What I Learned About Online Dating With A Disfigurement

Photo by Peng Jin / EyeEm.
When it comes to chat-up lines, it's important to be original.
But one random man in Manchester took that advice a little too literally when he tried to woo me with this knock-out opener:
"You look like you've been punched in the face!"
I certainly felt like I'd been punched – less in the face, more in the guts – but as far as my appearance is concerned, I’d prefer to speak for myself rather than rely on this guy's powers of description, poetic as they may be.
I was born with a cleft lip and palate: it's a common facial disfigurement affecting one in 700 people. With medical treatment (in my case, eight operations to rebuild my face, and three years of orthodontic treatment), people born with a cleft lip go on to live perfectly 'normal' lives. As far as disfigurements go, mine is so far from serious that I often forget there was ever anything 'wrong' with me at all. (Years of therapy have probably helped on that front, too.)
But even since my first primary school crush, interactions with the opposite sex have reminded me that my face isn't quite the same as everyone else's.
As my classmates dipped their toes into the world of dating, I was left firmly poolside. My teenage years came and went, and after years of third-wheeling I started to wonder if it was the scars on my face, small as they were, affecting my dating prowess.
Nick Sharratt, a research fellow at the University of the West of England looking at the effects of visible difference on romantic relationships, explained that although my scars may be smaller in comparison to some, it was "perfectly normal" that I might still feel like my dating life was being impacted.
"Not everyone with a visible difference experiences challenges [when it comes to dating]," he says. "Factors like the location [on the body] and nature of a difference don't necessarily determine how powerfully visible difference may impact on romantic relationships." He explains further: "Generally they don't predict how well you might cope as well as psychological or social factors such as your disposition, whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic, or how much social support you have."
It’s still early days for research into visible difference and romantic relationships. But as the number of studies increases, there’s a new challenge to add to the already complicated mix: the way we meet our partners is radically changing. While our parents and grandparents met through more traditional means, nowadays it's a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a smartphone must be a member of some kind of dating app.
But if you don’t conform to society’s beauty ideals, how do you even begin to play the online dating game, where your main currency is your appearance?
I decided to turn to Google for advice.
The results for "dating with a disfigurement" make for pretty ugly reading. Rather than learning from others’ similar experiences, I was confronted by forums filled with judgmental people deciding whether or not they could bear to take someone who looked like me out for a drink.
But what else is to be expected? With unhelpfully titled programmes like The Undateables, and problematic advertising campaigns labelling red hair and freckles as 'imperfections', people who don't fit the mould are seen as 'other' and not the 'obvious' first choice in a competitive online dating marketplace.
I didn't want to cut off my nose to spite my face, so I decided not to mention my cleft lip explicitly on my profile. Nick says this is an oft agonised-over decision: "People can feel dishonest or deceitful if they don’t reveal their difference immediately, and may feel concerned that their 'real self' doesn’t match up to the image they’ve portrayed."
Despite my worries, I was surprised when my phone buzzed: a match! On a high, we chatted and arranged to meet the next day. But date o'clock came and went. After 45 minutes I resigned myself to the fact I'd been stood up.
With hindsight, I realise I'd done myself no favours by choosing London's answer to the Bermuda Triangle, Tottenham Court Road station, as a meeting location. But when your self-esteem is fragile, it's easy for a misunderstanding to descend into self-loathing: "Maybe he saw my face and decided to bail?" I thought, over and over again.
So I decided full disclosure was the best option. I added a line in my profile about my cleft lip, just in case it wasn't obvious from my photos. I wouldn't want to make my potential dates feel awkward, after all.
But perhaps this wasn't my wisest move. What should have been a serious chat with someone I trusted about my years of low self-esteem and hospital stays was suddenly the headline of my profile, catapulting the most difficult moments of my life into strangers' inboxes.
I attracted kindred spirits, like a man who also had scars from years of medical treatment. Our conversation was intense, more therapy session than first date, although I hear it's frowned upon to crash at your therapist's house after sharing three bottles of wine and missing the last Tube.
There's a reason people tread carefully around issues like this. Being so honest upfront had made me feel comfortable, but in the cold light of the next day we had very little in common other than our shared experiences of surgery. Which doesn't make for great hangover chat.
So I settled back into my 20s, resigned to a lifetime on the app and convinced my appearance was to blame for my lack of partner. Until I was confronted by yet another original chat-up line from a modern day Mr Darcy:
"Oi, shit on my face Mel!"
After the familiar gut-punch of sadness, I read the message again. Why was I letting my emotions be controlled by the kind of person who sends poo emoji over Tinder? It wasn't anything personal: this jerk was clearly paying more attention to his face than mine.
So I made a decision to stop basing my self-worth on my relationship status. And while I wouldn't want to flatter this fan of faeces by attributing my newfound confidence to his idiotic message, it's certainly no coincidence that I quit Tinder almost immediately, and threw myself into areas of my life which made me feel good about myself.
All the advice (usually from smug, coupled-up friends) suggests you simply need to stop looking for love and suddenly the right partner will land in your life. I’m not sure I subscribe to that kind of fairytale outlook, so it was with characteristic cynicism that I got chatting to a colleague at a work do. We'd worked together for a couple of years so I assumed he had a fairly good knowledge of what I looked like.
I was, once again, surprised by a chat-up line, this time, for the right reasons. Years later, we're still together, in a relationship where I'm able to be entirely myself, imperfections and all.

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