I got into a fight with a friend who knew best and I didn't believe her, and I was being so tiresome. And was really frustrated. I couldn't figure out why this thing [a relationship] I wanted more than anything else was just not happening. And I was pretty tiresome to listen to, I just wouldn't shut up about it.
Author Sara Eckel knows about relationships. Being in them, being out of them and being in love with the idea of well, being in love. As a veteran freelance writer penning articles about women's issues for the biggest international women's magazines in the biz, she's had years to amass information in the field. Now happily married, she's also spent years as an experienced single. And it was during that time, during a long phase in which she felt she needed to find out what was wrong, that she discovered an earthshattering truth: nothing was. Not really. She was human and, like the rest of us, may have made a misstep here and there, but that wasn't what was keeping her single. A lack of perfection or failing to adhere to an ideal of "what men want" was certainly not a problem.
So she set out to dispel that myth, and so many others, that bombard single adult women. What she came up with were 27 (wrong) reasons we're given for being unattached. She thoughtfully lays each out in her new book, along with copious research that proves why they're wrong. And why it's really not you.
I spoke with Sara recently about the motivation for her book as well as her personal evolution, which are both inextricably linked. I found out in her own words what she wants her work to achieve, and I couldn't help but ask her the burning question we all want to know: Are you the real life Carrie Bradshaw?
theFashionSpot: I read on Hairpin.com how your book proposal was bought, and about your relationship writing for The New York Times and thought, 'She's the real Carrie Bradshaw!' Are you? Does everyone ask that?
Sara Eckel: It's something I heard when I was single; it was kind of like I'd be at a party talking to a married friend or something about a date that I was on and maybe Sex and the City came up. As single women, we were just sharing our slap-happy stories about being single and someone would say, “Oh! Your life is just like, uh, Carrie Bradshaw's!”
Except I would think, "Yeah..she always has some really hot guy she's going out with…she seems to have a lot more disposable income than I do and a much nicer apartment." So there were a lot of ways that I really did not connect with Carrie. Even though I enjoyed the show. It kind of grated on me sometimes when people would make that comparison because I thought, "Um. Her life is a fantasy and mine is a struggle to pay the bills and my friends aren't always available for emergency brunches."
tFS: How did you start writing for The New York Times. How did you start writing that column, becoming a relationship freelance writer?
SE: I had been writing for women's magazines for a really long time. I started full-time freelancing in 1997. I used to write a column a long time ago about women's issues for a newspaper syndicate, where I had worked at one point. And then I started writing for women's magazines, just because, you know, they pay well. I kind of just fell into writing more about relationships and personal growth and things like that. Just because those were the stories that got assigned to me and I enjoyed doing them.
I wrote a modern love piece, which was "Oh I finally met a guy and I didn't have to do anything different or grow up. I could just be me." So that piece was really popular, back when people wrote letters, it was my first big magazine piece. I'd written a few stories for The New York Times and then two modern love essays. I wouldn't call myself a columnist, because I've written two pieces, but every week it's a different writer. I'm lucky to have published two.
tFS: In your interviews you have people like me trying to pull out information about your book, or put a slant on it through questions. What would you like to say about it?
SE: I spent a lot of years writing, and still do, for women's magazines. I was writing service magazine articles…how to fix yourself. I found the articles very useful to write. Also, because I was single and didn't want to be, I was using myself as the primary lab rat trying to test out this advice.
I think the conclusion that I came to is that actually—love—this issue of finding love is so particular and so peculiar that you are the best expert in your life. That no one else can really tell you how to find the right partner, who's the right partner for you, whether you should continue this relationship or whether you should leave it.
I really wanted it to be about helping women to uncover their instincts, to really respect their instincts about what's really right for them because I think there's so much advice out there that speaks to what women should do. It's helpful to a point, but it gets to a point that we get so overwhelmed with all of the expert advice that we lose sight of our own choice. I really do think most people actually know what is best for them. But we get so crowded with self-doubt because there are all these different opinions flying around. So that's the main thing I'm hoping women will get out of the book.
tFS: Was there a moment for you when you felt a turnaround in trusting your instincts?
SE: Yes, there was actually. I got into a fight with a friend who knew best and I didn't believe her, and I was being so tiresome. And was really frustrated. I couldn't figure out why this thing [a relationship] I wanted more than anything else was just not happening. And I was pretty tiresome to listen to, I just wouldn't shut up about it. And at one point she said, “You're not going to find anybody until you get right with yourself.” I got really pissed off because I thought, "What are you talking about? All I do is go to yoga and meditation"…We did not come to any agreement on that day.
And then I came back home, she was on the west coast, I was thinking about it afterwards and I was just so mad. [But] at a certain point I realized I was trying to get her to say this thing, which I was trying to get all my friends to say, which was, “There's nothing wrong with you. This is just luck. There's no actual reason why I have somebody and you don't. It's just dumb luck.” I realized at a certain point that's why I was badgering them so much, I was trying to get them to say this to me. I realized that wasn't going to happen.
Why did I need them to say it to me? I could just know that for myself. That's when it kind of clicked for me. That I needed to stop talking about this. I needed to just know for myself that I believed it was just about finding the right person and good luck to meet the right person; I didn't need to boohoo anymore. I was fine. I was not a perfect person, but I was good enough.
That was the moment that I stopped inviting other people to try and solve the problem of me. I realized that I was really contributing to this thing that was making me so angry about people saying, “Well, maybe you need to do this, maybe you need to do that.” They didn't know. They were just trying to come up with something to say.
It made it much easier to decide: You know what, I didn't choose this; it's how my life is and I'm not going to get into a big self blame thing about it. That was about [age] 36. And it wasn't like the next day I met my husband…but I did feel a lot better after that.
tFS: Was there a singular moment when you realized you should write a book about this?
SE: Yes. I had written a novel that didn't sell and that really sucked. So I was kind of trying to figure out what to do next. My idea of myself was that I had to be a literary novelist. At a certain point I realized that this topic that I wrote about was the thing that opened the floodgates. It was the thing that had people writing to me, it was the thing that made people say, “Thank you, for writing this.” And I thought maybe instead of trying to be successful, I should just try to think about being useful. And this is the thing I do that helps people. Why don't I do that instead of a thing that will sound really cool at a cocktail party?
tFS: Your book is not only a joy to read for its charismatic style, but for the valuable research you include. How did you go about collecting that data? Where did you even start?
SE: I kind of had a lot already, and before I started the book I'd been kind of keeping a tally. The chapter on self-esteem, where I say that self-esteem isn't some magic pill we were told it was, that was something I'd done for Cosmo International and I'd interviewed a psychologist about self-compassion, which was her area of research.
I think I'd been keeping tabs on this stuff for a while and thinking about this stuff for a while so that when I wrote the book I already had a lot that I'd bookmarked on my browser.
tFS: Were there any interesting bits of research or information you can recall that didn't make the cut into print?
SE: I'm very obsessed with this idea that women are told personal happiness and professional success are at odds and so I looked at the Forbes most powerful women's list and 75% of them are married. So the CEO of PepsiCo, her career didn't get in the way of finding love.
This is something where I think my editor thought I was going too far afield. This idea that what makes you successful in your career will work against you in your personal life and that you have to develop an alter ego when you're with a guy because he won't be able to handle the tough cookie that you are at work.
And actually, women are bringing a lot of soft skills to the workplace and that is correlating with increased profits.
tFS: You're very up front in your book about being single through most of your 30s. And in your book, you're candid about the intense soul searching you did to try and force yourself into this perfect place to find "the one." Do you think our society's obsession with a woman's age fueled that quest for you?
SE: Oh yeah! I mean yeah, there was definitely a sense of "30 and single, oh my god!" I definitely had a sense when I turned 35 of "Oh, it's over. That's all folks." I had this strong sense I was no longer this viable person to date, which is crazy because lots of women over 35 date. I had a very strong sense of being over 30 and single as being an outlier.
tFS: Did you hear about the woman who's a med student and just sold her virginity for $800,000? She's turning it into a feminist statement, saying it brings awareness to the double standards that are still put on women about the quality of their character as it relates to some idea of promiscuity. Have you heard of this?
SE: No, oh my god! I think I saw a headline that I didn't read…wow. If she doesn't go through with it, then it's a really fascinating and provocative feminist statement. If she does go through with it, I can't judge her, I guess. Well, not I guess—I can't! Um, I mean I'm just thinking about..I don't know if you watch Mad Men, Joan sleeping with that guy…there's got to be that moment when you actually go through with it.
I might have to get back to you on that! What do you think of it?
tFS: Hm, well I think she's using an idea of feminist principles to justify her choices, which is convenient for her.
SE: Yeah, that sounds right.
tFS: I do kind of get her point that she's making, which is, “If I want to do this with my body, if I want to sell myself, I should be able to do it and I shouldn't be judged as a slut or a woman with loose morals because I'm making a business deal and it happens to be with my body. I think that's the implication there. So on one hand I'm like, "OK, more power to you." On another hand, "Are you hiding behind some feminist ideal to justify this action for yourself?"
SE: Yeah, you're right, it is very convenient to wrap yourself up in these high ideals when the truth is she's collecting a lot of money. People set up these crowdfunding pages for their plastic surgery…for anything. It's just the way that people sell themselves now. There's something about trading your dignity for cash that seems to be quite increasingly prevalent. And it may be more of that than an actual feminist statement.