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Visceral Reactions to Valentine’s Day

We’ve all heard it before…it’s the day that single people dread; they’re the miserable ones, overtaken by emotion due to the sudden exposure of their apparent ‘aloneness’ in painful contrast to the other end of the spectrum: the happy couple. People in relationships, on the other hand, are hated, eye-rolled at, ostracised by their ooey-gooey reactions to the day, showering each other with a set list of go-to gifts, PDA and bliss that mean they can show the world that they are loved. No matter the reaction to Valentine's Day, it always seems visceral: we abhor it or adore it. If you’ve seen the creatively titled film Valentine’s Day, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Pop culture has shown us again and again that if we’re single, we should wallow and scream Celine Dion’s wallowing classic ‘All By Myself’, or have a girls’ night filled with wine and sweet foods, lie on the couch depressed because a relationship status should define our happiness. Conversely, if we are in a relationship, the day should be thrown-up-on by heteronormative rose petals, we should be downright triggered if a partner doesn’t create a display of spectacle so grand it brings tears to our eyes. In the past, the day has come and gone without much attention from me regardless of my relationship status, but I’ve wondered if Valentine's Day will magically mean more now that I’m in my 20s. Will strong feelings emerge? So I asked a few people to see if the rom-coms hold up, if the ads and hallmark cards really do spark a visceral reaction to Valentine’s Day.

Here’s the question I confronted them with: “What’s your immediate, emotional response when I say ‘Valentine’s Day?’”

Woman, 22, single: “To quote She’s The Man, it’s totally archaic…well, I’m half kidding…I think it’s actually a holiday that demands maturity. Those who enjoy it most, I imagine, are most secure with themselves, happy to be in love. I think of non-romantic gestures though. I hate the thought of a restaurant having a set Valentine's Day menu. I hate gifts, I hate flowers, chocolates…it’s vomitrocious. I hate pet names. I think I like the day better being out of a relationship. I’m not into cliches. Those gestures or items just remind me that everyone is replaceable.”

I love what she says about how gifts that have come to symbolise love, like chocolates or expensive jewellery or roses…you know they would be given to anyone who that person was dating on the day. They don't necessarily represent a particular special knowledge of your partner, and they might not even make them feel loved. I feel like we should change Valentine's Day to a day on which we show someone in our lives, or multiple people that we love and really mean a lot to us, that we see them, specifically. We understand how they receive love, or their interests or values, and we do something - or yes even get them something - that shows we understand them and want to make them feel loved in a personalised, tailored way. She continued…

“There are definitely things that I like about it. I love the colors, it feels romantic, exciting, but also stupid. I think it’s consumer and profit-driven. I wish more people accepted that romantic love isn’t the only important thing. At the end of the day, it’s always fun to celebrate things.”

Man, 20, in a relationship: “I feel stressed! I feel anxious…I always feel there’s a demand…a cultural pressure to make the day important. If you don’t do anything at all you’re labelled a ‘loser’ or a ‘loner.’ If I don’t have plans or can’t be with my significant other, I feel obligated to have a response when asked what my plans are…something along the lines of ‘I’m going out,’ or ‘I’m with friends…’ Just don’t want to be known as ‘being alone.’ What does it mean to me? I view it as a dedicated event to celebrate with someone you love. My ideal day would be going on a date with my girlfriend…dinner, dessert and a movie at home. I do think it’s less important than it used to be. Now, it’s just another day. High school made it feel more omnipresent for me, knowing all my peers and feeling like they were watching to see what everyone was doing…university has made me more anonymous.”

The idea of Valentine’s Day having less power in university is an interesting one and suggests to me that the visceral reactions to Valentine’s Day many of us imagine are extreme precisely because of others’ judgemental gaze. It becomes a day about impressing others, or proving to them that you’re not by yourself, as if that’s the worst thing in the world. Me, I love being alone. If I hadn’t spent any time getting to know who I am, I wouldn’t know much of anything, but as it pertains to V-day, I would have no idea how to communicate to anyone how I receive and feel love or how to ask them what I can do to make them feel most appreciated and seen. Self-reflection and self-possession are essential in my mind. After all, you’ll be with yourself longer than anyone else.

Man, 57, married: “I’m not against traditions…but I do feel it is manufactured, a waste of time. That said, it also worries me…the pressure. It’s frustrating, artificial and a social construct above all. I do think we need more love in the world, though.”

Additionally, my own parents explained their school days to me where Valentine's Day was a time for competition and comparison. The number of blind or anonymous valentines each person received were counted and shown off, signalling to me that Valentine's Day was about status and peer pressure for them, as young people. Now, it’s very different than that for them though, and again this theme emerges of the older you get, the less people seem to worry about what others think and seem to focus more on what their ideal day really looks like.

Woman, 53, married: “All I really want to do is be with my husband and make chocolate strawberries. It’s the act of making something, the state of being together that matters to me.”

Moreover, I heard from a friend about his parent’s adulthood Valentine’s tradition and how it came to be. They were living together for the first time, all set to go out to dinner when his dad came down with food poisoning. He noted that most people wouldn’t consider hanging out with someone recovering from food poisoning a typically ‘romantic’ Valentine’s Day, but his mom cooked her now-husband’s favourite meal, surf and turf, and they watched a Bruce Lee movie. While they could have made this a one-off and brushed it off as a bad Valentine’s, this has become their yearly tradition.

Thus, I don't think pop culture, as per usual, offers an accurate account of adult’s feelings towards the day or experiences of the day. Personally, I’ve never had strong opinions about it, and I don’t think this is about to change just because I am entering my second decade. I pretty much feel indifferent. I love showing others I love them in some personalised way, hearing about the unique things others do to show someone, romantically or not, that they really care. In my 20s, I want to use Valentine's Day as an opportunity to show the really important people in my life what they mean to me.

Some of my favourite past V-days have been when my mom has gotten me and my sister pyjamas decorated with hearts, my boyfriend and I have custom-made eachother chocolate boxes with flavours and pieces we know are the other’s favourites, my sister and I have watched romantic movies,

I’ve been on hikes with friends, received cookies from them, and all of these have felt equally special, reminding me how lucky I am to have wonderful people in my life. I have come to realise that I feel a similarity between Christmas and Valentines gift-giving in that giving is better than receiving, and the day serves as an important reminder and excuse to do something that oddly feels uncomfortable and unnatural: to express in words or actions how much I am truly grateful for my closest circle.

I would highly encourage anyone, in a relationship, self-partnered and anything in between, to share and spread love with those who mean a lot to you. Or, go buy the big fluffy bear and box of chocolate complete with a red rose in hand if you think the traditions are the best! I think we just have to stop judging Valentine’s Day as the ‘worst holiday,’ and especially what other people decide to do, or not do, with their time. We, as a society, certainly don’t have the same emotional reactions to other celebrations. The ultimate message I received from talking to people is that reactions to

Valentine’s Day aren’t binary, they aren’t even really that extreme or visceral in a particular direction, contrary to popular belief. The responses are nuanced and take a superficial-labelled holiday and think deeply about it. Maybe we should all think about what the day means to us rather than assign labels to what might be right or wrong, take the pressure away and boil down the holiday for what it is at its core: a day to celebrate someone, multiple people, a pet, plant or place that you love… in any kind of way.

Illustration: Vera Rapp

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