When you build your Tinder profile you get to choose exactly how you present yourself to potential suitors. When I first started online dating in college, I remember spending hours agonizing over the perfect photos and the perfect bio, only to find myself having to keep up appearances on the first date, then the second, and so on. It got me wondering, if I’m showing up as this curated, almost inauthentic version of myself, when does the mask come off — and is it even worth wearing in the first place?
Magazines and movies pounded into my head the idea that you could essentially trap someone into a relationship. You’d just build a flawless profile, sport your best looks for the first couple of dates, and then once you had them reeled in, you could finally reveal your true self. The thing is, I have no desire to trap someone into wanting to be with me. I’m a catch, even when I’m rolling up in Birkenstocks with unruly eyebrows. I want to be accepted for exactly who I am right off the bat. I want to present the most me version of me because anything else is exhausting.
So I decided to just start showing up to dates as myself, the same way I would if I was meeting a friend for drinks or dinner. I have worn workout gear on a first date. I have wiped off my lipstick with a napkin dipped in water right at the table. I have shown up in a wrinkled black T-shirt tucked into wrinkled black jeans, which is my uniform for nearly everything.
But recently, I’ve had some trouble securing a second date, which got me thinking there might be something to be said for showing up as your best — or an even just a better — version of yourself on a first date.
When it comes to dressing to impress for a first date, personal stylist Susie Hasler says it’s important not to stray too far from your usual style but to still add a little something extra to make your outfit feel special. For example, if you don’t wear high heels in your everyday life, don’t wear them on a first date because you’re risking your comfort. A T-shirt without holes is a different story.
According to Nicole McCance, M.A.C. Psych, a clinical psychologist and relationship expert, the inclination to show up as the best version of yourself on a first date is totally normal, and how you do so can communicate a lot about who you are.
I’m a catch, even when I’m rolling up in Birkenstocks with unruly eyebrows.
“It may even show your date how much you care and how seriously you are taking dating,” she says. “As long as you portray yourself as you normally would, it can work. If you spend time trying to portray yourself in a light that is not authentically you, this will become evident over time.” That’s why, difficult as it may be, it’s best to present your real(ish) self in your profile and on a first date.
Ali, a 27-year-old living in Chicago, believes socio-economics play a role in the way she tries to present herself early on. Growing up in what she calls a “lower-class household” has made her more aware of the way she looks and dresses on a date as well as the topics of conversation she engages in.
“Growing up I always felt like my peers had it better,” she says. “I still worry I’m not good enough, which makes me overthink what to talk about and how to dress.”
Navigating that pressure requires some real mental gymnastics. It affects the kinds of pictures she puts in her profile (“some cleavage, but not too much”), the bars she suggests meeting at (“cool, but not too gross”), and even what drinks she orders (“beer because it’s cool, but not beer because I might burp in front of my date”).
Mike, a 25-year-old living in New York City, finds there is disparity between how he and his dates appear online versus in person.
“Everyone’s desperate to prove that they’re actually chill and down to earth, despite the photos they post from Fire Island,” a popular summer getaway known for its large gay population, he says about what he sees on his date’s social media. While closeted in high school and dating girls, Mike felt pressured to present a masculine and tough persona. When he came out and began dating men, those pressures didn’t go away, but they did change. “Now that I date gay men, I find myself and my dates trying to minimize the false, larger-than-life personas we curate on our [social media] profiles.”
It is that same pressure that I find myself struggling with. How do I build a profile and persona that feels like the best version of me, but also one that is authentic and that I can realistically live up to? For now, I think I’ll continue to show up in my black sweater with the holes, order whatever I want off the menu, and share what I’m thinking about even if it seems like too much. When the right person comes along, I am confident I’ll score that second date.