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On 'Swipe Culture' And Dating While Fat

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Tonight, I was meant to go on a first date with a man who I met online. He seems funny, clever, kind and cute, but I’m relieved he canceled. Instead, I’ll be taking the bus home where I will cook some pasta with halloumi and chorizo and watch Insecure until I fall asleep on the sofa.

My new plan is hardly exciting, let alone romantic. So why do I feel so content? It’s not because the guy no longer appeals to me — he likes “Sexy Sax Man” and Hamilton; how could I resist?! No, it’s because I am scared.

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I am what fashion calls “plus size,” what doctors term “overweight,” and what the boys I went to school with would laughingly refer to as “fat.” I am a size 18 in many stores and my body type is supposedly the average in the UK, where I live. But it feels like allies and people of similar shapes are few and far between in fashion, the industry in which I work.

When I’m in the mood to meet someone, I often use dating apps, where I feel forced to lay my “flawed” body bare in my profile. If I don’t make it clear that I’m fat, I worry I’ll be accused of catfishing or lying and end up disappointing the poor sap who fell for what must have been a masterful use of filters and Photoshop.

My body doesn’t have the features many men and women think make being fat okay; my wide hips are not in proportion to my cup size, and my big ass is wider than it is round. While I appreciate how a curvaceous, Kardashian-like figure is now viewed as desirable, I can’t say I share their attributes. Those hourglass figures remain unachievable for many women.

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We all have our insecurities, and dating puts us up for judgement, which is particularly scary in swipe culture. But weight is an equalizer when it comes to criticism; society will not value you on any level if you are fat — and it’s not just deemed to be unattractive physically. You’re also lazy, stupid and perhaps even unable to perform sexually. The judgement attached to size is horrendously unfair at both ends of the scales, but fatness is something we’re told is safe to mock and be disgusted by.

Even if by some miracle a man finds me attractive, I worry he will be questioned by his friends as to why — Does he feel like he has to settle? Does he have a fetish? Does he just want a girl who is probably so grateful to have a boyfriend she’ll be okay with him cheating? I have the same worries when a guy I am seeing is of a similar size to me. And it often feels like there’s a double standard for slim women paired with bigger men. Men are “allowed” to be fat and can still be considered attractive while it’s a cardinal sin for women.

I’ve been single for a few months now because I wanted a break from dating. Now that I’m open to the idea of getting back out there, I’m frightened that all of the self-care I’ve cultivated will fall away. I worry that people think I deserve to be single because of my size. I was cheated on weeks before I was due to get married, and I know that these insecurities are related to that event. I felt like the shock, pain and humiliation were almost to be expected. Of course, my fiancé would stray, given my appearance, even after a 13-year relationship during which my weight was not a negative factor.

I don’t deserve romance, sex or love because I am fat, and so anyone who takes the leap of faith to date me should be vetted closely first to check that they’re sane. I feel like they need to fill out a questionnaire before meeting me to make sure they’ve read the T&Cs, with all my vital statistics on the page in plain sight. I fear meeting someone for a first date unlike much else; I worry that the man will feel disappointed at best, misled at worst. And if they’re disappointed, I know there’s only one thing they need to say to justify it to others: “She was fat.”

Insulting phrases I’ve heard over the years have stayed with me, even if I wasn’t on the receiving end. For example, “A fat girl with no boobs is God’s cruelest joke.” I’m no pin-up or hourglass, but I happen to mostly like my body. I don’t want to change it dramatically — my goals are to feel strong and toned and fit before considering if I want to lose weight. I’m not envious of other women’s slim thighs, more so their ability to run 5km.

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My health and fitness goals are for me, but it feels like debate about my body is public property. I am made to feel as though I’m wrong, so why should I expect to find someone right? The implication is that I can’t hope to find a partner unless I lose weight. However, I feel like my fat is a part of my identity; changing my body, even if it was for “the better” feels like I’d be changing who I am. But I don’t want to have to change myself to find love. I strongly suspect the dramatic weight loss to attain the “acceptable” body would not last, seeing as I’d have to change my lifestyle, too. As well as changing my body, I’d also be changing how I spend my time. I would be unrecognizable. And despite the risk, I really do want to be seen as I am.

What may just be my paranoia about my weight isn’t helped by the zeitgeist focus on wellness and athleticism. When scrolling through Tinder, I am in the minority — it is truly a challenge to find someone who doesn’t list “going to the gym” as one of their interests or hasn’t got a photo of themselves running a marathon as part of their profile. Everyone seems very keen to point out how frequently they feel the burn. Sometimes, I wonder if it’s because they just really, really want you to know they’re not fat. I actively avoid anyone who writes “I do love my gym,” because to me, this is not only an indication we’re incompatible thanks to our different lifestyles, but because I struggle to believe anyone who likes fitness would find me attractive.

I recently went through a phase that had me feeling unsexy. I think I like myself, but I worry I’m too awkward, too chatty, too pale, too silly, too tall, too neurotic, too immature, too serious, too annoying, too boring, too needy, too lazy, too big, TOO MUCH. I literally take up too much space. I find it hard to accept I’m allowed even one shot at happiness, let alone multiple dating options. In the darkest depths of my psyche, I debate if I will never find someone to love me, as my slimmer, prettier, smarter and funnier friends all find partners, and so I steel myself further for my inevitable decline into being forever single. I spiral downward from there — I think about how nobody will want me, and eventually my friends will find it too hard to fit me into their lives full of partners and families. And then my own family will feel distant and resentful because they don’t understand me. And at the root of it all, it’s because I am fat.

I may never be able to distance myself completely from these insecure ideas, but through therapy I’m learning to allow this negativity in order to better understand where it comes from. I’m actively working on taking actions to help me move forward with my life. My perception of self will inevitably influence how people treat me in dating and my judgmental attitude is likely holding me back far more than the numbers I see on the scale. It’s not fair for me to decide that someone who enjoys Crossfit wouldn’t also be down to hibernate with me and watch RuPaul’s Drag Race or share my deep love of mozzarella. I need to respect how we all genuinely find different attributes attractive and how the outcome of that really can be as positive for me as it would be for someone half my size. I’m learning to risk rejection on the road to affection with a resilience that’s not attached to someone else’s opinion, but I’m also determined not to stand in my own way.

In my scarred but hopeful heart, I know I need to trust others as much as I have grown to trust myself. Are some people cruel when it comes to criticizing size? Yes. It makes dating really hard for people like me, and it hurts each time. But just as the shapes of our bodies are beautifully diverse, our minds are all wonderfully different, too. I believe I deserve fun, respect and compassion, and to paraphrase Gloria Gaynor: As long as I know how to love, I know I'll survive dating. In this spirit, I shared a bottle of Prosecco with friends before replying to the offer to reschedule that date with a big, fat yes.

By Jen Kettle

Illustration by Shanu Walpita

Jen Kettle is a writer and editor living in London. Currently the Lead Sub Editor at trend forecasting company WGSN, Jen has also edited magazines focused on fashion and weddings. She is an advocate of plus-size beauty and self love to promote greater equality and diversity. Jen is now working on a project focused on film and fashion. Follow her on Instagram or on Twitter.

 

Shanu Walpita is a London-based trend forecaster and editor with a not-so-secret illustration side-hustle. She's been drawing for as long as she can remember, often lost in a haze of lines and quirky characters. Her illustrations and GIFs have caught the eye of retailers, brands and agencies over the years, sparking unexpected collaborations and commissions. She doesn't put too much thought into her doodles, mostly treating them as a form of escapism and freestyle storytelling. You can check out more of her stuff on Instagram.

 

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