It’s never fun to feel like a stranger in your own body, but it’s also completely unfair to be angry at yourself for feeling new things—being new things. That’s an overdramatic way of saying that after years of being pro-meet-cute and anti-dating app, I am now on Bumble.
Sure, at first, it was a joke, because I’m unable to admit anything to myself ever. I jokingly looked through the app store—after midnight, no less—and jokingly set up my profile and jokingly started swiping. I fed my friends live updates. Because isn’t that what dating apps are good for—the laughs?
I didn’t really have any use for it until I got ghosted (for the first time in my whole life! Two days into social distancing!) and I was feeling so used and ignored and rejected that I gave in to the sugary assurance of Bumble’s copywriters: You’re so special! Someone wants to meet you on Bumble. Open Bumble to connect. That’s the thing about online dating: it’s not a big deal. It’s an app. I have like thirty other ones on my phone right now. I may have joined it as a joke but even after the laughter stopped I was still in it, maybe even more so.
Of course dating apps are boring if you’re too stricken by fear of rejection to swipe right on anyone, but the morning after I half-cried myself to sleep while reading the screenplay of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (“I know that I care more to be loved. I want to be loved.”), I tapped the sickly sweet beehive icon and swiped right on absolutely everyone until my forefinger felt numb. If my beeline was right and there were fifty people who wanted to match with me, then fuck it, show me them! I saw some guy from my high school and almost backed out, but fuck it, swiped right; matched. I talked to them all, no filtering at all. I was a mess of tingly nerve endings and heightened senses—I was on fight-or-flight mode and ready to roll with the punches.
I wanted someone to talk to me. I wanted someone to tell me why they swiped right; I wanted to be seen so, so badly. I was tired of being left unassured, of not being seen as a whole—you know how Gen Z internet-infected love works (for what it’s worth, I hate it with my whole being). Because isn’t that what dating apps are good for—self-discovery?
Before you download Bumble, there’s an admission to yourself that oh, this—dating? romance? attention?—is what I want. And as you set up your profile, there are more admissions, like oh, physical attractiveness is actually a social currency, and I’m not really above this; in fact I’m very in it! I’m very under its pressure, especially as a woman whose woman-ness means I’m eternally defined by my very artifice. The fact that I’m on Bumble, where I intend to swipe left on every average-looking guy, means I’m not just a participant but a perpetrator.
And as you curate your profile, you admit that, oh, I’m beautiful because I’m choosing these photos (max 6, BTW) in which I think I’m beautiful and I think I project a seductiveness that’s potent enough to elicit a (hopefully positive) reaction in under three seconds. And when you start swiping, more admissions again: you’re not above the superficiality of the world. You swiped left on that guy without knowing his name or what he put in his bio—if he didn’t look attractive in the .5 seconds you looked at his little picture, then sorry to this man.
When you match, there’s an admission that, oh, you’re exhilarated by this. You’re so excited it’s almost a little embarrassing. Exhilarated by the idea of being seen and being desired for your physicality, because I’m sure people love me for my pleasant personality, proved by the whopping number of guys lining up because of my brilliant (read: pretentious) taste in movies and my penchant for oversharing on the internet. They’re lining up!
There’s a different kind of rush that comes with realizing that people desire you physically, and it’s incredibly addicting. Insecurity is rarely rooted in personality (who feels bad for being bland? Just get a weird hyperfixation like the rest of us), and having this tool that tells you other people are attracted to you physically with just a tap? You tap and you get reaffirmation? How is everyone not swiping right on everyone else all the time?
With apps like Bumble, attention becomes dispensable; there whenever the need arises, a dispensary of external validation. I always felt like an audience member in my own life, like how a magician picks a volunteer from the crowd and it’s never you. But now it can always be me, all the time! And I get to be in on the tricks, finally.
Naturally online dating has many latent functions: aside from being an attention machine with a lever I just couldn’t stop pulling, it also gave me a sense of control. Every time a guy made a move on me (IRL, pre-Bumble), it was hard not to feel like I already owed them something. Rejecting people is never easy, but as a woman it’s especially hard to not feel like a snobby bitch who’s doing this completely nice guy the biggest injustice of his life by telling him you’d be better as friends. Whenever they made their move it felt like marking their territory. At least on Bumble, where women message first on heterosexual matches, if I didn’t want something, it was in my hands.
There are more admissions once you begin messaging your matches. Flirting is fun but it’s also letting your guard down; it’s expressing interest, which requires confidence, some semblance of self-regard. My years of deep, deep insecurity distorted flirting into arrogance, and I didn’t want to be arrogant, to exude something I had nothing to show for. I’m unable to speak to anyone with even the slightest hint of innuendo unless I’m assured both sides will reciprocate; anticipating (and consequently avoiding) rejection is my only talent, I think. That’s why I’m on Bumble and swiping right on everyone: they’re invested in me but I’m not invested in them. That lowers the stakes; I get to chat without feeling like every misplaced punctuation mark is the end of the world. It’s like playing house or putting on a performance. Whatever they say, I go with, feeling extra brave because we’re all on self-quarantine—what are they going to do, come see me?
When I said I wanted control I think I meant power. I wanted the confidence boost: one guy replied “FINALLY!” when I got around to messaging him, and another invited me to make out (I agreed—again, what was he going to do, come see me? Amidst a heightened community quarantine?). They asked the questions, they kept the small talk going. They’d ask me about my interests, and for once they were the ones pretending to know what I was talking about. (I said I liked movies and this guy said his favorites were the Ocean’s trilogy. I asked him if he’d seen Ocean’s 8 and he said he probably has, although he’s not too sure because it was released so long ago. Ocean’s 8 was released two years ago.) It was refreshing to be the one to be catered to, to be pandered to, after catering and pandering for so long. I was tired of not being chosen but now I’m doing the choosing—everyone hits me with their best shot and I do the fucking choosing. I want to assert my ability to choose and reaffirm my own choosability. When I said I wanted control I think I meant revenge.
The further you get into talking the more admissions you make. Yeah, you’re in control because you messaged first, but not really, because the rest of how it goes often depends on them. And yeah, I know it doesn’t have to be, because chivalry is dead etc. etc., but I never experienced chivalry so I’m going to nurse it back to life. I don’t think I want to love anyone who isn’t deeply, harrowingly in love with me first.
I’d like to say that just because these people are only on your phone screen doesn’t make them any less real. It can be easy to forget, especially at a time when our first instinct upon receiving a borderline ludicrous rejection text is to screenshot and tweet; and then this instinct encourages more borderline ludicrous texts, which also get tweeted, triggering this self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuating “clown” behavior and normalizing incentivizing pain—virtual pain, sure, but still pain. The internet isn’t just a reflection of real life but an extension of it, so try to be human in here too.
And it’s not like this weird dismissiveness of others is a purely online phenomenon. I’ve done this whole Bumble stint—using other people to prop up my own self-worth, keeping them in my life just for a steady stream of external validation—IRL too. At the time I didn’t really think I was being an asshole, because I was too insecure to realize I had the capability to be an asshole. I thought, “Oh, they’re probably talking to five other people right now, so it doesn’t matter.” I thought I didn’t matter enough to hurt others. That’s selfish, and just because you’re insecure and suspicious of everyone doesn’t justify you being an asshole. You’re part of the world; you exist to other people. Of course you’re always going to feel used if you treat everyone else as a commodity.