Plenty has been written about how dating apps have revolutionised dating and relationships over the past decade. People from all walks of life find the kind of partners they’re seeking with a fateful swipe every day and it is this possibility that keeps the rest of us on the apps despite all the downsides. I am among the silent majority that has an on-again-off-again relationship with the apps as I go on them when I’m eager for connection and uninstall after a few days or weeks of dismal non-starters. It does not help that I am someone who is considered overweight.
The algorithm of these apps are known to favour those who are conventionally attractive—at least in their pictures—and this usually sends users into a scramble to find their most flattering photographs. It is not uncommon for someone to—intentionally or sometimes inadvertently—use old pictures or camera tricks that slightly misrepresent their actual appearance. And then—if and when a conversation actually leads to a date—comes the dreaded phrase: “Oh, you look thinner/fitter/different in your pictures!” In the best case scenario, this is a harmless observation and you go on to get to know each other better. In the worst case, your date starts schooling you on how “you should have ordered a salad instead of French fries” at dinner.
It’s 2022, the era of body positivity, and yet, the dominant culture across the world remains largely fatphobic. Even though scientists have repeatedly debunked the assumption that fat equals unhealthy, bodies that are larger than the norm are routinely shamed under the guise of concern for health. When this happens in the dating setup, wherein people tend to be especially vulnerable, it can cause real harm to their sense of self.
Earlier this month, a study conducted by the online dating platform QuackQuack, found that 28 per cent male users above 28 years of age and 31 per cent women between 25 and 30 face multiple rejections owing to their weight.
The incident with the French fries actually happened to Sumukh Bharadwaj (30), a freelance photographer based in Mysuru, when he went on a date with a yoga practitioner in his city. At that point, he was used to people constantly drawing attention to his weight and doling out unsolicited advice, so he rode it out. But after a few more instances of casual body-shaming while on dates, he decided to quit the apps as the stress was taking a huge toll on him. “I found this new world [of dating] to be unforgiving in that sense—it was as though you needed to lose weight in order to belong in it,” he says.
Bharadwaj says he always felt like he was hiding, either behind older pictures he uploaded on his profile in which he appeared fitter, or the loose clothes he wore that made him feel less conscious of his body. And when he did muster the courage to allow himself to be seen, he faced comments from partners that he looks like an “uncle” or a “cuddly bear”. Even the latter, which may sound like a compliment, ended up making him feel “weird”.
The desexualised fat person has been a pop culture trope that has been milked for laughs for ages. They stand on the sidelines, at best a warm, inconsequential supportive character and at worst the butt of jokes. This has certainly trickled down into real life, affecting the way fat people—who are just as complex and multi-faceted as anyone else—are viewed and treated. And for women, this stereotype has another dimension, wherein their fatness or ‘curves’ are fetishised, mostly by cis heterosexual men.
Sonia Mariam Thomas (29), a freelance content creator, once tweeted: “When you’re a fat girl trying to date, you are either a therapist for men or a fetish, nothing in between.”
Thomas has been fat since the age of eight and has had a difficult relationship with her body all her life, especially since she was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Disease (PCOD). Elaborating on her tweet, she says, “Fat women are not seen as people with sexual desires. They are called ‘cute’ or similar infantilising words. Often being in the ‘cute’ category makes one vulnerable because most of us believe that performing emotional labour for those we like/love will make them like/love us more. That is often not the case. Doing the emotional labour only makes them a burden on us, especially when we don't establish boundaries early on.”
If being treated like a therapist feels like emotional abuse, being fetishised by the male gaze might be its physical equivalent. Shinoy Panigrahi (23), a transmasculine non-binary person (whose pronouns are he/him), admits to receiving messages from cis men on dating apps calling him “thicc” and complimenting him for his big body. “It sucks because you know that this person has matched with you not for who you are but to fulfil a fantasy through your body, which is extremely objectifying,” he says. “However, I sometimes tolerate it because growing up, I never felt like I was attractive to boys. My inner child allows the fetishising to happen because it is validating,” he shares.
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Thomas points out that it often takes a few heartbreaks, time and/or therapy for one to realise the importance of dating people who see their partner as a whole person and not just as a body type or a means to meet certain needs in their life.
In that way, queer dating spaces are a lot more accepting, Panigrahi says. “Transness is not just about someone who dissociates from their body and wants another. It is about accepting your body as your own without it having to subscribe to any notions of gender that exist today. And that plays really well into the acceptance of larger-bodied people, people with disabilities and deformities,” he says.
Mumbai-based psychologist Divya Srivastava recommends a healthy dose of self-reflection alongside self-acceptance. “Some of us need to realise we too have internalised notions of beauty, even if we don't fit into the conventional model of beauty. There are fat people who don't want to date fat people, and on a dating app, it's important to remember that everyone is allowed to have a preference,” she says.
After all, finding a partner who accepts you is only the first step. “We need to figure out what qualities we have that help us build connections," Srivastava adds. Over a period of time, it is that sense of connection that provides meaning to a relationship, and it's unfortunate, yet okay, if someone doesn't give you that chance simply because they aren't comfortable dating a fat person."
Indumathy Sukanya is an artist and independent journalist based in Bengaluru