Almost two years ago I split up with my husband. We had been together for over 15 years, and had been living in England for two, when I made the difficult decision to return to Canada (partly for work, partly to help support my ailing mother). After six months of draining and expensive transatlantic commuting, he left me. Or, rather, the relationship fell painfully apart, as distance, time, and sheer exhaustion broke its back.
Losing my long-term partner was hard for loads of reasons, but perhaps the worst of all was knowing I’d need to get back to dating again. I wasn’t done being in love, being cared for, or having sex – but to be honest, I barely remembered how to get myself these things.
I was an awkward kid with some body dysmorphia issues, and through my teens I was fat. I hated when people looked at me, and I did not like putting myself on the line for fear of teasing, bullying, humiliation – all the stuff I’d been trained in middle school to expect when I allowed my vulnerabilities to show. How I managed to date at all, let alone find a loving partner of many years, still seems slightly miraculous to me.
Almost a year on from the break-up, I met somebody. He seemed wonderful and at first I was over the moon. But it was short lived: he had lots of mental health issues, and they intervened before we could really get started. Needless to say I was disappointed; quite apart from the fact that I genuinely fancied him, I also thought I might have had a narrow escape!
I thought I might be able to avoid online dating.
Naive, I know. What do you do when you’re over 40, a smart professional woman with a bunch of impressive degrees, a nice house and a proper salary? If you’re lucky you live in a big city and have the chance to meet folks at great bars, restaurants, or local cafes. Or maybe there are lots of prospective partners at your gym/in your cycling club/amongst your friends’ friends.
Maybe you’re one of those people who routinely gets lucky on public transit.
Nope, me neither.
I live in a small city where the majority of the population is a) my colleagues, largely partnered; b) my students, and therefore off limits; c) folks who generally don’t share my values. (My university, and the town it’s in, are both pretty darn conservative. I am not.) Which means the in-person decks were stacked against me from the start.
This is the story of what happened when I decided to embrace the inevitable and head online. It is not meant to be a “use this site, but not this site!” how-to guide by any means; rather, it’s about self-care during the online dating process, especially for women.
Because holy cow, does online dating ever require self care.
STEP ONE: Match me. No, really.
I started with Match on the advice of a friend. It’s relationship-friendly, so that was good; I’m more into relationships than hookups. It wanted a lot of information from me, so I gamely gave details. I tried to include fun, flirty photos and information, but let’s face it: I’m a brainy geek with a cycling habit. It’s all relative, and, relatively speaking, my profile probably made me a niche product at best.
The site kept prompting me to “like” and “wink” at men’s profiles (I am straight, and shopped for men only), and it kept encouraging me to send messages to them to boost the chances of a reply. I did that – a lot. I got nothing – literally NOTHING – in return. I started to wonder what was wrong with me. Did these men get my messages, look at my profile, think “ew! brainy cycling geek! RUN!” and do just that? With no positive feedback (heck, no feedback of any kind), plus the irksome website constantly prompting me to make my profile more seductive and my images more enticing, I grew more and more sure (despite, once more, I repeat, no actual, real-world evidence) that I was simply the most undesireable woman on earth, and was just going to have to accept that.
Result? I felt like utter shit. Every single day.
How’d I get through this? Well, for one thing, I sought the help of friends. This might sound like an obvious strategy, but it didn’t seem obvious in the moment.
Let me reiterate here that my experience online thus far had been entirely isolating and a painful trigger for every ugly fear I’d ever nourished as a young woman about my physical inadequacy. No number of degrees, salary points, or QOM victories in my pockets could make up for the way Match’s structure encouraged me to locate my self-worth in being “liked” or “winked at” by random guys on the internet.
I’ve not hit a lot of glass ceilings in my life, but every morning when I woke up to check my empty message box I felt the painful banging.
Because, as I think we all know by now, the patriarchy is alive and well and breeding like rabbits on the web.
So reaching out to friends was tough – not obvious, but essential. I felt like I was admitting failure, but Sarah and Hillary, to whom I turned for support, sat me down and walked me through the ways in which the site was designed to infantilize users and create unreasonable, heteronormative expectations.
We talked about strategies for creating super-cute winky-winky profile images, sexy but not too OTT; we worked on profile language that would be clever and inviting but not confusing or intimidating for guys not in on the geek culture that feeds me. We talked about the pros and cons of listing/not listing my doctoral degree, or my salary. (Match asks for info on education and salary. Thanks, Match.) Most importantly, we talked about all of this as a strategy, not as reality. We talked about the problems inherent in the structure of the online game, but also about why we were playing it – what results we wanted it, for better or worse, to yield. We talked about the difference between the perceptions we were creating, the reality we were living, and the injustice of the two not being able to match, and still earn a Match.
In other words, we had a genuinely feminist conversation (over killer burgers and fries, y’all – because internet dating requires sustenance), and that conversation really buoyed me, lifted me up out of the sense of despair and identity confusion the online experience had been germinating for me.
The changes Sarah and Hillary helped me make to my profile did not improve results, but the time we spent together helped to improve my attitude tenfold: I was reminded I could remain firmly feminist, my whole, powerful self, and still do this, if this was a route to a relationship and a relationship was what I wanted. So when my paid three months on Match.com expired, I decided to take a risk and head for Tinder.
STEP TWO: is that a dick pic I see before me?
My goodness, yes it is. I was in theory prepared for the onslaught of purely sexual interest I knew would arrive with Tinder, but I wasn’t prepared for how bad it would make me feel. Once again, I was hit in the gut: a year ago I’d never have believed that an excess of interest in my body would feel as wrenching as *no* interest in my body, but there it was. Being asked for sexual favours, for photos of breasts or “pussy”… let’s just say Donald Trump was simply citing the zeitgeist, not saying anything particularly shocking.
The result? God, I felt degraded. SO. DEGRADED.
Not because I don’t love my body, but because I unabashedly do! Because my body is so much more than its parts, isolated and fetishised; it is rich, dense, historical terrain. It is the sum of my achievements, written in its scars, in my (I think really sexy) laugh lines, and in all the ways the sun and the light and the rain colour my skin so I need not wear makeup (which makes me itchy – I’ve never liked it).
This problem was trickier to solve than the one Match had thrown me. Being asked to forget that my body is MY body and nobody else’s, being encouraged to turn it into free, animated porn on demand was possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever had to face head-on (sorry). I was socialised as a “good girl”; I’ve been programmed to please everybody all the time. But I couldn’t do this. I did not want this.
On Tinder, I had to face the shocking disjuncture between two versions of “good”: the “good” girl who tries to please the men around her, and the “good” girl who wants to take proper care of herself.
And then, of course, there was the spectre of the OTHER girl inside me: the girl who knows “good” is total bullshit, one of a million ways our culture tries to keep us from our most powerful selves, and our most powerful desires.
Ironically, I came to terms with Tinder when I realised that nope, I didn’t want to be anybody’s pussy shot – but likewise, yup, I really did want to have some hot, random sex, and that there was nothing not “good”, not healthy, not wonderful about that.
So I swiped with abandon. I chose to be as direct and clear as I could be once a conversation started. No, I won’t invite you over if we’ve not met yet. Yes, I’m up for lots of things but safety comes first, including having an in-person conversation with you, and insisting on condoms every time. If you get demanding I’ll be leaving; I far prefer to share. Honesty is rule #1.
I’m not entirely sure how I got to this place; it’s in many ways the opposite of where I started. I began with Match in the firm belief I wanted a relationship, and felt instantly like I was back in junior high school, alone in the hall with my baggy clothes and self-loathing. I had, then, to find my way back to myself; I did that by reaching out to my network of feminist comrades. Next I lived through the experience of being sexualised and objectified, then realised with a fair bit of humility that I wasn’t going through anything that MOST women haven’t been through, pretty much daily, for, um, thousands of years. I remembered that together we’ve grown much, much stronger – and that I, too, am strong, proud of my beautiful body, and excited to honour it whenever I can.
That, I think, is when I realized that I can honour and celebrate my body by owning my sexual desire, and by asserting both my desire as well as my body’s human rights in equal measure online. The web dating world looks at first glance like either a grammar-school gym or a pussy-grabbing free for all, depending on your particular patriarchal filter, but it doesn’t actually need to be either.
Because man, are there ever a lot of strong women out there on the internet! Let’s own our needs, lusts, and urges, ladies, and not be afraid to assert our hard-earned power.