I was 14 years old the first time I pretended to be someone else online. It wasn’t a particularly premeditated decision, nor one I made with the intention of hurting anyone. The only thought that I can say with certainty crossed my mind was that I wanted to feel less alone.
While my (few) friends and peers were beginning to go to parties, date and have sex, I had never been invited out. I had never French kissed another human being. I blamed my fat body. I blamed my queerness. I blamed the football lads – the popular kids – who teased me about my 'fat ass', 'thunder thighs' and 'gross chins'; the ones who called me a 'dyke' after they stole my journal and outed me to the student body. Everyone listened to the bros, blindly following their lead without ever concerning themselves with who might be hurt in the process. I didn’t even blame them. I felt monstrous.
At the time, I had a crush on my best friend. She was bi-curious at best, particularly if we were in the company of boys. Having been told that boys enjoyed seeing a bit of lesbian action (so long as it was not committed by actual lesbians), she’d sometimes peck me on the lips in front of people she fancied. No one had ever really fancied me, of course, but I began to wonder if she might see me in a different light if there were a risk of losing me to someone else. I wondered if those pecks on the lips were really just her way of appearing desirable to young men, or if they meant more. They undoubtedly did to me.
I remember making an MSN account for a boy I called Dylan, or maybe it was Bobby. I found photos online of someone suitably emo (a preferred aesthetic during the early-to-mid aughts) and chose one for his profile pic. I would log in, as Dylan, in one window on my laptop, while logging in as myself on another. Then I’d spend hours writing cheesy, YA-friendly dialogue. Dylan would tell me all the things I dreamed of hearing from my friend: that I was beautiful, hot, clever, funny and perfect just as I was.
When I showed my friend these conversations, pretending Dylan was someone I met on Myspace, she wasn’t really bothered. If anything, she was glad I had a stranger to exchange heart emoji with on the internet.
At this point, I phased Dylan out and created an email address and MSN account for 'Diego'. Using photos of a boy I’d known from vacationing in my mother’s native country, I assumed a different identity with the intention of talking to my best friend directly. I knew that there was no way she could ever love me as I was: fat, mixed race, queer, covered in cellulite and keratosis pilaris. She was thin, gorgeous and constantly sought-after. There was nothing I could offer her – or anyone, for that matter – unless I wasn’t me.
She and Diego messaged one another after school almost every day for the better part of that academic year. They bonded over music, films and a desire to see the world outside their respective small towns. I think that, maybe, they loved each other. At least, he/I certainly loved her.
It’s critical to note that the relationship between Diego and my friend never grew past instant messaging. There was no way they could Skype, after all, and there was no part of me interested in moving sweet convos into the realm of anything darker. I never asked her for nudes or initiated sexting. I just wanted to talk – to tell her all the things I couldn’t as a fat girl. I had been convinced by our classmates, my family and mass media that I was grotesque and unloveable. For just a moment, I wanted to feel something different. I wanted to know what it was like for the person I adored to want me back.
Eventually my friend met someone IRL and moved on. For a few years of secondary school, however, I still pretended to be different people on MSN and in chat rooms. My profile picture was usually of a thin white girl I found on Google. I talked to a few people at my school but mostly to strangers, not to seduce or harm them but to relish in the inherent acceptance that seemed to come with being thin.
It wasn’t until the release of Netflix’s Sierra Burgess is a Loser in 2018 that I realised I probably wasn’t the only fat girl in the world to be driven toward catfishing in a desperate attempt at feeling wanted. The film centres Sierra, a plus-size teen who pretends to be the thin, white, blonde, most popular girl at school in order to flirt with her crush, Jamey.
The story wasn’t exactly like mine, though. For starters, Veronica (the popular girl) ultimately agrees to Sierra using her identity in exchange for tutoring. Veronica even goes on a date with Jamey, eventually covering his eyes so that Sierra can sneak up and kiss him without him realising. It pushes catfishing outside of an instant messaging box and into the physical domain, where the narrative further toys with and ultimately crosses the line of consent.
Understandably, the story got a lot of backlash for what people believed to be its ‘glorification’ of catfishing, as well as its use of homophobic, transphobic and ableist language. While I completely agree with the critique of its humour, I don’t think the aim of the movie was to glorify or excuse catfishing but to show what might drive a young, fat, ultimately good kid to do something so awful.
People are quick to tear apart fat individuals, though, so instead of analysing what made Sierra pretend to be someone else, the focus of the criticism became what Sierra did. It’s not unlike the criticism of fat people who don’t post full-body images on their dating profiles or social media. They are called 'liars' and 'deceivers' and no one asks them why they are so afraid of being visibly fat on or off the internet.
We live in a culture in which women’s greatest fear when it comes to online dating is ending up on a night out with a serial killer but men’s biggest fear is ending up on a date with a fattie. Even dedicated feminists sometimes crack fat jokes or mourn their weight gain in front of their chubby friends. There are very few safe spaces for people who actually are fat. There are very few voices telling us that we deserve to exist, to thrive, to love and be loved.
Pretending not to be fat is a direct consequence of our culture's insistence that we are repulsive entities to be hidden away; that we cannot possibly find love, friendship, professional achievement or a sense of worth unless we shrink. My experiences were a consequence of being told my body and sexuality were inherently flawed. I take responsibility for my actions. I know how wrong they were. Still, would I have done such a thing if I’d been taught to see the value in being me? If someone – anyone – had shown me the kindness that everyone immediately granted the fake versions of myself online?