I first noticed how strongly I identified as working class during freshers' week at university. I was sipping some Special Brew in Lupton Halls at Leeds University, where I was studying English literature alongside 300 other people, when a neeky 18-year-old from Hertfordshire attempted to flirt with me by asserting that Hull, where I’m from, was the shittest town in the UK.
I’ve dated voraciously, passionately and endlessly since I was 16 years old. If someone had told me that by the time I was 26 I’d have dated a US academic on a visiting scholarship at Cambridge, a 22-year-old professional athlete who was Britain’s national fencing champion, and the 31-year-old son of two A-list Turkish actors, I would never have believed them. I used to struggle to hold my own with middle class people in my own county, never mind among members of the global elite.
Yet it's only recently (particularly during the last three years I’ve lived in London) that I've come to understand how dating has been instrumental in getting to grips with my identity in this strange, class-obsessed country in which we live.
A lot of my past is centred around wanting people who are unattainable – for a lot of my college life I felt like Dan Humphrey from Gossip Girl, chasing Serena van der Woodsen. I read into the gaps between us as something I was lacking and couldn’t bring to the table because of my class background. When you’re forming your identity in those vulnerable years of early adulthood, it can be a lot to take someone else on board when they have a radically different version of what is normal.
Just to be clear, my parents gave us everything they could – there was just an awareness that it all had to be delivered on a strict budget. Receipts were pored over at the end of a food shop, my mum and dad put their social life on hold to give my sister and me decent clothes, and took out loans so we could go on holidays abroad and see the world, even when one of them was unemployed or in need. My parents did their level best to make sure we never went without – it was the world outside that made me feel like I was worth less.
Money does matter
Everyone’s been on a lacklustre date, but dating becomes a lot more complicated when you don’t have the budget to see your partner without going into the red. When I graduated from university, I tried to make my relationship from Hull work in London by using my week’s dole to grab the cheapest Megabus I could to visit my boyfriend. But rather than clue him and his family in on my financial struggles, when we went out to eat I’d tell them I’d already had food or pick the cheapest thing on the menu to make sure I could keep up appearances over the course of my stay.
Some people’s entitlement knows no bounds
Like anyone else growing up in the UK, I’ve been taught the toxic maxim that middle class people are better than working class people. I grew up in an era where people used the word 'chav' to talk about working class people, when the UK’s leading broadcasters ran endless reams of programmes about 'benefit cheats', and in an environment where papers and magazines still print lists of the richest people in the UK and – surprise, surprise – a lot of them were born into enormous wealth. To me, the problem with that is clear: when we teach people their worth lies in what they earn and what job they do, we imbue them with a false sense of entitlement.
After one of my seminar peers, who was born and raised in Chelsea, told my friend during class that he just loved irritating that "common Northern bitch" (me!) during my undergrad degree in 2012, I’ve been made painfully aware of how much people believe intelligence is carried in an RP accent. My Winchester College-educated ex-boyfriend used to love mocking my Hull accent and the way I mixed metaphors, especially in front of other people. When I told him how humiliating I found it, he seemed perplexed and thought I should be showering him with gratitude. "I’m trying to teach you to help you, so you don’t stand out so much," he told me in our final conversation. "It’s for your own good."
Downplaying your privilege won't impress anyone
While I’ve been made painstakingly aware of how I speak and the ways I need to change myself to make my views hold weight in the world, the people I’ve dated don’t seem to have ever analysed themselves so thoroughly. One of my exes, who I met at Leeds, delighted in telling everyone he was from a rougher area of London than he was, and colonised the language of working class people of colour – despite the fact he was a white, middle class man whose dad went to one of the country’s most prestigious schools. Then there was the problematic date in his 30s, who told me that even though he could afford to live on what he earned writing scripts for a small theatre company twice a year, he was "the outsider at Cambridge"; another hookup, who should have known better at the age of 36, told me he "only went to a small private school".
Talking down to me isn’t the same as understanding me
When I first tried to move to London at 23 – I couldn’t stick around for long when the internship I applied for told me they were actually paying me half as much as I’d thought – I had to move back to Hull temporarily. My middle class London boyfriend came to visit me, having got enough work once we’d graduated to make ends meet. He thought it would be a good idea to let me know during the trip that I should "stop worrying because my parents don’t live in a bombed-out hovel" and "just because Hull was shit, it didn’t mean I was shit too".
Failing to grasp why I didn’t need to be condescended to like this, he then exaggerated parts of himself to look lower class than he was, telling people he was from a rougher area of London and appropriating the "words of a roadman" rather than speaking like the middle class contemporaries who surrounded him at his prestigious suburban secondary school. A few months after we were over, I saw his Bumble profile picture, which showed him standing outside a poster supporting Hull’s City of Culture bid as he looked on with derision.
In a country that values class over kindness, it can be difficult not to have been born into wealth and privilege. Plenty of dating websites and advice columns will tell us that if we love ourselves more, we’ll find ourselves faster. I don’t think that’s true. I think the trick to it all, amid the obnoxiousness, the selfishness, the players and dishonesty, is knowing yourself. And knowing myself means, as the oracle that is Heather Havrilesky (aka The Cut's Ask Polly) puts it, loving open-chested, and not leaving my background, my class, behind.