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Selling a Self: Forays in online dating

Essay, Podcast | 21 minute read
Modern-day dating: An award-winning novelist who grew up in a fundamentalist religion decided to look for a partner online. Here is the first in a weekly four-part series on her experiences - and it's a bumpy journey!



After I finished studying at Oxford I was ill for most of my twenties. When I emerged into the world at approximately the age of twenty-seven I was not what would be termed ‘well-adjusted’; being raised in a strict religion, then even after I was too ill to be part of it anymore, being still effectively segregated from the world meant that I had a lot of catching up to do.

About a year ago, at the age of thirty-five, during a long summer walk on Hampstead Heath, I confessed to a friend that I felt deeply ashamed that I had never had a boyfriend or long-term relationship. Walking to the supermarket at night, I said, I could hardly contain feelings of rage and grief. I didn’t feel these emotions when I was working alone at home, only when I imagined I was observed in my solitariness and judged by others. Of course I knew rationally others probably didn’t even notice me but the feelings remained. Knowing I met few people in my day-to-day life, my friend asked if I have ever considered online dating. I told her I had tried it once before, when I was twenty-seven; I had been on three dates – my first ever – in the space of a week, and the experience had been enough to deter me from trying it again. I felt stupid for not realising two of the men were not interested. I felt I should have known; asked myself over and over again how I could have misread the situation so badly. As the years passed I experienced deepening confusion: what had gone wrong, why was I so unattractive, what was wrong with me? I suspected the culprit was either my face, which I have tried to hide since puberty, or the ‘weirdness’ that had singled me out for bullying when I was younger. But they were really one and the same thing, my face so encapsulating me, as most people’s faces tend to do.

A couple of weeks after that walk I was struck down with strange neurological symptoms that forced me to give up my job in a bookshop as I could no longer walk properly. Six months of phantasmagoric anxiety and Herculean feats of research into possible causes (and cures) followed. Nothing was found despite two M.R.I.s and a lumbar puncture. During this time a voice I sometimes believed, and sometimes dismissed, told me my body’s theatrics were related to my feelings of worthlessness and invisibility to men, to my feelings of sometimes not even being human. I wondered if the long illness of my twenties had been caused by the same feelings.

It was this secret intuition that prompted me to heed the advice of the same friend in the early months of this year and register once again on a dating website. I was teaching creative writing M.A. students at Manchester University at the time, my body visibly normal though my right leg was still weak and I suffered spells of dizziness and de-realisation that forced me to hang on to my desk sometimes during tutorials. I was far from an ideal place to embark on something that so terrified me that I have avoided it for nearly a decade (and in one way or the other managed to orchestrate its absence from my life prior to that), but I realised things may never get better than this; it was do or die time.

‘This one’s got a good reputation,’ Sue said, creating me a profile on a well-known dating website that February night in her Manchester flat. I agreed with her. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I know two people who’ve got married after meeting on it.’ But the words meant nothing to me; whatever did or didn’t happen to other people had no bearing on me; I was exempt from the rules that governed other people’s lives; Sue and I answered questions (What sort of films did I like? What was my idea of an idyllic retirement?), uploaded a photo I had on my laptop and described what sort of man I would like to meet.

I was flustered, feigning fun but feeling shameful; our action was confirmation of the oddness I have always felt and my failure in – possibly – the most rudimentary area of life. At the end of the registration Sue took out her own debit card and paid before I could stop her. ‘You’re wonderful and gorgeous and deserve to be happy,’ she said. ‘I’ve heard good things about this site. I’ll have to cancel the subscription after three months but give it a shot till then.’

Much moved, I promised her I would.


In Which I Attempt To Be Authentic

Despite my reservations about who I was, I figured this was the last time I would attempt to find a partner and wanted to give it my best shot, which meant attempting to portray my ‘real’ self, whoever that might be. My main profile picture, taken at the Encore Award and uploaded when Sue sat by my side, was this:

I thought the person in the photograph appeared to be warm, unpretentious, and perhaps kind, all of which I hoped those closest to me knew that I was. The photograph also demonstrated that I wasn’t entirely a hermit; I was shoulder to shoulder with someone – and clasping the all-important alcoholic drink. The rest of my photographs, which I uploaded when I got back to London, were these:

The problem was how to visually present my activities and interests when most of these activities were solitary and I had had no paparazzi around with a camera to document them. How was I to convey the fact that I was a writer, for instance, without showing the covers of my books and my writing name? Should I pose sitting at a computer? Any such photos of myself would have been pictures of me in slightly different positions, sometimes in coffee shops and libraries but mostly in bed with a laptop resting on my chest, looking pale and death-like.

Uploading my photos I felt, as I have sometimes felt before, that I was both absent from my own life and desperately in need of someone to observe or document it. Ironic, then, that my most constant feeling was one of embarrassment, suggesting that as well as feeling invisible I also felt observed. It seemed everyone was simultaneously the observed and the observer these days, the whole world resting upon a foundation of images; that was what social life, networking, business, war, and yes, dating, were all about now; not the thing itself but the image of that thing. But I have never excelled at presenting an image of myself to the world; I have a phobia of photographs; I hid my face behind my hair, then college scarf, for years, and found the most difficult part of publication catching sight of myself in national newspapers.

Looking at other profiles I saw that men’s tended to feature extreme sports; women’s group shots were with friends on nights out or with a male arm circled protectively around their shoulders, signalling they were desirable property. I’d never had a group of female friends, had someone take a photo of a man putting his arm around me and had certainly never been up Mount Everest or on a jet ski with a camera crew in tow. I didn’t own a yoga mat and had never attempted a tree pose; accident prone, I was lucky if I could walk down the street without tripping over. I did the best I could in the circumstances, uploading a photo taken in an insta-booth at a wedding, on holiday with a friend, at the Betty Trask Award, at the Desmond Elliott, first carefully photoshopping my name off the badge. The fact was, I wanted to show my body, just not my face. I like my body. Historically men had expressed approval of it. My experiences to date have taught me that in some ways my body was the only reliable attractor of men and despite my fear of attracting someone only interested in my physicality, it was true that I was here to find a sexual relationship as well as companionship. In the end though, I kept my photos highly respectable, even professional, in tone.

Remembering how I had agonised over the wording of my personal statement on that other website years before and how badly things had gone then – knowing that whatever I wrote was essentially futile (unless I mentioned my collection of human heads) because whatever I did or didn’t say became irrelevant as soon as I was more than a few seconds (or as soon as I saw someone, in some cases) in someone’s company – I didn’t waste time.

‘As you can’t really get much of an idea about someone from this,’ I wrote, ‘I’ll keep this brief. I love music, literature, am artistic and self-employed in the creative sector. I am not really a city person, preferring natural things and the countryside. Having said that, I can’t think of a place I’d rather be living than London at this point. I am free-spirited, passionate, completely non-conformist (or so I like to think), have a great sense of humour, and am an old-fashioned romantic. I have strong principles and have had quite an unusual life which gives me an interesting perspective on things.’ I described my sense of humour as ‘dry’, at a party I said I was a ‘wallflower’.

In spite of my intent to be authentic I noticed subtle sleights of hand, feats of barely perceptible self-censorship had crept in: I couldn’t bring myself to describe who I was really looking for in an ideal mate; to write ‘unpretentious’, ‘individual’, ‘intense’, ‘masculine’, ‘emotionally available’, ‘spirited’, someone with ‘mettle’ or ‘grit’, seemed somehow impossible. The words were too sentimental, too clichéd, too direct, too – what?

Was there some shame in specifying what sort of mate you desired not present in specifying what type of house you desired; what sort of car, what sort of haircut or dessert? I also noted I had suddenly adopted the use of the word ‘guy’, a word I didn’t think I’d ever used in my life before. Was I attempting to signal that I was a hip, fly, young-ish, sassy and somewhat worldly woman, I wondered? That I was a wallflower was true most of the time. But only because in most social situations I was deeply bored. And while I had seemed to ‘mesh with artistic people’ in the past, that had only been in the domain of friendship; I often felt sexual chemistry with people who were different to me in virtually every way. ‘Artistic’ was one thing, but I often found intellectual and specifically academic men induced panic and a spiralling sense of despair.
I chose ‘Atlantis’ as my username, not because of its connotations but because it was the first word that sprang to mind. At the time I thought it was inane but in retrospect it proved to be rather apposite.

I log in. I see instantly whether I have any messages or ‘likes’. My heart beats harder, my stomach leaps up. A surge of nausea: excitement curdled with fear. I see who the messages or ‘likes’ are from and usually my stomach sinks again. Sometimes the same person has messaged me four or five times, making it initially seem I have new messages from several different people. I see who has looked at my profile and who is online. I begin to scroll male profiles.

Lots seem promising on the surface but often upon looking closer are less so: the profile photo is impossibly flattering or looks ten years younger than the rest; has three children who live with him; is a polyamorist. The write-ups are boastful, juvenile, unwittingly creepy; painfully unfunny or hysterically dull. As a woman, to approach men on such a website (I will call it ‘Singletown’ from here on) is to risk looking too eager; on many online dating websites, as in ‘real life’ men typically make the first move.

If I do decide to contact someone, I check to see whether I fall within their desired age range and they are not totally dissimilar. I agonize over three or four lines of text, debate whether to deploy emojis, hum and haw over phrases that would never provoke a moment’s thought in ‘real life’. I finish typing. My finger hovers over the ‘send’ button. If I press it my stomach surges with fear, excitement and hopelessness. Mostly with the last.

The main source of my early discouragement was that men in their fifties and sixties formed the bulk of my suitors. Having missed out a large portion of my development I often find myself enjoying the things I did when I was a teenager as if that part of my life has not been properly concluded; I even find myself thinking of those years as if they were my current reality. I find it hard to identify with many of the feelings and beliefs of my peers; instead of thoughts of children, mortgages, the American presidency or the situation in Syria passing through my mind, for instance, on a typical day I will most likely be worrying about whether the teenage boy at the end of the table in Starbucks is looking at me, whether my hair appears to be greasy, whether the laughing girls who just passed were mocking me.

The dislocation is compounded by the fact that I look younger than my years – so much so that I still sometimes have problems buying alcohol, scissors and knives in supermarkets. Now that sixty- and seventy-year-old men are expressing sexual interest in me I experience a vertiginous, Sebald-ian unease; feel I am simultaneously frozen yet plunging through a gyre; that I have been launched forty or fifty years into a futuristic nightmare of retirement, trembling hands, cruises, arthritis, liver-spots, blood-pressure pills, incontinence, the strange sickly smell of ageing skin, and a certain type of comfortable footwear. The situation confirms my very worst fear, in other words: that my sexual life – the only life I ever really wanted – has already passed me by; I am both too early and too late.

The second source of my early discouragement is that many of the messages I receive are from men who would be considered to be aesthetically unattractive or from those whom, it is apparent, are deeply socially inept (there seems to be a great deal of overlap between these things, so much so that I have cause to wonder if they are one and the same).

That I myself could identify this in the earliest weeks of embarking on online dating was significant; it made me question whether I had camouflaged my own social inadequacy as thoroughly as I believed, because within a second of viewing these men’s profiles it seemed almost certain, to me at any rate, that they had never been on a date, were the sort of people who others shied away from at social gatherings, had no idea how to dress or groom themselves; had managed somehow, in a word, to end up vastly less socially aware than even myself. How was it possible to tell so much from a single image, I wondered? A picture painted a thousand words, it was true, but these painted billions; there were encyclopedias – libraries – whole DNA whorls of information within these conglomerations of pixels.

But where did the knowledge reside? In the presentation and expression of the subject, mainly, I thought; a side parting; bottle-top glasses; hair settled in soft, fuzzy waves; a double chin drawn back mindlessly into an ample neck; a foolish, slightly sleepy glee resembling an expression one might see in an infant school photograph; a studio portrait of a man in a T-shirt and fleece; one man donning a contrived, Churchill-esque scowl replete with jutting lower lip and bowler hat; attempts to entertain that failed so spectacularly it was painful to observe. Crucially, these displays of naivety were coupled with a complete lack of self-awareness. Anything could be pulled off successfully if it was done with a sufficient degree of self-reflexivity. But these users apparently had none.

I thought I did not look much like myself in most of my photos – that was why I have chosen them; I felt they did not reveal my painful, puny, terrified self. But perhaps they did; perhaps I was in fact broadcasting what a loser I was. Was that why I attracted men with similar self-images? I received more than one message which, in part, was uncomfortably perceptive: ‘Hi Atlantis,’ one man wrote, ‘Looked because of your name: yup, Atlantis, a mystery, perhaps mythic and never existed . . . And I saw your pics, and you look so wistful, pent-up, romantic, busting with energy . . .’ Was I revealing more of my authentic self via pixels than I would in the flesh, I wondered?

I did not know why I attracted the majority of men I attracted but one day I stumbled upon a feature of ‘Singletown’ that I thought might explain things: it allowed me to view the most popular male and female profiles. Afterwards I sat dumbly before the screen of my laptop for a long time. There was nothing particularly alluring about these profiles, either visually or in what the users had written about themselves. The process of online dating now seemed utterly incomprehensible to me; even more impenetrable than it seemed before. In a situation that makes little sense it is difficult to know how to proceed. I chose in the circumstances to be as proactive as possible. I therefore replied to every ‘like’ and every message that did not fill my heart with direst woe: anyone under the age of fifty and anyone who didn’t look either cognitively challenged or like an axe-murderer. The responses I received range from: ‘Hi gorgeous’, to ‘Fancy a pint?’ to ‘Evening, how annoyed are you at Theresa May right now?’ One man, whose photo showed wide eyes and flared nostrils as if he had just caught a whiff of a tasty morsel on the wind, wanted to travel from Yorkshire to meet me though we had only exchanged two one-line texts. When, baffled, I asked why, he replied: ‘Music be the food of love’ – referring to my picture of a guitar, presumably.

I was contacted by a scowling, self-described ‘seaman’ (he was fifty-six but at a later date became forty-five), whose sideburns and moustache put American truck drivers and Gunter Grass to shame, and worryingly, he claimed to have read all three of my novels and was sure we would hit it off. He assured me of this four or five times before giving up.

I didn’t even bother logging in to see who sent me the message below, which I reckoned many a lucky lady received, and which I could read in one of the daily emails the website sent to me: I will not write a poem for you, because a poem, even the loveliest, can only do what words can do, stir the air, and dwindle, and be at rest. Nor will I hold you with my hands, because the bones of my hands on yours would press, and you’d say after ‘Mortal was, and crumbling, that lover’s tenderness.’ But I will hold you in a thought without moving spirit or desire or will, For I know no other way of loving, that endures when the heart am still . . .’ Very sensitive, deeply caring and compassionate, would like to share and devote my life to loving you, a romantic and very loyal heart, a keen sense of humour so I may break yours with the next bit . . . my gifts are all internal, beauty of spirit, a wise and kind soul loving nature, take the most intense and beautiful photos as a kind of meditation to deal with it all . . . love trees, stone circles, music, crystals, a wild seashore, poetry, (but,) not much money, no property, do not drive, never even flown in a plane (so much to explore in this country, St David’s in Wales to Avebury in Wiltshire . . . a deep connection to the land,) If you’ve come this far and are still reading I do have a good sense of humour and can see this does not bode well! I would rather be honest though, I open my heart and hold out my hand to you, there is a lot more to tell of course and if any of this stirs your soul I would love to hear from you. x PS all photos are my own work . . . [sic]

My resolve to be authentic had already taken a buffeting; if I had acted only upon what I truthfully felt, I would have contacted few men and replied to fewer, but to interact at all I had to talk to those that, at least on the surface, I had nothing in common with and zero attraction towards. I began to think it was fortunate I only taught part-time because online dating takes time; if you are going to do it properly it is almost a second job. The amount of admin meant that two or three hours could pass in Starbucks before I raised my head, realising my neck had been in a vice of muscle and my eyes weeping from staring at the screen so long.

Rejection came in too many forms. There was rejection from those who viewed my profile but decided not to contact me. There was rejection from those who did not reply after I ‘liked’ or messaged them but had not looked at my profile; in these cases, though it was unlikely, it was possible their account was no longer active. If it turned out that the men I contacted had viewed my profile and still decided not to reply there was a sudden, sickening descent that modified into a feeling of leadenness for the rest of the day.

There is the correspondence that fizzles out several times and each time, after sometimes more than a month of silence, the men get back in touch as if nothing have happened, one to ask me out on a date, which I agreed to, upon which he went silent again, this time for good. What was worst of all was if the man was online when I messaged him, looked at my profile there and then, and still did not reply. Somehow, the fact that this rejection happened in ‘real time’ made it more palpable; a little like the way in which, in Ben Lerner’s exposition of Jules Bastien-Lepage’s ‘Joan of Arc’ in 10:04, one element intrudes for a moment into another, rendering the saint’s hand, extending into the void, semi-transparent. After such a blow I too felt unreal – and at the same time impossibly earth-bound and heavy.

I have read that men like women to make the first move but this did not appear to be the case on ‘Singletown’. Overwhelmingly so. Maybe the men I contacted just didn’t like the content of my messages. Maybe it was my age. Maybe it was something more indefinable – the mythical ‘law of attraction’ bandied about by New Agers: could these men sense I did not want to be talking to them? Was my own unease bouncing back at me? Whatever the reason, I found myself (I hoped the majority of women in my age group did also) in a ludicrous position: I wanted to interact with men (I wanted to have a relationship with one) but felt I had to remain deaf, dumb and blind to the merest whisper of interest in the hope that interest would increase, all the while risking that interest wilting because I had not responded.

‘Singletown’ put women in pretty much the same position they have been in since the dawn of time. Women had to sit tight, look pretty, and if they did not lie about their age, hope against hope that a man showed a flicker of interest in them. The exact same power imbalance existing in the ‘real world’ was alive and well here, the only difference being that on the website, male users could get away with worse behaviour than in ‘real life’.

I began to despise myself even more than I did before I signed up to the website; all I had feared most was true; no – things were worse than I feared, the rejection was on a more massive scale than I could ever have dreamed of; there was no end to it; and never a reason given. I comforted myself with the thought that my replies were probably the most thorough, considered messages these men received; I was replying for England; no one could accuse me of refusing to – as Sue had urged me – ‘give it a shot’. But it was punishing to continually goad myself into approaching men when in ‘real life’ I never do; when I do not even meet men’s eyes most of the time. A low point in those early days was when a month-long, meandering, empty and apparently pointless correspondence with a Moroccan that I kept up in case it amounted to something culminated in his final admission to wanting a green card marriage.

Oh, for a man, I wished. Oh for a man who did not give a fiddler’s flying fuck about turtle necks, Theresa May or political correctness; oh for some red-blooded, storming, raving, steaming, rampaging, living, breathing, fucking male! The specimens I scanned each day were limpid, quavering, affected things, despite their gym bods and extreme sports; these men used words like ‘synoptically’, were seen in the places to currently be seen (Lisbon apparently), cooked ‘Mediterranean with modern influences’; architecture, design and good wine were their raison d’etre; ‘London favourites’ were the V&A, rooftops, Quaglino’s, Town Hall Hotel, St. Pancras Renaissance, The Grind, Origin, Prufrock (I took it the last did not refer to Eliot’s seminal poem); had ‘addictions’ to ‘aperitivo’ (whatever that was). I would not know a good bottle of wine if I was smashed over the head with it, would take a roast or fish and chips any day over the snivelling pieces ‘d’art’ I’d been dismayed to see adorn many a plate in Oxford or at the prize-giving ceremonies I had (nevertheless been grateful to have) attended; I felt as unexcited about tech innovation as it was humanly possible to feel.

And yet, checking my daily messages, I discovered I could hardly draw breath, so painfully had my chest and shoulders contracted. My hands shook so much I made constant mistakes when typing, felt rivulets of sweat slip periodically down my back and arms. My body grew heavier by the day. ‘It’s all going really well,’ I told Sue via email. ‘I’m finding my feet slowly but surely. Thank you so much again.’ Privately, I thought I would have to quit. Before I did though, I decided to visit a male friend I knew would talk straight to me; he was the friend, after all, who had rated my face, when I asked, out of ten (I was a seven – not pretty but ‘above average’; we sat in a café and he gave ratings to the women that went by too; he was a pretty strict marker). I perched on the edge of Daniel’s sofa, laptop at the ready, and asked if, as a straight man with plenty of experience, he would mind seeing if I was making fundamental mistakes. I could not handle it anymore, I told him. I couldn’t handle it and I didn’t understand.

Daniel, who has known me nearly ten years, looked at me, shook his head and said my name over and over again.

‘Yes . . .’ I said apologetically, not knowing exactly what he meant.

Sighing deeply he took my laptop from me. ‘Jesus!’ he said immediately and I peered over his shoulder to see what he was looking at. ‘You’ve got to not aim too high, but not this low!’

‘I didn’t contact them,’ I explained – ‘those are the men who contacted me. But why? Why are sixty-seven year olds contacting me?’

‘They try it on with all the women,’ Daniel said, ‘men have got no pride!’

‘Really?’ I said. ‘What about these men?’

Daniel threw back his head and laughed till tears came; then he looked back at the laptop and collapsed again.

‘But why are they contacting me? Are these the sort of men I should be dating?’

‘No! You’re way out of their league!’

The soaring relief solidified into a warmth that settled in my stomach; then I remembered the rejections. ‘But look at these,’ I said, ‘these are the ones who rejected me.’ They were hardly supermodels or rocket-scientists; most appeared to be pretty ordinary. But I no longer knew anything; since signing up to ‘Singletown’ everything was shifting.

‘No!’ he barked, as I showed him each photo; ‘No . . . No . . . No . . .’

There was not a single man I showed him that he deemed too ambitious a target.

‘But what about this one?’ I asked.

‘He’s bald!’ Daniel said, ‘The man doesn’t have hair!’

‘Well then this one,’ I said; ‘he’s really good-looking.’

Daniel shrugged, unimpressed.

He was equally unimpressed with my written profile; both it and my photos needed changing, he said; they were too unworldly; ‘terrible’ was the word he used. ‘I was trying to show the real me,’ I said, ‘trying to be authentic.’

‘Yeah, there’s being authentic, and being in the twenty-first century,’ Daniel said. ‘You’ve got to duck and dive a bit; you can’t put all of yourself out there at the beginning. Softly, softly, catchee monkey.’

I did not quite know what he meant but I moved on. ‘What about my messages?’ I said. ‘Do you think there’s something wrong with them?’ It turned out there was; Daniel nearly fell off the sofa all over again. When he had stopped laughing he told me that firstly they were all far too long – ‘You’re not writing a bloody novel here!’ he said. ‘You want a line, two at most; blokes have got a short attention span! This is just freaky!’ The messages were apparently also too eager, too detailed and far too personal – at least for the early stages of online texting.

After we had eaten, with Daniel at my elbow, I found a photograph of myself in a dress with a plunging neckline that I had taken in a shop changing room. ‘That’s nice,’ Daniel said, which was high praise from him. ‘You don’t think it’s a bit risqué?’ I said anxiously. ‘Nah – show a bit of flesh,’ he said, ‘get ’em interested.’

We found another photo, and another. ‘But I’ll attract people interested in superficial things if I use photos like these,’ I said.

Daniel glared at me: ‘D’you want a man or don’t you?’ he snapped. I nodded, shame-faced. ‘Load ’em up, then!’

Later Daniel showed me how to go about engaging a man in conversation. He went to the male users who were online and picked a man with a smiley face and beard. The man asked me out within ten minutes.

I ran home through the black streets that night and for a few hours the world was a new, warm, infinitely buoyant, effortless place. It was possible there was nothing fundamentally wrong with me, I told myself; there was nothing I should have known better; it was the world that was absurd! It was the world that should know better! I had simply had bad luck; ‘real life’ wasn’t like online dating.

‘If you went into a bar you could have pretty much any man you wanted,’ Daniel had said to me.

I wasn’t sure about this, but it didn’t matter right now: he had got me a date.