Editor’s Note: FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth for February, 2022 is Redefining Love. We invite submissions on the many layers of love, throughout the month. If you’d like to contribute, kindly email your articles to email@example.com
Participation in myriad forms of transaction is now a precondition to qualify the criteria required to revel in the romance tradition. For instance, the desire to enter into a relationship or maintain an existing romantic commitment tends to involve in-person or virtual encounters, most of which require an adherence to socially acceptable norms of appearance.
While social submission to prevailing beauty norms isn’t particularly uncommon or unknown, repeated acts of ‘dressing up for a partner‘ predicate novel techniques of grooming beyond personal understanding of desirability.
Desirability has been reduced to visuality in more ways than one. Conformity isn’t just an acceptable option: it’s the only one. Based on personal understanding of what constitutes beauty, grooming is performed, which, for many women, may range from the application of cosmetic products to the commencement of hair removal.
In a scenario involving a partner, the private understanding of beauty and desirability is additionally oriented by an estimation of ideals that the romantic partner may like and approve. The burden multiplies: besides dressing up in accordance with the personal conception of beauty, the act now involves additional considerations, keeping in mind the partner’s choices and preferences.
Our increasing contingence on products that enable the performance of desirability benefits corporations, not necessarily our relationships. Companies thrive when we purchase commodities to doll ourselves up and, temporarily, conform to obsolete notions of beautiful appearance.
Unending consumption helps multinationals profit from our insecurities. While changing trends do impact our perception of beauty and desirability, the seeming impermanence of digital media cultures continues to consistently maintain our investment in performative beauty. What this suggests is that people aren’t considered desirable, but are rather made to be presented as desirable, thanks to the support of corporations.
Sometimes, even displays of physical affection are implicitly subsumed in vocabularies of transaction and exchange. When we are presented with a gift or a surprise, our most common response is the extension of romantic affection in the form of a hug or a kiss. Such moments of intimacy become expressions of gratitude to mark the recipiency of a product (for instance, a watch) or a service (for instance, purchase of tickets to a water park).
They exhibit our tendency to reward our partners with affection after they purchase and present us with something. Every act of thanking and rewarding with affection enacts positive reinforcement, encouraging our partners to continue their financial and emotional investment in purchase. The process of exchange never ends.
Self-proclaimed love gurus on social media often reiterate the importance of ‘maintaining the spark’ by building new experiences and surprising each other. In such a digitally-mediated economy of pleasure and romance, transactions involving gifts and services are common. What happens when such transactions gradually cease to exist?
Though intimacy isn’t solely limited to gift exchange, its contingence on gifts and surprises configures romance on various kinds of exchange, suggesting to some extent our increasing inability to understand romance beyond transactions enabled by corporate purchase.
It’s worth noting that such transactions may not even be feasible at times. Many cannot afford to participate in largely urban traditions of commodity exchange. This is precisely what gets neglected in debates proclaiming the significance of reciprocity in romantic relationships. Demanding reciprocation from a partner isn’t unreasonable, but many individuals are not financially capable of reciprocating the paraphernalia that asinine love gurus and careless advertising deem fundamental to romance.
When we limit our ideas of romance to transactions, we demand that individuals have access to sufficient financial capital to be eligible as potential partners. In doing so, we neglect the interconnected functioning of class and caste in and beyond South Asia.
Once triggered, this cycle of ‘romance’ continues. People buy things to dress up and meet their partners. They buy things to gift their partners. They get things from their partners. Behind such ‘hashtag-goals’, tend to emerge the narrative of lifelong togetherness, fueled primarily by our belief in a soulmate.
We commit to relationships formed on precarious financial exchange, accompanied by the exhausting emotional burden of anticipated transactions. In case of a committed unmarried couple, a breakup is, then, not a potential option but rather an outcome to be avoided.
One of my friends has, for instance, been contemplating a breakup since 2019. It’s 2022 and she’s still with her partner with whom she entered into a relationship in 2018. Twenty one years old, she is afraid that she might not find a suitable romantic replacement should she end her unsatisfying relationship.
When individual experiences of romance that we witness and encounter in our everyday lives collectively illustrate a pattern of hesitance, one guided by social expectations of togetherness, it’s important to rethink how useful and relevant these popular expectations are.
The fundamental problem with millennial and post-millennial belief in a soulmate is that it may make it difficult for us to exit emotionally or physically abusive relationships. Confined to a person who is supposedly meant for us, we may restrict ourselves to a relationship, or even a marriage, that is no longer worth continuing.
Our susceptibility to believe in a soulmate isn’t an outcome that exists in isolation to our social engagements. The rhetoric of soulmates gets reinforced and marketed through social and corporate avenues. A popular example of social mediation is the games ‘FLAMES,’ which, as far as I remember from third grade, is an abbreviation for ‘friendship, love, affair, marriage, enmity, sibling.’ Advertisements of jewelry, particularly love-bands and couple rings, constitute another example.
Romantic affection may be a profound human need for many of us, but it need not exist in the way it does. Romantic relationships are more than transactions. They are emotional attachments that offer systems of social and intimate support. If a relationship starts suffocating us, a detachment from our partners should be a viable possibility, not a stigmatised improbability.
Featured Image Source: The New York Times