On the whole I’d say I take a pretty low-key approach to dating. I usually settle for an extra coat of mascara and whatever short skirt I find on my floordrobe to do the trick, the mediocre effort reflecting my mediocre enthusiasm and softening the blow of the inevitable "Sorry, something came up" text at 8.29pm.
Nevertheless a string of disappointments has thrown this carefree, casual attitude into flux. I’m normally relatively unaffected by less-than-magical dates but a recent encounter turned out to be somewhat different. For several reasons – stressful day, weird mutual connections etc. – I felt the need to take a less laid-back approach. My preparations took the form of sitting on the pavement outside our meeting spot, sipping from a mini bottle of Sainsbury’s sauvignon blanc. This was made more embarrassing when my date walked past and I had to hobble up from the floor and explain that I was just biding my time 'til 8pm. Having failed to engage in my usual pre-date rituals (blasting the Girls Aloud megamix and repeating to myself: "It doesn’t matter if he likes you because you like yourself") and subsequently being caught off-guard, I was keen to find out what – if anything – other people do to prepare themselves for a date.
A survey of my friends revealed a few themes, the most prevalent being alcohol. Ranging from a "mega pint of red wine" to a "raw shot of vodka", a drink seems to be a go-to (if not always helpful) addition to the pre-date formula. Second to this is grooming, with a couple of references to "marinating in fake tan" or the snappy "shit, shower and shave". One standout answer came from a serial dater who revealed his failsafe tactic of filling his notes app with thought-provoking questions "in case that chat dries up".
Delving beyond my Instagram followers, it gets a bit more spicy. As a 24-year-old woman, I like to think I'm fairly au fait with internet culture. But every so often a trend comes along that reminds me I’m teetering on the edge of the zeitgeist. Racking up over 12.9 million views on TikTok, #vabbingperfume is the latest pre-date craze to sweep the web. The viral phenomenon is attributed to Mandy Lee (@oldloserinbrooklyn), who gained over 1.5 million views for her since-deleted introduction to the trend. Put simply, the "portmanteau of 'vagina' and 'dabbing' refers to applying your vaginal secretions where you normally would perfume, such as behind your ears, on your neck and your wrists." Or as TikToker @palesamoon puts it: "I use my coochie juice as, like, perfume." As you might have expected, the internet has thoughts, with reaction videos populated with comments like "never hugging a person ever again" and "what is wrong with people?!"
I consider myself sex positive and there isn't much that fazes me but I’ll admit I feel pretty squeamish about this phenomenon. I’m aware that this stems from insecurities about my own body, the trickle-down effect of living in a world that encourages us to feel shame towards the female form. Many of us have grown up in a society that normalises hiding tampons up our sleeves and keeping talk of bodily functions to a minimum; in contrast, those promoting vabbing are embracing the female body. It’s no surprise that some people (largely heterosexual men) are outraged by the trend. They’re not used to women using their bodies to their advantage rather than having them weaponised against them.
Personal reservations aside, I can’t help but feel this is just another example of women continually being expected to do the most. As Olivia Petter writes in The Independent: "Another day, another bizarre thing women need to do with their vagina." Petter goes on to describe Goop-esque jade eggs and "expensive, unnecessary douching" but these Hollywood-endorsed endeavours are only one side of the coin. A quick scroll through TikTok’s #datenight reveals a million different ways we're expected to make ourselves smoother, softer and sexier ahead of an encounter, each 'get ready with me' video providing tips and tricks for 'doe eyes' or a 'siren gaze'. By contrast, a look at Reddit (always dangerous) reveals that the bros are recommending "basic hygiene, nothing fancy" and "30 push-ups, just before heading out the door", with one user revealing that "cleaning up the place was key, women died when they got back to a clean nice looking place and would pretty much dive into bed". For men, there’s an obvious emphasis on physical fitness and predatory tactics, while the equivalent forums for women encourage us to make ourselves seem smaller and sweeter, undergo butterfly-like transformations and "morph from troll-hood to glam squad in about two hours".
Dating isn’t as simple, of course, as adhering to gender stereotypes and the power dynamic is always nuanced but it’s hard not to feel a little tired by these played-out tropes. I’ll be the first to admit it’s rough out there on the online dating scene. We’re all trying to catch a break. Perhaps the extensive hair-removal routines and guided manifestations are just ways to gain a bit of control and clarity and bring reason to a process that can often feel very irrational and uninspiring. I’m not without my own neurotic pre-date endeavours – assessing your astrological compatibility by working out their natal chart from their ex-girlfriend's birthday post, anyone? – so if vabbing is your bag, who am I to judge? It might not be everyone’s cup of tea but if swapping out the eau de parfum for something au naturel makes you feel a little more that bitch (and sets some misogynistic men on edge in the process), then why not?