My girlfriends told me, when he left me, that he didn’t deserve me. They told me that he was making a mistake, and that I was better off without him.
“If he doesn’t deserve me,” I thought, “Why am I the one who is so unhappy?” I nodded along when they reassured me, but I always knew that they were obligated to say these things. How could they tell me the truth? He had already moved on, his social media plastered with evidence of his new girlfriend. She had shiny brown hair, and big eyes, and a very good job doing something I could never be qualified for. I was the one sitting at home, re-reading email exchanges from when things were still good, and searching her name over and over again, looking for new information to irrationally hate. We all knew who really deserved whom.
This was years ago, and I still cringe at the person it all made me be. Having someone tell you, in so many words, “Not you, but her,” is like seeing yourself in an emotional funhouse mirror. Everything is distorted, everything is ugly, everything is bigger and more stretched-out than it should be. Before that, I would look in the mirror and see myself. When he chose her, I looked in the mirror and saw a collection of flaws — of motives for him to leave.
I buried myself in articles and essays and books and terrible self-help daytime talk shows that were supposed to tell me what men want in a woman. Maybe if I cut my hair to this length, or wore that much makeup (never too much, but just enough, you know?), things would be okay again. I would have to make fewer jokes, but still enough not to be an ice queen. The more I read, the more I agonized, the more I felt like I was walking on a tight rope — one side was “too much myself,” the other was “trying too hard.” One should never look like they’re trying too hard, especially not when they’re in the midst of trying so hard they’re giving themselves an ulcer.
I wondered what he wanted, but only saw him as an extension of every man. They were all this thing, and I was going to have to mold myself to be what they loved. Every girl on TV or in the magazines seemed like a slap in the face, the effortless messy buns and casual outfits that still looked refined and the carefree sense of humor that made every profile of them read like a checklist of things I would never be.
What do men want in a woman?
I think they want to be loved, like human beings. I think they want to feel understood, and cared for, and to be with someone who makes them laugh. I think they love beauty, but like many of us, can only take so much of it before it starts to feel like a burden. Everyone wants a model until you’re walking down the street with the model and everyone wants your model, I think. But I don’t know, I’ve neither been nor dated a model myself. I think that men are normal people, though, even though in the midst of my breakup everyone wanted to convince me that they were puzzles to be deciphered.
I think some men don’t want me, and that’s what doesn’t sell magazines with cover stories of how That Singer or This Actress was able to settle down and find love while still having enough time for loose curls and an oversized sweater that make them look sexily casual. “What did he want in me?” was a pointless question, because the girl he loved after me couldn’t have been more different — and that was the goal. She made him laugh and think and feel in ways I probably never did, and my desperation to steal some miraculous techniques from her only made me less appealing. She wasn’t magical, she was just her.
I see articles that tell me what men think about fashion trends or hairstyles or the way we speak at parties, and it exhausts me. I don’t care what some nebulous idea of “men” think about my choice to wear a long skirt or a high ponytail or have two glasses of champagne before dinner. I have people in my life — including, yes, a man — who have chosen to be there because of what existed there already. And when I was torturing myself over the loss of someone who never really wanted me, the idea that I could have changed his mind is what really killed me. Even if I had changed every part of who I was, he still would have been happier with the girl with the shiny brown hair, and it’s not that he didn’t deserve me, because the idea of deserving someone is silly in the first place. The only thing we deserve, I think, is a chance to be with someone who really makes us happy.