I never knew how much I wanted to present as a masculine person until I joined Tinder. The app never interested me, but it was a hot topic between my friends one night at the pub so I thought I’d give it a go.
I set up a standard profile, nothing too flash. I added a few pictures of myself and a witty bio. For a laugh, I decided to barrage my phone screen, flicking right quicker and quicker until there weren’t any more profiles left to swipe on.
I waited half an hour and one match notification came through. Another hour went by and my phone was silent. It was on the third hour, when my friend saw me opening the app for the tenth time, that I realised something wasn’t quite right.
My identity has evolved over the years. It has twisted and turned, wrapping itself tight around things that were less than permanent. It has bloomed and shrivelled time and time again. I thought this was just me: trial and error. Back to the drawing board; we’re always changing, right? Well, no. Not in the way I was, at least.
The sharp, severe changes in my presentation were due to serious unrest within me. I knew I was different to my friends when I was fourteen, yet I could not find the courage, or the words, to describe this difference until very recently. Two months ago, to be exact.
“Men aren’t going to swipe on someone who looks like pubescent boy. Have you got any photos with makeup on? What about something with cleavage?”
I identify as non-binary. Those words, while simple and succinct, have taken me a long time to write down, never mind say out loud. They had been pushed down by shame, guilt and a lack of understanding.
While the shame is internalised, it has external sources: primarily, the interactions I’ve had with people I respected, loved or have been attracted to. Everything in my life seemed to be gendered: from the colour of wrapping paper on gifts from family, to the word ‘girlfriend’. I felt an endless struggle trying to accept my reality – starkly unable to find a place where I fit.
“You’re not marketing your profile properly.”
“What do you mean ‘marketing’? I’m not a bloody brand.”
“Look.” She grabbed the phone out of my hand. “Men aren’t going to swipe on someone who looks like pubescent boy. Have you got any photos with makeup on? What about something with cleavage?”
I laughed awkwardly as I took back my phone to scroll through my camera roll. It was a struggle but I found some photos she approved of and added them while the group thought of a catchier biography. My friends thought they were doing me a service, an act of philanthropy almost. I think they thought they were helping me get ahead of the dating game.
In retrospect, they felt bad for me. I didn’t fit their mould and they knew that it was easier to mould me into their niche than help me find my own.
It wasn’t long after I made these changes that the matches started to roll in. While part of me despised the fact that my profile had been externally curated, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of validation. I decided to answer some of the dozens of the messages that began to stockpile in my inbox. The conversations were mostly jovial. Some were quickly shot down while others flourished into a healthy balance of banter and nervous flirting.
The night with my friends finished but my tumultuous relationship with Tinder carried on for several weeks.
In the beginning, Tinder felt like an addiction. Every time I received a notification on my phone, I opened it as quickly as I could. I’d get a rush every time I got a new match and I participated in conversations like my life depended on it. I had never received this sort of attention in such a large quantity before. The few curated photos and carefully picked words, which my friend helped choose, had somehow given me an edge. At this point, downloading Tinder seemed like the best decision I had made for my self-esteem in a long time.
I was in a closet and while it was comfortable for the most part, Tinder had started to suck the air from around me. I began to choke.
In the second week of my rampage I had some people ask for my Instagram handle and, for the most part, I happily obliged. After sending it to them, there would be radio silence for a few minutes. I knew they would be looking at my profile. Perhaps they would scroll back a few months to get a look at who I was then. Maybe they would stick to the top few rows and click on each to see the captions.
The act of giving out my handle was the most exhilarating thing – they would get another look into my world, into me – but there was something about it that made me uneasy. I knew my Instagram contained none of the photos I had put up on Tinder, and that what photos I did have on Instagram were vastly different to those that hooked my matches.
Deep down, I knew why I had so few photos of myself presenting as a person who, by society’s standards, aligned with the gender I was assigned at birth, but nobody else knew that. I was in a closet and while it was comfortable for the most part, Tinder had started to suck the air from around me. I began to choke.
I never examined my gender presentation before Tinder. How I dressed was never a contentious topic. I always wore what I wanted, how I wanted and without much hesitation. Well, apparently not. The validation I was receiving from my matches, who praised the photos I had on my profile, had begun making its way deep into my mind.
I started to notice that, when planning dates, I would think about what dress I was going to wear, how I should style my hair and how I was going to wear my makeup. My clothing choices became less about what I wanted and more about what I thought my matches would like to see. I believed that these people had swiped right for me because they liked a person in a dress with a sultry expression. They didn’t swipe for the person in glasses, with messy hair and a beaming smile.
I’d been talking to one man (let’s call him Mike) consistently over about three weeks before things started to go south. We’d somehow got talking about our appearances and what we found attractive in each other.
I’d told Mike that I quite liked his hair, thinking it was a relatively safe ‘flirty comment’. I assumed I would receive a similar message back. Instead I was confronted with this message:
You’re a pretty nice looking girl. It’s just a shame that your hair is so short. It makes you look too much like a boy.
I sat with my phone in my hand, my mouth ajar. What was I supposed to say? ‘Well … you’re almost right. While I’m not a girl, I am a non-binary person and I do have a considerably large masculine identity. So I must thank you for outwardly acknowledging that I do indeed present masculinely sometimes. Here: have a gold star.’ I don’t think so.
I found myself wondering why I had bothered putting so much energy into crafting these online relationships.
I never thought to come out to any of my matches. I never thought I would need to. I never intended my relationships with any of them to progress to a point where that would be an important item for discussion. Up until that comment from Mike, I never considered how heavily my gender presentation affected the people around me. I never thought it really mattered. I didn’t mind she/her pronouns, I wore what I wanted and that was that. Suddenly my whole world was thrown upside-down.
For me, it’s situations like this that make it easier for me to internalise the anguish I have about my gender.
I never bothered answering this man’s comment. In fact, I never bothered to answer any Tinder conversations after that. I turned off message and match notifications and left the app to sit idle on my phone before deleting it shortly after.
Some gender diverse people say that they experience a ‘penny-drop’ moment when their identity clicks for them. I always thought these experiences were few and far between, and that I would never be so lucky as to have one myself. But this was it. While I sometimes wish mine came about in a different, more pleasant manner, I am still glad I had it.
My masculinity was never accepted on Tinder. No one seemed to want it. Though what Mike had told me was the most gender-oriented of all the comments I received about my appearance, it was not the only one.
After viewing my Instagram profile, someone told me I’d look better if I ‘wore more skirts’ and that my ‘waistline is to die for!’ For a gender-diverse individual who was struggling to come to grips with their identity, these comments compounded the conflict that was already stewing inside me.
It’s a hard ask to put on clothes and feel comfortable in them sometimes. When you do finally go out on a limb and feel comfortable in something that took confidence to wear, being greeted with unsolicited comments about your appearance in relation to your masculinity or femininity can undermine your self-confidence. For me, it’s situations like this that make it easier for me to internalise the anguish I have about my gender.
It’s sentences like those that stick in my brain. I took what these men were saying to me and told myself that because I only received comments about my femininity, my masculinity was therefore considerably less attractive. Ugly, undesirable, shameful.
I had removed chunks of my masculinity as a means to attract matches. I was so sure that this masculine side of myself was not attractive that I was prepared to stow it away, to pretend it didn’t exist. I wasn’t just lying to other people; I was lying to myself. While femininity may be attractive to a lot of the male-presenting population on Tinder, it does not mean that being feminine is all that is attractive. My situation was the fault of our society’s sick, heavy emphasis on the way we physically represent ourselves.
It’s just as easy for people like Mike to spout unwanted opinions at me as it is for my friends to work their fingers over my phone and create a person who doesn’t really exist.
As a closeted gender-diverse person who was assigned female at birth, I was only ever told that I was attractive in accordance with how feminine I presented. I was never praised in the same way, if at all, when I presented masculinely. Tinder was not the cause of the gender dysphoria I developed, it only highlighted it. When you’re struggling to come to grips with your identity and the only thing that society is telling you is that being feminine is what everyone prefers, nine times out of ten you’re going to roll with it. It’s often easier, and in some cases I was even convincing myself that it was more comfortable, despite the amount of internalised hate and dysphoria I was harbouring.
The environment that Tinder fosters is toxic because it asks us to evaluate how we see ourselves yet doesn’t provide a safe space to do so. It’s just as easy for people like Mike to spout unwanted opinions at me as it is for my friends to work their fingers over my phone and create a person who doesn’t really exist. I recognise that platforms such as Tinder can allow for mutually beneficial relationships and encounters, but it gives huge space to people to get caught up in the pressures and whirlpools of conforming to constructed identities and norms.
The fact that people think they are allowed to make judgements of others based on how masculine or feminine they present – especially while behind the safety of a phone screen – is beyond me. It stifles people’s ability to see themselves with clarity, and to understand that the opinions of others do not matter.
I want my masculinity to be seen, to be apprehended by society, as a non-binary person whose identity is valid.
I was hiding my masculinity, but that was just one of the symptoms of a deeper problem. I was hiding my gender identity. I was hiding myself.
It took my experience on Tinder for me to realise that these people do not hold authority over my presentation. They do not have the power to tell me what I should or should not look like. I didn’t do my dating life any favours by allowing my friends to curate my profile. All I did was give the people of Tinder what they wanted. Having sat on my Tinder experiences for a few months, I know now that in the negative space left by the judgement and pressures, it gave me the agency to see my true worth.
While what these people said to me was less than nice, it was their words that made me acknowledge what I really want. I want my masculinity to be seen, to be apprehended by society, as a non-binary person whose identity is valid.