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Selling a Self: Back to the drawing board

Essay | 10 minute read
In Part 2 of our four-part online dating series, Grace McCleen why she's bothering, after trying to be as winning as she can to the men she meets online. They don't seem half as concerned about her. And the rejections hurt.

Read the first part of this essay series here or listen here

In Which I Dissemble

The next day I deleted the pictures of my interests. Perhaps all those photos of books, little people, guitars and Border collies had been attracting the strange men. ‘Here is a woman who has no girlfriends,’ the pictures had whispered, ‘who knows nothing about conventional life, has been isolated, is hopelessly old-fashioned and deeply vulnerable.’ Instead I posted a profile picture showing me in my best physical light, the ones Daniel had ‘okay-ed’.


I chose the sexiest yet (reasonably) respectable pictures of myself I possessed for the rest:

Of my written profile I retained only the words: ‘I can’t think of a place I’d rather be living than London,’ and added assertions about a full and fortunate life, suggesting, I hoped, a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky person who was on the website as a playful experiment. Beneath the heading ‘Who I’m looking for’ I wrote, ‘Someone fun, down to earth, sure of themselves, happy in their own skin. Hopefully someone creative.’ I removed ‘wallflower’ from the section where I had to describe my party persona and picked ‘average mingler’ instead. Beneath the heading asking what type of relationship I was looking for I deleted ‘Long term; marriage’ and instead typed, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ I had just turned 36 but did not change the age on my profile; I let it linger at the threshold of 35.

Because I edited my profile, I immediately shot to the top of the profiles page, and over the coming days many more men viewed it. But there were no new messages or ‘likes’; the change in pictures and write-up seemed to make no difference at all. Whether because some subconscious impediment had been removed, however (a similar phenomenon to the smashing of the ‘four-minute barrier’ by the late Bannister in 1954, making possible many further ‘smashings’), I suddenly found I was being asked out by other men too. I made notes of their profiles. I also wrote down what I could say to them on the dates.

Christian was Austrian. I wrote to myself, The Sound of Music.

Roger was from Islington and worked as a ‘sustainable interior designer’. He was interested in Edwardian London.
He was a music-lover and dancer. ‘What music do you like?’ I wrote down to myself.

In his profile Roger had written, ‘I used to be an athlete, now I’m just quite fit,’ and, ‘Maybe it’s our other internal organs that tell us most about us.’ I wrote in my notebook, ‘Do you mean people get nervous, feel jittery in their stomach?’ wondering if anyone else was paying such attention to the details of these men’s profiles but thinking if I was them, I would be pleased someone was.

‘He works in the games industry,’ I wrote about another man, and planned to ask him if that was designing games.

‘Pretty well travelled,’ another had written. ‘It looks like you’ve been to Africa,’ I wrote in my notebook. ‘Where is the river or lake with you in the boat on it? And are you sky diving?’

As notes to talk about when I met another man, I wrote, ‘The kilt; where are you in Scotland?’
The date with the Austrian never happened. He was not on Skype when he said he would be and never contacted me again. I suspected point-scoring because I had initially viewed his profile but had not ‘liked’ him, only responding when he messaged me.

The dates I ended up going on could be divided into about four categories:

The first was with men who talked about themselves far too much and did not demonstrate sufficient interest in me to make me want to see them again; Roger, the Islington interior designer, fell into this category. The second category included dates in which I felt physically and mentally attracted to the man, thought that he liked me too, yet somehow the date unraveled and ended in tatters. A date with an attractive headmaster, who was warm, emotionally intelligent and unpretentious, and whom I thought enjoyed my company, was a case in point: the surreal dislocation I felt at the conclusion of our morning in Little Venice, when he said softly, ‘It was great to see you, take care’ – the scrabbling of my brain to compute that this was it, it was over, he had pronounced judgment, and the judgment was ‘no’ – merges in the moments that followed with the dawning of a sickening and trancelike despair. Through Paddington station I walked in the trance; down to the underground; sat entranced on a train; walked from the tube station to my flat still spellbound; the only thoughts were wonder that my body continued to breathe and to move despite a sensation of such perfect, such consummate loss.

A date with a pleasant-looking banker I met one sweltering evening at The Phene, a pretty pub in the backstreets of Chelsea, ended likewise. He surprised me with his warm and jovial demeanor, his love of The Rolling Stones and The Kinks. Because I can’t handle alcohol I didn’t accept a second drink and shortly after he asked, rather abruptly, ‘Ready to go?’ Thinking he wanted to leave and with a sinking sensation, I quickly concurred. Outside he asked me would I walk home and I replied, ‘Yes, alright.’ ‘Oh I’m not asking you if you want to go for a walk,’ he replied, ‘I was asking how far away you lived.’ ‘Oh!’ I said, flushing. ‘About twenty minutes away,’ and inside I sank further into the blackening pit of acid that my body had descended into. We walked stiffly, in silence, back to the King’s Road, through an evening positively swimming in beauty, infused with golden shafts, wafts of honeysuckle, the sound of lawnmowers; some small soft thing inside me disintegrating a little more with each step. At the crossing he kissed my cheek perfunctorily then turned swiftly away and I began yet another journey home, this time literally reeling.

I should have known he was not interested, I berated myself later. How could I have misread the situation so badly? How could I have been so stupid? But what could have gone wrong? Why was I so unattractive to him? What was wrong with me? The questions swarmed in my head all that night and the next day (I should have known what was wrong; what was known; I was wrong; I should have known; I should be known; what was wrong???) and the next night, unable to bear the confusion any longer in this case, I texted him, against my better judgment, to ask if I had done anything unwittingly off-putting (I tried to make the message humorous, asking if I’d had something in my teeth).


He replied saying he’d thought I wasn’t attracted to him; he didn’t know why he’d thought that, he said; but that he thought I was ‘really attractive [smiley face]’, ‘great, really easy to talk to’, and that I ‘shouldn’t change a thing’; he even went so far as to propose trying things again after I’d been on the other dates I had lined up. I went out after this, though it was past ten at night, and ran for miles. Not a neurological symptom was in sight. Of course, I knew he could be lying; being extremely kind to get shot of me; but I seemed to remember that he had seemed different at a certain point during the date so I permitted myself to believe his story (I guessed that although I mentioned I felt tipsy and hence, in my own mind, had explained why I did not want a second drink, he may not have taken my explanation at face value); I permitted myself to believe that an attractive, successful, intelligent and reasonably normal man had found me attractive in return. It was unbelievable. It was stupendous. It was, without doubt, the acme of my adult life.

A further category that some of my dates fell into were those I went on with men I was not attracted to, was willing to meet again in a romantic context and who did not contact me, despite saying they would, which did not disappoint me. There were also dates with men whose company I enjoyed but did not want to meet again in a romantic context. Then there were the men I was disappointed to learn did not want to meet again, because although I was not attracted to them, I felt the degree of resonance between us suggested a basis for some sort of relationship.

There were the dates I was excited to meet, who seemed almost my ideal and with whom I engaged in energised and ebullient messaging online, but were so different to their virtual personas in real life that they staggered me. Among these was the down-to-earth music producer whose taste in garage rock (a term I learned from him) I shared, and whose sharp grin in his portrait, self-description in his profile as a ‘filthy Northerner’, and banter in general (‘I’m half Manc, half scouse,’ he told me; ‘they don’t let many of us into Oxford – not that I tried’) delighted me. The moment I spoke to him on the telephone, however, I knew from his thin, anxious voice he was nothing like I imagined. When we met in Green Park there was an even more crushing disappointment: there was no way this man was 5’7″; his head barely reached my shoulder. I felt, as I did several times during my time in ‘Singletown’, that the universe was playing a practical joke on me.

It became apparent from the dates that I had one significant handicap: I was unable to tell if a man was attracted to me. In fact, so concerned was I with attempting to please them, so worried about my inability to change my face, so consumed with trying to appear attractive, I remained ignorant of my own feelings in the matter; or perhaps I simply did not know, any longer, who I was attracted to; perhaps life had drained, abraded, numbed me. I found myself over and over in situations in which I felt no physical (or emotional) attraction towards a man, and so theoretically should not have ended up getting hurt, but did so in any case: in lieu of my rejecting him, the man rejected me. And it hurt! And I was not attracted to him in the first place! To be unsure, and/or to pretend for hours that some feeling was there when it (probably) wasn’t, in case it turned out to be, I found even more exhausting than if I had known within moments of meeting the person that we did not ‘click’.

What generally happened, though, was that I found myself asking again just what was wrong with me – sometimes with an element of rage: just what is so awful about me that one ordinary man after another decided he could do better? Men I bent over backwards to look good for, to talk to – often almost exclusively about them – for hour after hour. Men I could see I had no more in common with than a tree has with a lamp post; men I felt, at least, that I ‘got’ but who would never – not if they lived to be 150, not if they lived many lifetimes over – have ‘got’ me. Men who even as I listened to, induced a feeling of desolation such as one might feel if you had missed the last bus from travelling to Earth from Pluto.

Men that to touch felt no different to me than brushing up against a wall; to talk with left me de-realised with anxiety and exhaustion, my head floating on a string far above my body; left me so deadened, so numb, it was even, on occasion, impossible to find words; to think; to speak at all. At other times, I thought: but perhaps the men were right to reject me; perhaps they knew there was nothing there. Perhaps they were more mature than me. Perhaps lack of attraction was contagious and usually mutual. In reality, there was no time to think or process any of it. It was back to the drawing board. Back to admin.