How Dating Apps Have Taken Queer Body Shaming To The Next Level

Photo: Truce.
For illustrative purposes only.
It’s no secret that dating apps have ushered in a new world of difficulties. Sure, they make it easier to meet and chat to like-minded people, but it can be easy to fall into a virtual wormhole of dick pics, carefully curated profiles and difficult conversations which can sometimes do more harm than good. Driving these conversations is usually one word: preference. It’s true that we can’t control who we’re attracted to but, more and more, this term is being used as justification for thinly veiled discrimination based on everything from race and body type to class and gender identity. Try for a second to think about what might convince or prevent you from a simple swipe right – you might stumble upon some uncomfortable truths.
Although my own experience as a gay white man is extremely relative, there is one topic of conversation which recurs: my body. Contextually, I’ve struggled with fluctuating weight over the years but was lucky enough never to have been bullied or shamed to any extreme extent. Despite this, it was still a deep-seated insecurity; growing up in a working-class Yorkshire village ruled by masculinity meant that I rarely saw men I could relate to outside of the media.

A few weeks ago I went on an idyllic date which ended in multiple orgasms... then, two days later, a lengthy message from the guy telling me I was “fatter than [he] liked.”

Unsurprisingly, the rippling abs, stylish clothes and conventional masculinity peddled by magazines and television shows never made me feel particularly represented, leading to a struggle with my general appearance and body image which eventually came to a climax when I started severely restricting my food intake and drinking excessively. I was dating at the time – it goes without saying that those experiences weren’t positive, and men were generally extremely receptive to my slimmer but extremely unhealthy body.
Now I’m back in the dating world after a long-term relationship ended last year, I’ve found these insecurities have only grown over time. A few weeks ago I went on an idyllic date which ended in multiple orgasms, rearranged travel plans and then, two days later, a lengthy message from the guy telling me I was “fatter than [he] liked.” Ironically, we had bonded over our scepticism of the term ‘preference’ on our date, saying that we had both seen it used as a woolly disguise for prejudice. I talked about my own experiences of body-shaming and he reciprocated with his experiences of both implicit and explicit racism as a person of colour.
Still, he wasted no time in telling me he felt uncomfortable about being seen in public with me and that I should lose weight to “better myself.” He still messages me now; he was quick to say that it was his best sexual experience in recent memory and that it was that fact – that his ‘type’ clearly wasn’t as rigid as he thought – that bothered him. Apparently, if we do challenge, ignore or try to move past our ‘preferences’, we can find genuine connections – or, at the very least, a few incredible orgasms – on the other side.
The ongoing – and often unchallenged – racism in the gay community compounds these struggles, making it even more difficult for queer people of colour; scores of articles have documented racial prejudice in the gay dating world, while transphobia, ableism and femme-shaming are also still widespread. These attitudes are more visible than ever on dating apps, which allow us a degree of anonymity – it’s now easier than ever to find, target and victimise somebody online. This is evident in such depressingly commonplace captions as "No Fats, No Fems, No Asians," which have been identified and parodied within queer communities worldwide.
The general consensus is that, for gay men in particular, dating can be difficult if you deviate from the standards of perfection (ripped physique, ‘masculine’ presentation) that still dominate queer media. Graphic designer Chris Sayce found this out for himself when he posted a profile picture divided into two full-length images; one of him clothed, the other of him topless. He quickly received a kind message from a blank profile and decided to engage, but the conversation soon took a turn: “He said, ‘Oh, you look better with your top on, I thought you were posting a before-and-after picture',” recalls Chris over email.
“He then asked me why I choose to let myself look that way, and then said he finds large people ‘disgusting’. I was taken aback, but I was adamant not to be upset by this stranger’s words, so I defended myself. The barrage of insults about my topless picture were relentless, with him saying he could never be with somebody 'that big'. I told him he had no need to be talking to me, but he replied: ‘I need to educate you on your health because no-one has, obviously.’ With that, I blocked him. He successfully got to me.”
There are several theories as to why body-shaming is so commonplace among gay men in particular. One 1993 book, Alan Klein’s Little Big Men, presents a study of competitive bodybuilders which suggests that gay men worked out excessively to battle against stigma formulated during the AIDS crisis. Men would work out to look fit as opposed to frail; the implication was that appearance and health were linked, therefore an increased pressure to look ‘healthy’ was born. Physique culture – which pre-dated AIDS but stuck around in a more commercialised guise throughout the 1980s – is notable because it queered masculinity, placing bodybuilders and muscle men in homoerotic contexts. Although undeniably queer and progressive in its intentions, this led to a prevalence of muscle-bound men in gay porn, which is often still the case today. There are, of course, countless alternatives, but this could explain – at least in part – the ongoing fetishisation of muscularity which still excludes so, so many.
Body type is just the tip of the iceberg. Countless articles have depicted blatant racism on Grindr; now, the app’s new online platform INTO has launched a video series which sees users switch profiles in order to understand how commonplace this discrimination can be. This is a heartening step forward – an example of a company realising people have been using its product as a vehicle for their own prejudice and stepping up to fight against it.
Another interviewee – who has chosen to remain anonymous – opened up about his own Grindr experiences of being shamed for his age, revealing that a guy he had talked to sporadically had spotted him in his local town centre and subsequently ghosted him. Then, he reappeared with a simple message explaining that he didn’t look good and had aged terribly. “It made me feel really self-conscious,” explains our source, “but also weirded out that people were watching me and judging my appearance. I didn’t reply, just blocked him, but it did stop me putting a picture of my face on my profile, as I didn’t want people to recognise me out and about.”

We all need to think about how we talk to one another, because queer people worldwide are more marginalised than ever; the last thing we need is in-fighting within the community to make matters worse.

This response is interesting, as it helps us to understand the psychology behind remaining faceless on apps. Although many users specify the need of a face picture to engage in conversation, it’s worth remembering these apps are used worldwide – including in countries which still persecute or remain heavily intolerant of homosexuality. Faceless profiles are often scapegoated as the ones most guilty of discrimination, yet they can often represent a safety net.
However, this occasional need to remain ‘discreet’ has led to a culture of assimilation which is understandable in some cases but accompanied by large doses of femme-shaming in others. “Constantly seeing ‘no femmes’ on profiles can be heartbreaking in a way,” says Connor Young, in a statement about his own experiences. “It makes you feel quite lonely, like the gay community only wants you if it isn’t ashamed to be seen around you.” He also gives the example of a coworker willing to be openly racist and also specify that he doesn’t want “camp guys” on his Grindr profile, saying it’s just a preference. He then went on to cancel various dates when he found out the men did drag on the side – “obviously that Grindr bio is a symptom of deeper prejudice,” says Young.
Queer people come in a variety of beautiful shapes, sizes and skin colours, and it’s important to acknowledge the flaws of diluting our beauty into thumbnail-sized photos and concise biographies. Appearance is just one part of the bigger picture; attraction is unquantifiable, and (as I found out) people that wouldn’t usually consider you their type can surprise themselves when they look further than their own narrow categorisations. They might blame you and give you a lengthy lecture afterwards but hey, every victory counts.
More crucially, it’s important to remember that we don’t have to talk to people that we aren’t attracted to. Stop announcing your prejudice in your bio – nobody is forcing you to fuck anyone. We all need to think about how we talk to one another, because queer people worldwide are more marginalised than ever; the last thing we need is in-fighting within the community to make matters worse. Furthermore, it’s worth remembering that the rights afforded to us in privileged Western countries were fought for by the same communities that the gay community at large still seems so reluctant to embrace. “That’s what these people fail to realise,” explains Young. “The fags and the femmes that came before us, they were the ones that paved the way for us to live with enough freedom to have these apps in the first place.”

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