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Jewish World Review Dec. 31, 2001/ 16 Teves 5762

Suzanne Fields

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Consumer Reports

A kick from champagne and a kiss -- NEW YEAR'S EVE, like Valentine's Day, is one of the festive holidays that forces the issue of "togetherness.'' Most of us want to be with someone we care about, someone who sees us as special. A kiss is (maybe) just a kiss, but when the clock strikes 12 it's reassuring to know that the someone you're kissing is the someone you want to have in your life for the next year.

That's why New Year's Eve is fraught with anxiety. It carries heavy baggage about youth and age, the markers of time marching on, memories redolent with love's labors lost (and sometimes won). Such feelings surface among those who are married and those who are not, but I'll bet my second glass of champagne that the women most afflicted with the burdens of "great expectations'' for the new year are single professional women in their 20s and 30s, who have reaped the greatest rewards from feminism -- and suffered the greatest agitations that accompany success.

In the past three decades, according to the Census Bureau, the proportion of 20- to 24-year-old American women who haven't married has doubled from 36 to 73 percent. Not so troubling, given that women are less inclined to marry quite that young these days. But the number of unmarried women between 30 and 34 has more than tripled, from 6 to 22 percent. That's a little more scary, when biological clocks begin ticking so loud. (Men are still so deaf they often can't hear the ticking.)

"Bridget Jones' s Diary,'' the best-selling book and a hit movie in 2001, tells the story of a 30-something single woman in London who sums up her New Year's resolutions with a list of the men she must learn not to go out with: "alcoholics, workaholics, commitment phobics, people with girlfriends or wives, misogynists, megalomaniacs, chauvinists, freeloaders, perverts.'' She's trying to be funny, but the list hits close to the bone of her reality and that of a lot of other single women her age.

The Economist magazine identifies single men and women in their 30s as a major target for the creative consumer economy. Professional women no longer require men to spend money on them for finery, fine wine or gourmet dinners. Many earn as much money as their male counterparts in medicine, law and business. But it's the women, not the men, who focus on the hourglass, with the sand falling ever faster. Why else are all those anti-wrinkle creams ads in young women's fashion magazines? Age does not separate the men from the boys, but it sure does color the difference between the women and girls.

Beauty, unfortunately, remains in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder who counts in this equation is the bachelor. Joan Collins can marry a man half her age, but she, after all, is Joan Collins. Single women in high-maintenance professions find it difficult to be fetching at work when they're competing with men for the same accounts, clients or assignments. A single man may delight in swimming or skiing with a woman on holiday, but that same woman working up a sweat at a rowing machine or lifting weights after work is somewhat less than alluring.

Looking for men in all the wrong places is a problem nearly everywhere. A professional woman who goes to a juice bar, gym or gourmet deli at the end of the day often discovers that she's in a setting that attracts a high proportion of homosexual men who share her sophisticated tastes in food, culture and fashion, but hardly enlarges her marriageable opportunities.

In "Sex and the City,'' the popular HBO sitcom that lives up to its name, single women socialize over sisterhood suppers. Nearly every episode shows them to have more fun talking ) about men than talking to them.

Some women see one silver lining emanating from Hollywood, of all places, where Meg Ryan at age 40 is actually seven years older than her leading man, Hugh Jackman, in the romantic comedy "Kate and Leopold.'' But that's an exception that merely proves an old rule. How many beautiful female stars in their 40s and 50s have the romantic box office appeal of Michael Douglas, Mel Gibson or Harrison Ford?

So some single women in their 30s will gather this New Year's Eve to watch the video of "Bridget Jones's Diary.'' Like Elizabeth Bennett in Jane's Austen's "Pride and Prejudice,'' Bridget finds that the stuffy but otherwise attractive rich and handsome suitor "Mr. Darcy'' loves her, after all. Maybe it'll be an omen.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS