On paper, Natalie Craig seems like the type of woman you'd expect would have a few dating apps on her phone. She's in her 20s, lives in a big city, and has an Instagram full of profile-ready photos — and she's fresh out of a long-term relationship with someone she met on Tinder. But even though her last stint in the digital dating world ended with a fairly happy relationship, Craig isn't jumping to reenter the scene — partly because of her past experiences.
"When I was first on the apps, I experienced people fat-shaming me," she says. "I'd get messages from men that would say things like, 'Do you want to meet up to have sex?' And when I'd say no, they'd say, 'Oh, well you're fat, anyway.'" Craig says the criticism would bother her back then, before she'd started her successful fashion blog in 2013, found the body positivity movement, and started embracing her shape. "I'd think, Oh, am I [only] good for sex? Do men only want to have sex with bigger women, but not date them?" she says. "It's like [those men] think that they can say whatever they want to me because I'm not a real person — I'm a fat person."
Craig's experiences aren't unique. While dating apps are notoriously scary spaces for women in general, with some 57% of female app users reporting some kind of harassment, plus-size women seem to have a tougher time than their "straight-sized" counterparts. In fact, the plus-size dating app WooPlus found that 71% of its 1,000 users reported having been fat-shamed on "regular" apps. "I've had men message me and ask to feed me," says Laura Delarato, a sex-educator and syndication coordinator at Refinery29. "And it's not even on fetish websites. It's on regular sites like OkCupid and Tinder." According to Delarato, if you're a plus-size woman on a dating app, you should expect your body to be "the forefront of the conversation."
So, are the dating apps to blame?
The easy (and typical) explanation for this is that swipe-based dating apps have made us more shallow. "Online dating is like a shopping catalogue, which seems to make people more critical," says Emily Ho, a body-positive fitness blogger and social media strategist. Ho met her first husband the "traditional" way — in person, long before dating apps were a thing. But at 34, she found herself newly divorced and facing a dating scene that she felt focused more on her looks than the one she'd remembered. "I feel like the entire culture has changed so much," she says. "Nobody reads profiles. Everyone is just judging based on appearance."
That said, the idea that apps are to blame for people's obsession with their prospective partners' looks isn't completely fair. Dating apps don't exist in a vacuum — they're essentially just digital platforms where society's existing views on bodies play out. The major culprit here, according to Cristina Escobar, the Director of Communications at The Representation Project, is actually the media. "There's a very limited representation of bodies when it comes to media in general, especially when it comes to women" she says. "In terms of finding love, you think about romantic comedies and advertisements depicting romance, and it's almost always about a thin woman. We have this really narrow definition about who is valuable, and that rarely includes women at all, let alone women of colour and women who are plus."
When plus-size women are represented, they're not the main characters. Instead they're the funny friend, or the helper, and they rarely find themselves in the centre of romantic plot points. "These cultural ideas filter into our day-to-day interactions," Escobar says. Of course, these ideas play out in the workplace, on school campuses, and, in some cases, even in the medical industry. So it's not hard to imagine why plus-sized women are often ignored, ridiculed, and/or fetishised on dating apps.
What are they doing to change this?
Fortunately, sites seem to be trying to combat this problem. OkCupid recently released a Membership Pledge, which takes aim at harassing behaviour and messages. Before members are allowed to interact with the OkCupid community, they have to agree not to send any harassing, unwanted, or sexually explicit messages. This may sound like pure optics, but apparently it's working: "Since we launched the pledge, we've seen decreases in harassment, both from reports and our machine-learning technology that detects harassing language," says Melissa Hobley, the chief marketing officer of OkCupid. "We know that women in particular are really frustrated at how dating apps are set up to be incredibly focused on appearance. So we spend a huge amount of time deliberating how we can make OkCupid better at highlighting your passions, your beliefs, and your interests."
And increasingly, apps are relying on portraying a brand image that tells users: Fat-shamers are not allowed here. Bumble publicly shamed a man who was sending lewd messages to women on the company's blog last summer. Their CEO, who started the app after suing Tinder over sexual harassment she experienced as a cofounder there, has always been an outspoken advocate against sexual harassment and abuse. Tinder itself recently launched reactions in conjunction with updated messaging standards, reporting options, and new community guidelines. The reactions themselves are meant to be tongue-in-cheek ways to let a person know they're behaving like a jerk.
The League, an "elite" dating app with a screening process that includes a review of your LinkedIn profile, recently rolled out Monochrome View, which makes the first photo on profiles black-and-white by default. "We conducted research [internally] that found that there was an increased time spent in evaluating potential profiles that were in monochrome," says Meredith Davis, head of communications for The League. "We found that not only did users spend more time evaluating each profile, but that [users] were nice and gave people more of a shot when shown the monochrome profiles." Davis didn't provide information on how many profiles were tested or why black-and-white photos, specifically, led to greater engagement, but she says the research showed that interaction with profiles went up "across the board, regardless of the profile user's hair colour, skin tone, body shape, etc." But it's hard to tell at this point how effective these measures really are across the board.
Is it even possible for apps to solve this problem?
These changes point to an understanding on the part of app developers about how harassment affects some of its users, particularly those who are plus-size. Unfortunately, small tweaks to interfaces can only do so much if all users don't play by apps' often easy-to-break rules. Not to mention, apps enter thorny territory simply by doing their job: connecting users with matches they're legitimately interested in.
For instance, the way OkCupid calculates compatibility between users is by having them answer Match Questions and then rate those questions by how important they are to them. OkCupid's algorithm then uses that information to calculate a match percentage between a particular user and a potential partner. But some of those questions can be decidedly fat-phobic. "OkCupid has questions that focus on body shape — like, 'Can overweight people still be sexy?' or 'Are you disgusted by the extremely obese?'" Ho says. OkCupid has come under fire for some of these fat-phobic questions, and has responded by saying that they're always working to clean up or delete inflammatory inquiries. "But you see questions like that, and you think to yourself, Do I belong here?" Ho says.
The question is: If dating apps exist within a society that's biased against larger bodies, what can these companies really do to change things? As Davis put is: "We can't punish people for not swiping on someone they don't find attractive."
In a way, she's right. People are attracted to who they are attracted to, which leads back to representation, which turns this whole situation into the proverbial snake eating its own tail. That's not to say the apps shouldn't be constantly thinking about how to make their platforms safer, more enjoyable spaces for everyone, particularly marginalised communities. But it just means that, to be truly effective, any tweaks dating apps make will need to happen in tandem with positive change in the world at large. We've seen an encouraging uptick in body diversity and acceptance in the past few years, especially from brands like Glossier, Aerie, and Nike, that have used models with a wide range of body types in recent advertisements — and have been celebrated for it. That said, we haven't even come close to removing the underlying shame and stigma at the heart of society's fat-phobia.
Escobar is convinced that the key to solving this problem is to have more diverse bodies in media. "There's a study I find most impactful that states that the more body diversity we're exposed to, the more body satisfaction we have," Escobar says. And that's not just good for plus-sized women, or even just other marginalised communities on dating apps, like women of colour and gender non-conforming people — it's good for everyone. So, at the very least, if apps want to make a dent in this problem, they're going to have to ensure that each user is served up a diverse array of bodies (and people) on a regular basis. That may not follow the supply/demand model, but for now it's the best way to combat harmful biases that pervade dating apps.
Until we get to that point, plus-sized women will have to continue navigating the minefield that is online dating. And while there are happy endings for many — Ho did eventually meet a partner on Tinder — dating apps will likely continue to be rough for others. "I could go on sites specifically for plus women, but I don't want to do that," Delarato says. "I'm not a category. I'm part of the larger community, and I deserve to be there. I'm the same as a straight-sized person. So just treat me the same."