love and war

Tinder’s Fatphobia Problem

Photo-Illustration: The Cut/Getty Images

There are certain archetypes you encounter when dating as a fat person — particularly a woman who dates men. There’s the guy who sees right past you, swiping left on plus-size profiles automatically. There’s the one who swipes right, then turns vicious, telling you to kill your fat disgusting pig self should you not accept his advances or simply not respond fast enough. Perhaps the most frustrating is the guy who seems genuinely into you, only to reveal (weeks later) that he’s mostly just interested in enjoying your fat body for secret sex and/or fetishizing.

When Nora joined Tinder in 2015, she was 32 and newly back in New York after living in Ireland for six years. “I had no expectations,” she says. She had no social life in the city, and app dating seemed like a fine place to start one. “I was a little nervous about being a fat person,” she says, “but I was in a good place with my fatness.”

Like so many women, Nora had forged a whole new relationship with her body in recent years. In 2012, the same year Tinder launched, the term “body positivity” entered the Zeitgeist. The concept was not new. It emerged from the much more radical fat activism movement of the 1960s, which intersected with the mid-century feminist and civil-rights movements and primarily focused on issues of systemic bias, like workplace discrimination, and equitable health care. This new era — often referred to now as the “mainstream body-positive movement” — was far less political and more focused on the self: self-acceptance, self-worth, self-love. Not much help when it comes to addressing, say, pay disparities, but a huge shift for people like Nora, who’d spent their whole lives in debilitating shame. And some of them, including Nora, did eventually find their way to the deeper issue of anti-fat bias through their own body-positive journeys.

Still, she had a well-earned level of skepticism and anxiety about app dating. “I thought, I’ll probably get some gross, chubby-chaser messages,” she says. “That’s just the life I’ve lived: being fat enough to sleep with but too fat to date.” It’s not that Nora looked down on fat fetishists, but she wasn’t interested in being a fetish object — a particular liability in app dating, which often requires a fair amount of profile analysis and conversational snooping to suss out intentions you might catch with a glance when meeting at a bar. So when she met Sean (not his real name), she found herself in a tough spot.

“He was definitely into me because I was fat,” she says. The first red flag was how quickly he brought up sex and “his commitment to female pleasure.” Sean was very thin himself and seemed fixated on Nora’s features — particularly the larger ones. Walking her home after their second date, he followed her up the steps of her Brooklyn apartment building. “He was looking at my skirt and then made a comment about my ‘big beautiful bum.’” Nora tried to be cool about it. “I do have an extremely large bum,” she says — and it was a feature she still struggled to accept. But she wanted to accept it. She wanted a guy who accepted it too — liked it, even! And this guy did. Clearly.

It soon became obvious that he didn’t simply like her body. He objectified and pathologized it. On the next date, at a pizza place in her Brooklyn neighborhood, he told her he didn’t eat pizza — or any carbs — on weekdays. He explained that his mother and sister were obese (“I’m obese,” Nora adds), and he’d created a strict eating regimen, vowing never to “let that happen to him.” That did it. Nora had given him the benefit of the doubt, but after all the talk about sex, food, his thinness and Nora’s fatness (not to mention his mother’s and sister’s), she’d officially run out of doubt. This guy was not for her.

Shortly after her pizza date with Sean, Nora met Charlie — the man to whom she’s now married — on Tinder and immediately clicked with him (no “big bum” comments either). She agreed to one last date with Sean, knowing it would be the last. It was December, and while riding the train back to Brooklyn, he surprised her with a Christmas present. Nora recalls, “I went to open it, and he said, ‘No, no, wait until you’re home.’” So she did. Reader, it was a vibrator.

But that was 2015 — dozens of iOS updates ago. Dating apps have evolved. But what about the daters on them? “Umm?” says Lena, a 37-year-old. Lena has used dating apps since their inception, including Tinder, Bumble, OkCupid (now an app and no longer an internet browser-based dating site), and the poly-friendly Feeld. “Yes and no. I think people who are fat or in some other marginalized identity feel safer in these spaces to express themselves and connect with each other.” But that’s where the safe zone ends. The demographics may differ depending on the app, but this particular division is fairly universal: “People who are of the more traditional beauty standard” — thin, white, no visible disabilities — “stick together.” As in offline life, thinness is upheld as a mark of human superiority, and those with thin bodies — men, in particular — often treat those with larger ones as inferiors or interlopers who need to be put back in their place. It might be with violent insults and name-calling, or it might be with a fourth-date vibrator. Either way, you know exactly what they think of you.

“I actually don’t think Sean knew he was fetishizing my fatness,” Nora says. “He just thought he liked me, and we were connecting.” This is one of the trickiest problems with app dating, and there’s no easy solution: By design, apps allow us to choose potential dates based on our specific preferences — leaving the door open for our unexamined biases to sneak in, too. There are apps designed for people seeking relationships with fat women — but would a guy like Sean use them? That would require publicly declaring they have “a thing” for fat women. While both society and dating apps appear more progressive and diverse these days, attraction to fatness is still considered so taboo that many never even acknowledge it to themselves.

“It’s a perfect example of desirability politics,” says Melissa Fabello, Ph.D., a sex and relationships educator as well as a Tinder user. “Our socialization plays a role in who we find attractive. Unsurprisingly, people who are oppressed in other ways are also oppressed by the beauty standard and are less likely to be chosen — or, in this case, swiped right on.” Melissa empathizes with people like Nora, caught between their principles and their natural wish to not be excluded, or worse. “The dating world is a reflection of the world at large, and the world at large, unfortunately, is oppressive.” Melissa, who is herself thin, takes certain precautions to avoid fatphobia on Tinder. She swipes left on anyone who lists “working out” as an interest — a common tactic used by fat women too. “It’s not like listing ‘yoga’ or ‘weightlifting,’” she explains. It’s the generality of ‘working out’ that tips her off. “That says something to me about where your politics are around bodies.”

Of course, unconscious bias is not a problem exclusive to fat women. “I go through a similar thing just being a Black woman,” explains Savala, 41, who only started app dating a few months ago. She’s typically on Bumble and Hinge, and with every match, the instinct kicks in: “Does he just have a fetish around Black women? Is he opposed to dating Black women?” It’s no easy task to assess a person’s racism and fatphobia via a casual app chat, but what’s the alternative? Find out in person? Put herself at risk? Savala wrestles with this, wanting to be more open and optimistic. She hates feeling constantly on-guard, knowing in some ways, it’s counterproductive. “But in other ways, it’s an appropriate defensive posture in a world that’s really hostile to some aspects of your identity.”

If only there was a feature on the app, she says, “to just see or quickly find out, ‘What is your deal with fat people? Do you get that I can be fat and healthy? Are you going to argue with me about that? Do you just want to feed me? Or are you someone who finds various people attractive, and I’m one of them?’” Without anything like that actually available, many fat users have developed their own filtering systems. Lena, like Fabello, red-flags anyone who mentions “working out” or posts, say, multiple hiking photos. It’s not that she dislikes hikers or exercise, but a decade of experience has taught her that those who emphasize those things in their profiles probably won’t like her. “People aren’t necessarily coming right out and saying, ‘No fatties,’” Lena explains. Not in a profile, at least. “They’ll say, ‘I’m super into fitness and hope you are too!’” Wink!

This is the double-edged sword of dating apps: You don’t necessarily have to subject yourself to name-calling or bigotry in person. You can root it out from the safety of your own smartphone before meeting up. But it takes a hell of a lot of time, work — and there is always a degree of risk. Until some brilliant developer works an unconscious-bias filter into the algorithm, it’s going to stay that way. No one puts “overt fatphobe” in their bio.

Some apps do include body-type filters, allowing users to both self-identify with and filter out certain descriptors. The most infamous one (mentioned by nearly everyone I interviewed) is OkCupid’s, which asks users to choose their “type” from a list when setting up their profile. The original options included “thin,” “skinny,” “athletic,” “a little extra,” “full figured,” and “used up.” This list is nearly identical today, with some exceptions. “Athletic” has been replaced with “jacked,” “overweight” has been added, and “used up” is mercifully gone. I suppose that counts as progress, but it still leaves those with “a little extra” in a predicament. “I had a really strong internal debate about it,” Nora recalls. She wanted to identify as fat with confidence. That’s what she believed in, ethically and politically. But she knew that doing so meant the app would hide her profile from the majority of users — who presumably would have adjusted their own settings to exclude anyone identified as one of the not-thin options. Nora eventually chose “a little extra,” kicking herself for it. “I hate that I did that,” she says. “I am a fat person.”

For Miranda, while the good experiences she’s had on apps far outweigh the bad, the bad have been enough to make her similarly guarded. “Food is a really easy topic on dating apps,” says Miranda. What’s your favorite meal, favorite road snack — easy questions that often come up in those early chats with new matches. “But I’ve become a lot more conscientious about not mentioning food in the last few years,” she says. “I’ve gained weight, and my pictures have changed as I’ve gotten older, naturally.” It feels less safe now — and less safe in general in a larger, older body (Miranda is 27). A few years ago, in 2017, Miranda was messaging with a guy on Tinder, “and we were having a good conversation,” she explains, choosing her words carefully. “Then he started to talk in a way that I wasn’t loving. I can’t remember if it was just extremely sexual in nature, but it made me uncomfortable.” She tried to make him stop but in a lighthearted way. “I may have teased him a little bit. ‘Oh, we don’t need to talk like that just yet.’” Immediately, the switch flipped, “and he started insulting my weight.” Miranda was a size 12/14, a few sizes smaller than she is now. The incident sticks out in her mind, she says, “because nothing in our conversation was about physical appearance — but that’s where he chose to take it. Not, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I feel uncomfortable that I made you uncomfortable’ or ‘I feel awkward now.’” Nothing that even related to what had actually happened. Instead, his immediate response was: “You’re such a fat fuck.”

“Of all the insults I see, it’s the most common,” says Alexandra Tweten, author and creator of @ByeFelipe, the popular Instagram account. There, she shares screenshots of the vitriolic screeds her followers (currently close to half a million) have gotten on the apps from men they’ve declined to meet up with or simply not replied to immediately. “Fat,” she says, “is the go-to insult after being rejected. They think that’s what we care about — the thing that will make us feel the worst about ourselves.”

Alexandra started @ByeFelipe in 2014, and having seen thousands of dating profiles by now, she says not much has changed in terms of the volume, tone, and language of the vitriol. She says she does see more confident, body-positive language on women’s profiles now — even some that use the word “fat.” She also sees more women posting full-body photos lately, versus the face-only shots that were the norm back in 2014. “Women are more like, ‘This is who I am,’” she says. But has that shift registered with men? “Based on the things that get sent to @ByeFelipe?” says Alexandra. “Honestly, not much.”

So maybe the last decade wasn’t as progressive as we hoped it might be. App dating, like body positivity, didn’t change the world. It didn’t even change dating all that much. Research and unofficial data suggests that approximately two-thirds of Tinder users are men, the majority of whom date women — a figure that also appears relatively static. If so, it stands to reason that things won’t really change until (or unless) they do.

But here’s one more unofficial stat: 100 percent of the dozen women I interviewed for this story have stopped putting up with fatphobic shit. When that guy called Miranda a fat fuck in 2017, she called him out: Wow, hope you feel better. “If that happened now,” she says, “I’d just unmatch and leave.” Lena just deletes shitty messages: “Not every person is worth the emotional labor.” Many identify as fat or plus-size, and everyone with whom I spoke volunteered that they no longer post their most “flattering” photos — and definitely don’t use filters. They carefully choose the most recent, most representative pictures they have — or even, as one woman told me, laughing, “photos that I don’t love, honestly.” It helps her feel more confident navigating the app.

For some, it’s an ethical choice. For others, an effect of body positivity internalized. Some just can’t be bothered anymore to stress over how thin (or skinny) they look in a profile pic. In different ways, for different reasons, they’re all saying the same thing: I’m fat, and I’m good with that whether or not you are. That alone is a pretty huge change — and the more women who make it, the more pressure it puts on the men who date them to do so themselves. It would be too naïve to say that the second decade of app dating will be better than the first. But it might be — it could be. We’ll have to wait and swipe.

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