I Completely Lost Myself Trying To Be “The Cool Girl”

Photographed by Rachel Cabitt.
From the time I was in elementary school, I was aware of the fact that there was a certain breed of woman that straight guys preferred: the Cool Girl. I may not have known what to call her, but my fifth-grade self would sit on the swings during recess, in my dress I didn’t want to get dirty with butterfly clips in my hair, and check out the dynamics of the other girls and boys on the playground. The popular girls who the boys "liked" back then (whatever the hell that means in primary school) were the girls who would run around and play football with them. When I shared my realisation with my parents, they confirmed that, sure, a lot of little boys liked girls who could hang. "Some of them will grow out of it and realise they like girls like you," they assured me.
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Well, that didn’t exactly happen. As I grew up, I was able to recognise the hetero Cool Girls in just about every stage of life I was in. In middle school, she’d play video games and watch South Park. In college, she’d down whiskey shots and discuss batting averages. As I entered my 20s and began dating more, I recognised that this "girl" was the type of woman most dudes seemed to go ga-ga over. Then, in 2014, with the release of the film adaptation of Gone Girl, the term "Cool Girl" entered into the millennial lexicon. As Gillian Flynn wrote in the novel, this is the type of "girl" who "smiles in a chagrined, loving manner and lets [her man] do whatever [he] wants." She is basically "the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain." Hearing the concept laid out so succinctly validated so many of my own insecurities about how I fell short of societal expectations of how a woman should make herself appealing to men (and judging by the barrage of smart reaction pieces about the Cool Girl that followed, many women on the internet felt the same way).
Unfortunately for me, I’ve never been a Cool Girl. I am overly analytical, sometimes earnest, definitely neurotic, and extremely emotional. If I’m pissed, or happy, or sad, you know it. "Chill" is not a word I’d use to describe myself. But since society has told us that men are more interested in cool, hot chicks who are into the things they’re into, are chill with casual sex, and who never freak out over an ignored text, for a long time I suppressed my natural, rigid feelings and plastered on a smile. My college boyfriend was obsessed with prog rock, so I downloaded Genesis and Rush to my iPod — even though I hated it. When I worked behind a bar in my early 20s, I started shooting Jameson to impress one of the regulars I thought was a fox, even though the taste made my stomach turn. I met a guy on OkCupid who said he was into Russian literature and jazz, so I bought a copy of Anna Karenina and started listening to Miles Davis.
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In the back of my head, I always knew that this wasn’t who I was. I was able to step outside myself and recognise that this performance I was putting on was full Cool Girl — especially once Flynn laid out the concept in her book. I’d think, Is this what I should really be doing? But then Jennifer Lawrence would hit the red carpet in a Dior gown and talk about how uncomfortable it was, and how much she wished she had some McDonalds, and men would swoon. So I carried on the charade, even after knowing full well what I was doing. It was a seriously alienating time — one in which I completely lost myself. I was so concerned with living up to what I thought these guys wanted that I forgot who Maria was.

I met a guy on OkCupid who said he was into Russian literature and jazz, so I bought a copy of Anna Karenina and started listening to Miles Davis.

But around February of last year, I had an important realisation that helped me start acting less like the Cool Girl and more like myself: The men weren’t the problem. They’d told me exactly who they were from the beginning. I just chose to project my own manufactured reality onto them in order to keep them around. I’m not saying that I blamed myself for the unfair standards placed on women; I simply decided that there was only one variable I could control in these situations: how I reacted to the pressure to be "cool." So I slowly, but surely, began expressing my actual feelings around the men I was dating.
And I realised very quickly that this less sanitised version of myself was not the type of "girl" these guys wanted to deal with. One day, I was talking to a man who asked me what I was looking for relationship-wise. Usually, I’d say, Nothing serious or I’m just going with the flow. But this time, I told him that I wanted to find someone who was stoked about the possibility of building a real connection. He never messaged me again.
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At first, I was horrified. Once he got even a whiff that I wanted a commitment, he ran away at such a breakneck pace that it confirmed everything society had been telling me about straight men: They wanted girls who were chill, not women who wanted a relationship. But there was a small voice in the back of my head that said, Maybe it’s just this guy who wasn’t looking for a relationship. Maybe there are men out there who want what you want so that you don’t have to lose yourself to keep them.
Luckily, that was the voice I decided to listen to. And it was hard. But the more I practiced, the better I got at asserting myself and my wants and needs when it came to relationships. I met a guy at a bar who happened to be friends with some guys I knew in college. We hit it off, went on a few dates, and then after about three weeks I got the text message I always seemed to get: one that appeared after two days of silence in which he asked to meet up because there were things he wanted to talk about.
I knew what was coming, so I told him just to text it, since I didn’t want to waste time on what I knew would be a disappointing meet-up. He said he felt like I was confused about what our relationship was, and that it seemed like I was looking for something more serious, and he wasn’t. I took a deep breath, and typed back a response: You’re right — I am looking for something serious. Not off the bat, but the guys I want to be spending time with are those who aren’t too scared to allow something to develop naturally. I don’t expect you to be my boyfriend tomorrow, but if you’re more interested in putting up arbitrary boundaries before I’ve even decided whether I like you or not than actually getting to know me, then I think it’s best we don’t see one another.
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He didn’t answer.

Once I started being fully honest with myself, I realized that instead of getting the guy to like me, it was important that I take the time to figure out whether I like him.

But this time, instead of being horrified, I felt totally fucking badass. I’d told him exactly what I expected from him, and in doing so, I recognised exactly what I was looking for myself. Once I started being fully honest with myself, I realised that instead of getting the guy to like me, it was important that I take the time to figure out whether I like him. I was so concerned with tweaking myself to fit what I thought he wanted, that I never took the time to understand if a partnership with him was what I actually wanted.
So, I stopped pretending to like prog rock, or Russian literature, or Jameson on the rocks, and started listening to the things that actually mattered: how passionate they were about their work, whether they wanted a relationship, how important family was to them, where the last cool place they traveled to was. I soon realised that, for me, those things were the foundations for real connections — and that the way I was trying to connect with men before was totally shallow. There are some men who still balk at the fact that I’m so forward about who I am and what I’m looking for. But I’ve also been able to more easily spot the guys who are interested in the same things I am. And guess what? Those men also appreciate the labels and the boundaries. They’re just as un-chill as I am.
I may not fit society’s version of "cool," but I do think what I’ve gained from ditching that trope is a lot cooler. Instead of treating a date like an audition, I now see it as a low-pressure interview — one in which I’m the person behind the desk instead of in front of it. And for me, getting to this place took more than simply identifying what was wrong with the Cool Girl. I had to actually take that knowledge and use it to change my behaviour in order to make a connection that meant something to me. I’m still that butterfly clip-wearing fifth grader who didn’t want to dirty her dress at heart. And someone out there will love and appreciate me for just that.
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