyes to how much women are valued for their looks yet not their accomplishments or intelligence. I  realized that this man had just demonstrated exactly the paradigm we had critiqued. I had the distinct impression that this guy was “choosing” me for someone to date purely on looks and externalities.

I don’t see myself as stunning, but he seemed to think I am. Ok, fine. Beauty lies in the beholder’s eyes, to put a little twist on the cliché. But aside from that, I watched how he seemed to make a mental note of only the physical things about me. His eyes lingered on my fingernails and rings. On my jewelry. On my hair. On my dress. The first thing he said to me was how “amazingly beautiful” I am. Honestly? That is a turnoff for me if someone I’ve only just met says it.  I think that a stranger who opens with this kind of statement, in writing or in person, is laying it on a little bit thick. I feel like guys we know well that we would like to hear this from often can’t spit such words out, while guys we don’t know drop it indiscriminately, without meaning, to get our attention. Also, beauty is inside and out, and to say I’m beautiful, or that my pictures don’t do me justice, may be meant to be flattering, but I see it as something I don’t “need” or “want” from a stranger. It immediately puts the focus on “how I look”, not “what makes me tick.”

From my perception, everything went downhill from there. For the next 90 minutes, he never once asked what subject I taught. Never once asked what department I teach in. I brought up that I published non-fiction. He never once asked what I wrote about. I mentioned that I had just come from a class that went better than planned. He never once asked what the class was about or what we discussed. And remember, he is a career educator.

My profile says how much I love my cats. He never asked about them. They are like my children. He has children, so I remembered to ask about them. I was genuinely interested despite the fact that I don’t have kids. In fact, he told me much about his upbringing, but he never asked about my parents or if I had siblings.

He asked about my hobbies and interests and I told him that my career bled into my personal life by choice because I’m a writer. He said, “anything else?” I said I read a lot and I cross stitched. He said I could make him something for his office. I said, “those things take an awful lot of time.” He said, “I know, but I have a space on the wall that is empty.”

He asked me on 2 additional dates during the time we spoke, and I said no to both when I got this little kick in my gut that said “Susan, this doesn’t feel right at all.” I’ve never been asked to go on dates so soon. This was the equivalent of my walking up to someone on the street and 15 minutes later committing to exploring a romantic adventure with him. I wondered in my mind if other women would love being asked so quickly, or if other women would get into a car with someone they just met to drive somewhere together. But based on his externalities–poise, appearance, career position, etc.–I do think some women would be tempted.

I had such a battle going on in my head. I kept thinking “what’s wrong with me that I am not loving this attention, loving his interest, loving the fact that he is clearly and openly wanting to see me again? Isn’t this how blind dates are supposed to go if they go well?”

And that question, the “what’s wrong with me?” part, came back to me an hour later as I drove up to my house, seeing the weed-choked driveway and thinking about the dishes piled in the sink and the vacuum that needed to be run. I shouldn’t be sitting there wondering what is wrong with me when I meet someone. Anyone. It doesn’t have to be a meeting that is meant to determine whether I go on a date or not. It could just be meeting a new friend or colleague. Should we seriously even think such a question when we meet someone if our instinct says “You are really perfect for someone, but you’re not perfect for me.”

I don’t think so.

See the reason online dating is a total bust for an introvert like me in this tiny little state is that I take a very long time to warm up to people UNLESS I just hit that comfort zone instantly. It’s happened with some colleagues. We just click. I guess I’d like to think that can happen with a potential romantic partner.

But other times romantic partners do build over a long period of time, and those friendships become more. I don’t think my preferring this sort of thing makes me have trust issues. I actually tend to fall into trusting people (assuming they will be good people) early on. I think it has to do with trusting myself, my inner voice. And I have trust issues if I ignore that inner voice that guides me.

Being an introvert who can play the extrovert game well (because you can’t teach for a living if you can’t do that), I can navigate my way through a conversation with a stranger with what looks like to him or her like ease. But if I don’t get the sense that the words I’m saying matter–that my greatest efforts and career and fur-kids matter–and only my looks do–I feel like I’m not being valued for all of me. And in that situation, it takes real work to come off like I’m comfortable.

At some point, this very eligible bachelor with a very good external image said that he had imagined my voice from my pictures and he was pleasantly surprised to find that I had a very soothing voice, the kind of voice he could just relax listening to for hours. And the feminist in me kicked into high gear then–the little voice of my intuition shouting, “what, and do I exist to PLEASE you?” Again. Conflict in my head. Because some women might not find anything wrong with this because he was probably trying to flatter me. But if the words I’m saying aren’t as important as the sounds I make, is this person ever going to care about who I am inside?

I thought about the alternate ending I read about in an interview with the stars from the film Ex Machina. In it, Ava speaks to the helicopter pilot and the film changes to her point of view. We realize there are no words or human language coming into her synthetic brain, but instead, “pulses and recognitions.” In other words, she does not process language the way that we do. Her consciousness is different.

And that’s what I thought about me and the fantastic catch of the day from Plenty of Fish: we don’t speak the same language. Because in my language, a woman’s worth is bound up in her goals and dreams and accomplishments; the things that make her proud of herself and feel confidence and self-esteem; the things she will carry with her all her life.

I asked this man to tell me about his worst online dating experience, and he told me that he had a 7 minute date with a woman who told him that she simply wanted to date a man who could be arm candy. He said that he ended the date at 7 minutes because she was shallow and he felt she didn’t care about the person inside. He said, “she wasn’t a beautiful enough woman to get away with such a statement, but you are.” Interesting, no?

Overall, the man who had the very best external image I’d ever come across turned out to be the very most incompatible with me, and the conflict all comes down to a language barrier. Because I passed his tests of beauty, vocal tone/sound, and ability to hold what he felt was a stimulating conversation, he expressed a sincere desire to see me again. And yet in the end, he didn’t pass my tests. For to pass my tests, you need to value me for everything I am: not just what’s on the outside.

I am reminded of something a young man said in the Artemis class today. He said “guys learn that if they think a girl is attractive, they will talk to her, but if they think she isn’t, they won’t.” This is a simple statement, yet it is profound. There are plenty of men who don’t find me attractive for various reasons, but this one did, so he talked to me and wanted to talk some more. It left me wondering, would he have given me his phone number if he thought I was too plain or too fat or too ugly?  Should I, like the protagonist of the fairy tale Donkeyskin, blacken my face and clothe myself in a dirty hide to see who really desires me for what is inside?

In any case, I was grateful for the discussions with my students today on women’s worth. I thought of them when I was sitting there with this man and wondered if the young women in particular would have felt that kick in the gut I did and left the meeting early, or if some would have gone on the date, swayed by his external appearance. I couldn’t blame them if they had, for this is the very thing the media preaches to them on a daily basis. My hope is that down the line, after this class or years into the future, if any of them happen to be in a similar position, that the red flags will go up and they will truly think about what it means to not have your life’s work matter as much as your poise and appearance.

I’m a firm believer that there are people out there for some if not most of us. But they aren’t the people whose interactions with you make you question if something is wrong with you for not choosing them, and they definitely need to both speak our language and hear our words.

That night when I got home, I mused to myself, “You don’t bring a guy so focused on his own and others’ appearances to a house you rarely vacuum.” I laughed out loud at this epiphany. No, you most certainly don’t. Instead, you bring a guy who loves your passion for your work and for the things you create, nurture, and love. A guy who loves the way you look even when your hair is a mess and your makeup smeared. A guy who wants to talk to you for hours so you can both learn something about each other, about knowledge, and about the world.

And unless I meet that kind of partner, there is nothing wrong with being a little bit like Ava, singular, unique, and free, speaking and hearing my own language, surrounded by my unkempt, overgrown, and autonomous garden of Eden.

1 Comment on “Ignore My Image, and Instead, Hear My Words

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