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Kittenfishing is the toxic dating trend we’re all probably guilty of

By Malavika Pradeep

May 21, 2022

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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.

What is kittenfishing?

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.

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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.”

Are you being kittenfished?

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.

1. Look out for inconsistent claims

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.”

2. Lack of details

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.

3. Idealistic self-presentation

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.

Or… are you the kittenfisher?

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:

1. If a person was to meet me now, what differences would they find between who I am online and in-person?

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?

2. How many white lies have I told this person?

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. 

3. How do I think this person would describe me? Is this how I would describe myself, too?

Disclaimer: the answer to this question may be a shocker if you believe you’ve engaged with the dating strategy in question.

4. If a close friend who knows me well and this person were to talk about me, would they be able to recognise me as the same person?

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.