Several weekends ago, I met up with my closest gal pals on a balmy winter afternoon. Of course, the conversations traversed every possible terrain — from politics to pizza, career to cocktails, and dating. As 30-somethings, we’ve had our fair share of dating experiences, but discussing new encounters always leaves us squealing in excitement. Oh, and let’s not forget these conversations are as unfiltered as can be.
So, when one of our girlfriends chose to speak about her decision to be on a plus-size dating app, we were filled with equal parts joy and concern. Did we know something like this existed? No. Did we approve of her decision? Well, we were pretty clueless to offer any opinion. But her words “I feel accepted there” stayed with us.
There’s no denying that the dating universe has expanded over the last few years, but the online experience also seems like a version of ‘window shopping’. You almost always choose someone based on their looks, and in case their bio does not match your idea of the quintessential partner, you swipe left and say goodbye!
While the very idea of browsing through a list of potential suitors may seem empowering, things aren’t always hunky-dory, especially if you are a plus-sized woman. From being mocked for their size, to being called ‘ugly and undesirable’ — plus-sized women have faced it all.
So, are apps catered for plus-sized people the perfect solution for these women, or are such platforms further promoting an unconscious bias?
Does ‘size’ determine your worth?
Isha Sharma (31), a Mumbai-based marketing professional experimented with every possible dating app, before she moved to one that was exclusively for Big Beautiful Women (also called “BBW” in these circles).
After being subjected to unsolicited comments on her weight and complexion on regular apps, she finally felt ‘at home’, when she took the plunge and joined BBW Plus Singles.
“I was initially hesitant to join a plus-size dating app, but it was the best decision. At least no one judged me or passed lewd remarks at my size or skin colour,” Sharma says. “It was the very first time that men were interested in learning about my likes and dislikes, instead of merely calling me ‘fattie’ or asking me to hook up because they assumed that ‘I had no option’. The only drawback is that the dating pool is limited here,” she adds.
There are a few apps like WooPlus and LargeFriends (not yet available in India), where women can meet Big Handsome Men (also known as “BHM”). On the other hand, there are a growing number of channels that help you connect with plus-sized women.
But most women recall feeling rather ‘unsafe’ on plus-size dating apps, and even more objectified and sexualised than ever before. For starters, when you sign up to become a member of these apps, you have to first define your ‘size’ — yes, you need to let the platform know at the very beginning if you are ‘thick’, ‘broad’, ‘curvy’, or ‘supersized’, so that they can find you the ‘right match’.
Nirmayi Roy (35), a Bengaluru-based arts-based therapist found herself being ‘trolled’ on several occasions, while she was part of a popular plus-size dating app. She exercised patience and stayed on for two months, but nothing really changed.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t have the best experience. There’s hardly anyone who genuinely wants to make an effort. I think the regular dating apps are certainly more inclusive,” she shares.
I, too, got on to a well-known plus-size dating app myself to test the waters. Over the course of a day, I encountered men of all age groups, who were ONLY interested in my size. Some even went on to say that ‘they love heavy women’, while others were curious to have a video chat with me. All in all, the conversations went from zero to creepy within minutes. In fact, it made me realise that these apps have probably made it easier for men to fetishise big women. I felt attacked, objectified, and absolutely unsafe.
Is inclusivity just a farce on these apps?
Akanksha Patra (42), a Delhi-based relationship expert, shares the same view. “I feel most men on these apps believe they are doing some charity for plus-size women. They behave rudely, act as if they are superior to us, and liberally call us chubby and thick. Just because I identify myself as a plus-size woman doesn’t mean you have the right to comment on my body. My body is really NOT on display for you, and you better understand this. This is what I exactly felt, and to be honest, these apps are using physique to bring in users. Inclusivity is really not a part of the game is what I think.”
To try and understand how and why these platforms call themselves ‘inclusive’, I tried reaching out to WooPlus — the largest BBW dating and chat app for plus-size singles — but they were unavailable for comment.
The apparent reason for plus-size dating apps to have emerged, is the frequency of body shaming and catfishing incidents on mainstream dating apps. But why can’t these loopholes be identified and dealt with to make these channels more ‘safe’ for women?
In the meantime, however, women-first dating platforms like Bumble and OkCupid have already taken a step ahead in the right direction. Samarpita Samaddar, India Communications Director, Bumble, shares, “Bumble’s mission has always been to build a platform rooted in respect and kindness, and keeping that at the core, we have explicitly banned body shaming from the app. We have updated our terms and conditions to explicitly ban unsolicited and derogatory comments made about someone’s appearance, body shape, size, or health. This includes language that can be deemed fat-phobic, ableist, racist, colorist, homophobic or transphobic.”
Members can use the ‘block and report’ feature for any behaviour that makes them feel uncomfortable. Bumble uses automated safeguards to detect comments and images that go against their guidelines, terms, and conditions, which can then be escalated to a human moderator to review.
“People who use body-shaming language in their profile or through the chat function will first receive a warning for their inappropriate behaviour,” Samaddar explains. “Moderators will also share resources that are intended to help the individual learn how to change their behaviour to be less harmful to others in the future. However, we will not hesitate to permanently remove someone from the app, if there are repeated incidents or particularly harmful comments,” she adds.
OkCupid has also always been ‘exclusively inclusive’, says Sitara Menon, the company’s India Marketing Manager. “OkCupid's machine systems have been perfected over two decades, and partnered by human moderators to ensure a zero-tolerance for bullying or disrespect,” she adds.
The words of American rapper Queen Latifah ring true here, “To me, I always felt like I was carrying a torch for women of any size to be themselves — it doesn't matter whether you're a size 2 or a 22, just be who you are.”
Geetika Sachdev is an independent writer and journalist