Of Nude Models and Photoshop: The Problem with Online Dating, and How to Get Over It

When I signed on to OkCupid two years ago, the first man to contact me was a lawyer. His profile revealed a tan, broad-smiled and startlingly unblemished man. He described himself as open-minded and optimistic. His photos practically glowed.

Not too shabby, I thought.

I had never dated online before, and I was excited. To think, I could rifle through hundreds of matches and strike on a lifetime companion. Yes, I had concerns. There was the potential for upsetting or awkward dates. I had fleeting visions of a psychotic stalker or two. But hey: a hot lawyer was contacting me right off the bat. The experiment was off to an auspicious start!

Of course, things with Suitor #1 weren’t what they seemed. This became obvious during our first and only phone call.

I’ve taught Pilates for fifteen years. I have my own business and take the job seriously. Teaching consumes most of my time, but only because I love it. Past men I dated understood that I wasn’t defined by my job title, but by how I approached my work. I am a dedicated and conscientious professional—end of story.

But online profiles force us to make split-second decisions from surface facts; suitors therefore invariably fixate on my profession. This was the case with the lawyer. After the usual questions about Pilates (how I came into it, where I teach), he got to his point.

“I’m kind of in the same field as you,” he said.

“Oh? Do you represent fitness professionals?”

“No, no. You see, I’m a lawyer, but my passion is nude modeling.”

I fell silent while things in my brain clicked into place. I cleared my throat. “Are you saying you’re in the pornography industry?”

“Well, I don’t call it that,” he said obliquely. “I like to call it an expression of my true self.”

The conversation unraveled from there. I’m not against nude modeling on principle (though it’s definitely not my passion). It’s just that I had taken the surface facts—tan, smiley, law degree—for the whole truth. I felt hoodwinked.

Before hanging up to down a glass of wine, I asked what prompted him to contact me.

“It was the Pilates,” he said. “I figured since you’re into fitness, you’d be free with your body. Maybe you’d nude model too!”

My OK Cupid experiences have been variations on the same theme ever since. No, the suitors aren’t all lawyer/nude models. (Alas!) But my interactions have revealed discouraging assumptions men make when encountering the dating profile of a woman—assumptions intensified because of my profession (as would be the case with any “body-defined” professional, whether dancer, athlete or model). Ultimately, my experiences reveal the shortcomings of online dating as a whole—how the surface facts and the judgments we make obscure a true understanding of the person behind the profile as a multi-layered and real human being.

Minding the Body

Many men who contact me, seeing that I’m a Pilates professional, feel free to make assumptions about my body. When I set up the OK Cupid account, I decided not to post body shots in my profile. It just didn’t occur to me; aside from being modest, I don’t find that body size or shape is central to finding a good match.

But this exclusion galled many men. Some responses were enthusiastic. “Whoa, you’re a Pilates teacher? You must have a great body! “You must be really really hot! Send a photo?” But there were nastier messages too. “If you weren’t a fat pig, you’d post photos of your body.” “If you’re a Pilates instructor, where are your body pics?”

At first I was stunned by the come-ons and abuses. I wanted to pen missives of outrage. My body is not a pixelated object for your consumption! This is OK Cupid, not a meat market . . . I think!

But I learned to tune these men out. Some men are first and foremost interested in the physicality of a prospective date. Some men find that, from the safety of a laptop, they can say whatever primal things they want. And some men are just dickheads.

Lies, Self-Worth and Nachos

Not all OK Cupid suitors demand that I reveal my body—but some are compelled to profess their love of gyms. “I’m just like you,” they say. “Taking care of my body every day is so important.” But usually, when I meet these men in real life, it’s evident that the “healthy lifestyle” spiel is a far cry from the truth.

This is one of the stranger aspects of online dating. Why would these guys lie if they knew I would meet them, see that they’re not the buff he-men they claimed to be, and know that they had lied? I’ve also come across some ghastly photoshop and filter jobs, making men look waxy and askew. When we meet in the flesh, I’ll know you used a photo from ten years ago, and that your eyes don’t actually twinkle with software-enhanced light.

But I came to realization after a while: these men lie because they don’t want to scare me away with the truth—that they love nachos and beer and that, though they haven’t been on an elliptical in months, they dutifully lug their gym shoes in the trunk of their cars, just in case. I didn’t understand this insecurity at first, because I personally love nachos and draft beer and would love to connect on that. Although I don’t have the same gym aversion, I can happily date someone who does.

Online dating is hard; it puts everyone in a very vulnerable place. In a culture that tells you that you’re worthless if your abs are anything but six-packs and your food anything but kale, it’s understandable why someone would lie about his exercise and diet habits—especially to a Pilates instructor.

Overcoming the Digital Dating Doldrums

So, if I’m writing about how online dating compounds body consciousness and vulnerability, why do I continue using OK Cupid? Why don’t I just close my account and be done with it?

It’s because after a couple dates, the pretenses from the dating profiles subside. Even the guys who are fixated on the way I look (or should look, or whatever) forget that after a date or two. The relationship can become like anything between two people—normal, relaxed, and not just about physical forms.

So give people a break. A lot of online suitors have lied to me about their age, for example, which used to annoy me. But our culture is age-obsessed; men, too, feel the pressure to be young. If minor deceptions make them feel more confident in entering the scary online dating gauntlet, so be it.

Ultimately, the challenge with online dating is twofold:

(1) Do not make any assumptions.

(2) Be present.

There’s a Maya Angelou quote that I love: “Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible.” When you meet a suitor, don’t render the man sitting in front of you inaccessible with the judgments you’ve tallied from his profile. Consider the profile instead as a gesture toward the true individual, and not a rule to which he must be measured. In fact, forget everything you read or saw in the profile—law degree, smile and all—and go with who you’re meeting. Even if the guy isn’t what his profile represents, you’ll still get to know the human behind it. If you don’t hit if off, at least you gave the guy a fair shake—and proved yourself as a compassionate, thoughtful person.

And hey, if nothing else, you could discover a passion for nude modeling!

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