My sabbatical has been a bit of a blur so far, PHEW! Amid responding to the crisis unfolding at Western University related to sexual and gender-based assaults, I’ve had several academic and public articles on the go alongside my on-going efforts to secure a literary agent for my memoir. More than one agent has expressed interest and I should be in a position to decide soon. I’m over the moon, but it hasn’t really hit me, to be honest.
I’m registering my feels and know that I need to take time to let things sink in. When October hits, the pace will relax and become more singularly focused on book-related writing. That’s the heart of my sabbatical, and this is my year to live dangerously, as it were. I want to throw myself into this unique literary pursuit and when I’m not writing, I’m reading about writing. It’s consumptive in a deeply fulfilling way.
When people see me writing all the time, they often think it’s all work, which it is. But it’s also love and an act of gratitude. It’s the place where who I am as a woman and thinker comes out in ways that it can’t in any other thing that I do. In the spirit of sharing some of my book chapters-in-process, here’s the first part of what is currently Chapter 1.
Chapter 1- Selfies for Days
I immediately understand that he is committed to hard work and being the best that he can be. I know this because the phrase: “there are no shortcuts” is emblazoned on a decorative storage cube that sits in the third tier of the bathroom shelf. I see a St. Ives label on the family size lotion container sitting on the counter, alongside all matter of drug store hygiene products. The man looks at himself in his phone while taking a bathroom selfie -a favourite backdrop for making memories. All six profile pictures feature his small but extremely taut body. There are no shortcuts (Bumble match profile pic, October 2017).
Dating apps are a fast-paced, visually driven swipefest and many users obsessively tweak their photos and written profiles to maximize their chances of dating success. A day or two after signing up to my first platform, I had rearranged my photos and edited my bio so many times it was mind-numbing. Who was I trying to be? Who was I trying to get?
I wanted to match with the hot guys I spied every now and then, who were as rare as a rainbow after a summer storm. Because they were so fleeting and so hot, I was driven to make myself appear sexier and cooler, which felt like a degrading self-promotion campaign instead of a fun dating journey.
I’m more than sexy and cool, yet while diligently scrolling through the 1,500 photos on my phone those qualities kept running through my head. I used them to filter through and target the best pictures, which featured me looking fit, confident, and stylish. No lie: during the first few weeks on dating apps, I made notes on my top 10-15 pictures. What a lonely heart Swipenerd.
To lighten my dating load, I could get the app to sort my pictures. But what does the algorithm see as the “best” image to lead with? And does the order of the pictures make that much of a difference? Who knows, but by offering this specific function, these details are made to seem very important and worth obsessing over.
Since dating apps hit the market in 2009 with Grindr and then with Tinder in 2012, perfecting user profiles has become a lucrative cottage industry. There are literally thousands of preening professionals who will not only set up profile pictures, but some will also do the dating for you.
What about the write-ups? As a literary maven, I always have a compelling profile but sometimes I wonder if it’s worth my time. This is because many, many guys freely admit or blatantly reveal that they don’t read them. Despite always putting my profession and home base in my profile, for instance, I have repeated this information to so many matches it makes me want to scream. Are you illiterate, friend? Is your attention span that minuscule? Have you no desire to learn anything about me before dropping into my dating DMs?
The observation that guys tend to ignore the written blurbs and focus more on profile pictures is not front-page news. However, when this tendency is viewed through an anthropological lens that considers what this pattern might reveal about sex, gender, and self-presentation, things become interesting. This example also parallels the behaviour of male animal species who use vibrant visual cues during courtship practices, like the twerking black widow spiders and exceptionally industrious Bowerbirds who fashion elaborate bachelor pads to woo their ladies.
One big difference between male animals in the wild and guys on dating apps is that on digital platforms guys don’t compete for female attention out in the open. Competition is built into the swiping system, but the mechanisms and tools that men use to garner the sexual attention of the females they desire are vastly different than in the wild. Online there are no pheromones, in-person visual assessment, or audible cues to guide men, or women, or anyone using these apps.
We are left with pictures and a profile blurb, which makes these pieces of the digital dance vitally important. Take the profile picture described at the beginning of the chapter, what clues about masculinity and self-presentation are hidden in that bathroom selfie?
- Taller men are often associated with financial and social success and women generally prefer dating up the vertical scale. The man in question is short, not living in the shire short, but he’s definitely below the average 5’9.” To compensate for this he selects images that highlight his physical strength, which is a very manly attribute.
- The pictures show this guy in settings that symbolize leisure and hard work, two key aspects of success. This lets us know that he makes enough money to have time to hit the gym, throw the ball with friends in well-manicured parks, and that he is well-liked among his fashionable coworkers.
- The limited number of hygiene products may mean that he lives alone, which is preferable when dating. The brands on display are rather unsophisticated, which could reflect the lack of a female influence in his life or that he doesn’t discuss bodily products with his suave coworkers.
- The message about there being no shortcuts reinforces the fact that this guy works hard and believes in hard work to get what he wants in life. That’s attractive to most women, who also value hard work and want their date to be motivated at work and in their bodily maintenance.
Social commentaries about dating apps usually focus on women’s romantic woes or winning strategies. When men are featured, it’s often in comedic listicles about things they get wrong. Or they are discussed in relation to issues of deception, harassment, rape, and even murder. I’ve had many negative experiences on these platforms, many of which I share in this book. Instead of hating on guys or wiping these encounters from my memory, I want to understand them. After several years of trying to score a good date and get inside the minds- and pants- of many men, it’s clear that they struggle with romance, communication, and who they are at a time when masculinity is in flux. I don’t think that men are more important than women, just that their experiences deserve a closer look.