Upload, contemplate, remove: these are the three rationale-backed steps for crafting the perfect dating profile on the internet today. In an age synonymous with catfishing (where someone pretends to be a completely different person online than they are in real life), kittenfishing (the diet version of catfishing) and even mermaiding (where the person’s identity is real but they aim to ruin you in every other way possible), it’s no surprise that dating apps require one to be well-versed in Google’s reverse image search engine in 2022.
With every match featuring a pet selfie comes a rabbit hole of uncertainties as we overanalyse profile descriptions to decide if someone is being their ‘authentic’ selves online or rather cosplaying as someone completely different. But as the mantra of ‘bad profiles only lead to bad dates’ continues to grip singles, we’re now witnessing the rise of a counter practice supposedly rooted in ‘pleasant’ surprises: reverse catfishing.
Reverse catfishing is the practice where one intentionally uploads unflattering images of themselves to their online dating profiles. And no, I’m not talking about cringy sweat-dripping gym selfies or sports car photoshoots—those deserve a sinful category of their own. Instead, the images involved in reverse catfishing include thoughtless Snaps, random clicks and even crying selfies.
Have you ever accidentally taken a picture of yourself while checking your nose for boogers with your front camera? That’s peak reverse catfishing energy right there.
At its core, the trend aims to attract matches who are genuinely interested in someone’s personality rather than their appearance. While it’s a problematic yet general consensus that you’re ‘only as hot as your dating profile’, reverse catfishing proves how four to six photos could never realistically capture your living, laughing and breathing candid selves.
Apart from narrowing down the time and effort it takes to meet your potential partner, the technique also has another aspect to it all: the surprise on your date’s face when you both meet up for the first time offline. With comments like “your photos didn’t do you justice” and “you look so much better in person,” reverse catfishing is hence touted as the counter practice of the toxic realms of catfishing—one that ‘pleasantly’ surprises your match when you show up in person.
With more than 606,000 views and counting, reverse catfishing is all the rage on TikTok, where users can be seen uploading screen grabs of their dating profiles for inspiration. “Posting unflattering photos on Hinge to weed out the shallow men,” a user captioned their video. “This technique seems to be working, ladies,” wrote another as the video delves into conversations the user has had with their matches.
As it gains momentum, however, the practice raises questions about the ethics of dating apps. Can reverse catfishing actually help one find “meaningful” connections? I mean, aren’t you basing your entire relationship on a test of sorts with this technique? Where does one draw the line between unflattering and purely misleading selfies?
On 27 January 2022, The Sun published a column titled I’m a reverse catfish—I put ugly pics on Tinder so men are pleasantly surprised when we meet & it works every time. The article delved into a TikTok user’s experience having secured a date using the technique in question despite not having any matches at first.
In a series of videos, the TikToker revealed that her Tinder date was initially “scared” when he saw her profile picture. “You look a lot better in person,” the match later said. The TikToker further mentioned that her date confessed she looked “100 times better” than her Tinder profile and even went as far to admit she looked “like trash” online.
Reverse catfishing is also a trend which is often addressed on Reddit—where multiple users have previously admitted to both experiencing and doing so online themselves. One particular thread that grabbed my attention was the case of a Redditor who matched with a Hinge user and had no clue that his profile was reverse fishing. “When he showed up for dinner, he was wayyyy more attractive than his pictures! He has lost about 45 lbs since his pics on his profile and he is gorgeous! We laughed about how he reverse catfished me,” the user wrote.
While most netizens lauded the match for reverse catfishing the Redditor “for all the right reasons,” others cast doubt on how the opposite case would have been perceived as a “classic example of catfishing.”
Some also went on to admit how the practice doesn’t always take the ‘your vibe attracts your tribe’ route. “One of my wife’s friends has had this backfire on her. She got divorced five or six years ago. Post divorce she got lap band surgery and lost close to a hundred pounds,” a user wrote, adding how she then used to get thirsty messages from guys when she started online dating.
“She decided to use old pics from before she lost the weight to weed those cats out,” the user continued. “She ended up hitting it off with some guys online who ended up being disappointed when they met her in person because they’re into big women. One guy even bounced like ten minutes into their first date and sent her a super mean message about leading him on afterwards.”
Now, it’s time for the final expert polls. Is reverse catfishing actually an ethical practice? Or is it yet another toxic technique that needs to be eradicated from the dating sphere once and for all?
“It makes sense to me that someone who repeatedly matches with people who fawn over them and show little interest in getting to know them ‘on the inside,’ might downplay appearance and amplify other traits,” Dr. Maggie Vaughan, a psychotherapist based in New York City, told Well+Good. “Downplaying your looks is no better or worse than posting only your best photos, which is what most people do. As long as the photos are actually you, it’s not dishonest.”
Dr. Vaughan believes that, at the end of the day, dating profiles are just a small slice of a whole person. “All profiles are a manipulation designed to attract a potential mate,” the expert said. “If you’re merely presenting yourself in a particular light, that’s to be expected.”
While London-based dating expert Hayley Quinn thinks reverse catfishing “isn’t necessarily a red flag,” she doesn’t recommend singletons to try the same as it could be a huge turn-off to potential partners. “Authenticity often scores people the best and most compatible matches,” she told the publication.
While sharing a candid photo isn’t outright lying, doing so with the intention of manipulating someone’s opinions is problematic, to say the least.
Does benching, breadcrumbing, breezing, cushioning, negging, hogging and pocketing ring a bell? What about catfishing? Introduced to the dating world in the 2010 documentary film called Catfish, the term refers to the deceptive practice where someone pretends to be a completely different person online than they are in real life. A catfish will typically steal another individual’s identity (including their pictures, date of birth and geographical location), avoid showing their face on video calls and make up stories that are often too good to be true.
In Catfish, photographer Nev Schulman documented his own journey to uncover who was really behind the long-distance relationship he’d been having with 19-year-old singer named ‘Megan’. Eventually, he finds out that the person on the other end—who he’d engaged with over hundreds of text messages, Facebook posts and phone calls—had been a middle-aged man based in Michigan.
Although Schulman went on to create the MTV series Catfish: The TV Show, we’re here to acknowledge a growing offspring of catfishing today—which, to be honest, we’re all lowkey guilty of to a certain extent. Welcome to the wildly exaggerated world of kittenfishing. Now, before you ask, no, this toxic dating trend has nothing to do with furry little munchkins dunking their paws in water or staring rather greedily at a fish tank.
Coined by the dating app Hinge in 2017, kittenfishing is the diet version of catfishing if you will, a tactic where you purposely misrepresent yourself online but not to the extreme extent where you have a full-fledged false identity complete with a fake passport and accent. Think about deploying tiny white lies—like exaggerating your height, age and interest or even adding a country or two to those you’ve actually seen—all in the hopes to hook a potential date.
A kittenfisher is an expert at enhancing their dating profile. Be it with tiny tweaks (like embellishing their job title and lifestyle to sound more impressive), or full-blown clickbait antics (for instance, using old and heavily edited pictures of themselves to match the adjusted age description), a kittenfisher would bend the truth about anything to round favours from their matches. Heck, examples of the dating trend on the internet also include bald men—apologies, males with receding hairlines up till the nape of their necks—wearing hats in all their snaps.
Essentially, kittenfishing refers to a well-intended phenomenon: painting yourself in a more positive light. What harm could it possibly do, right? According to a study by Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, more than half of online daters (54 per cent) admit that their matches have “seriously misinterpreted” themselves in their dating profiles. When Hinge surveyed its users they found that 38 per cent of men and 24 per cent of women reported being kittenfished on the platform. What’s more interesting is that only two per cent of men and one per cent of women admitted kittenfishing someone else. Simply put, the toxic dating strategy is so elusive that people are not even realising they’re doing it.
Research has additionally proved that men typically exaggerate their height while women are more prone to mess with details about their weight. Statistics collected by the dating app OkCupid further noted that the more attractive a photo, the more likely it is out of date.
Although kittenfishing is a lighter version of catfishing, the dating tactic can have serious consequences on a relationship. Sure, knocking a year or two off your age doesn’t seem like a big deal when you haven’t even set up a lunch date with your match yet, however, the further the in-person meetup goes, the more likely it will be that you’ve based the entire relationship on a lie. And we all know how that usually ends.
“The most important element for a successful, long-lasting relationship is trust, so when you lie in your profile, you’re only setting your date up for disappointment when their expectations don’t match reality,” Damona Hoffman, dating coach and host of the Dates & Mates podcast, told HuffPost. “You might be able to make it through a few first dates with secrets, but if your relationship evolves, eventually you will have to come clean. That could mean the end of an otherwise great partnership,” the expert continued. “It’s a missed opportunity to find someone who will love you as you are.”
By this point I’m pretty sure most of you are either recalling your experiences of being kittenfished or realising you might be guilty of the crime yourself—which has become commonplace in the dating world today. Either way, here are a few pointers to help spot kittenfishing before it gets out of hand, as recommended by psychologist Ana Jovanovic in an interview with NBC News.
If you pay close attention to the conversations with your potential match, you may notice contradictory details in their stories or “see them fail to respond to a relatively simple question about a topic they seem to be very passionate about.”
Next up is the absence of details surrounding the element of a person’s life that they’ve lied to you about. If, for example, someone has embellished their job title in their dating profile, they may avoid going into specifics about what their position entails as there may be a high chance they accidentally reveal the truth in the process of explaining it.
Lastly, according to Jovanovic, if it seems like your match has no flaws whatsoever, there’s a high chance they’re probably too good to be true. At this stage, it’s up to you to decide if you want to investigate further. But Jovanovic ultimately advises to ask yourself: What is the person trying to cover or lie about, how severe is the kittenfishing and how important is this to you? “You will need to make your decision on what to do based on the answer to this question,” the expert added.
Be it with an edited selfie or adding a few inches to your height, if you think you’ve kittenfished someone else, it’s time to address the speculations—once and for all. On these terms, Jovanovic recommends asking yourself the following questions and answering them honestly:
This is one of the most basic exercises you can do to analyse if you’ve been kittenfishing your matches. Imagine yourself showing up for a date with someone you’ve met online. Would they recognise you easily from your photos? Sure, we all have good angles, but are you intentionally tweaking the way you look on the internet a tad too far?
In an interview with Bustle, Chris Armstrong, relationship coach and founder of Maze of Love, explained how kittenfishing has become a common practice today—given how dating is a competitive sport and we all feel the pinch. “So we resort to embellishment,” Armstrong said. “We do what we need to gain an edge. Second to this, we believe it is harmless and that our charm and wit will win out in the end.” But the ugly truth is that even if you chant “I know I’m not really six feet but she’ll love my sense of humour,” you might just land a first date but blow all your chances of subsequent ones.
Disclaimer: the answer to this question may be a shocker if you believe you’ve engaged with the dating strategy in question.
A good beginners exercise is to get feedback on your dating profile from your close friends. Cringy, I know. But the insights you’d receive are bound to be the most honest ones—which will help you put your best foot forward and analyse if you’ve been misleading your matches all along.
Now, if you really think about it, kittenfishing has been a thing long before dating apps were even birthed into existence. Your parents might have won each other over with slight tweaks about their GPA and life goals. Heck, over here in India, families have been downright lying about their healthy dynamics to land matrimonial matches for centuries.
Though we won’t be able to eradicate kittenfishing altogether from the dating sphere anytime soon, it’s time to at least be self-aware of the toxic practice—and the earlier, the better.