Long before we were ever in quarantine, I had the sneaking suspicion that I might be catfishing my online matches. Even though I’ve always used pictures that are current and unmistakably me, I’m known to rock blonde faux locs one day and curly clip-in extensions the next.
My body changes with the seasons (like a beautiful maple tree), and my skin does whatever it wants. None of this affects my appearance enough for me to look like a completely different person. But it still reminds me of how internet trolls accuse makeup artists of “tricking people” with contouring brushes and highlighter. I have a little shame around only feeling my best with a little help.
Since the Coronavirus pandemic descended, I’ve relaxed my unrealistic beauty standards a bit. I FaceTime with friends first thing in the morning without worrying too much about my undereye circles. I’ve noticed that my pores are happier without layers of foundation, and my hair is flourishing in DIY protective styles and underneath my grandmother’s turbans. Yet sometimes, when I catch glimpses of myself in the mirror, I am more convinced than ever that I might be catfishing everyone who has ever met me IRL.
Yes, I know that the phenomenon of catfishing exists largely in online dating and describes a situation in which someone uses a fake picture to appear more conventionally attractive. And yes, I know that most people are at home looking a little grubbier than usual, just like I am. But while sheltering in place with only my bare face to keep me company, I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’m not super in love with my own appearance.
When I chart my trajectory toward self-acceptance, it’s marked by a lot of experimentation. There was the eighth-grade dance preparation when a nice lady at a Clinique counter taught me about applying eyeliner to “look more awake.” There was the decision to straighten my hair, then not straighten it, then straighten and not straighten it again (and the countless braids, weaves, wigs, and twists that have happened in between). My beauty journey has been fun, creative, and expansive (and also expensive)—a tangible expression of my personality and values. But now I’m in a sudden and surreal phase of very lax beauty standards. It’s made me realise I’ve been playing with my appearance for so long that I forgot to make peace with my actual face.
In all of the plucking, smoothing, pulling, and twisting, I’ve compensated for my appearance. That’s not the same thing as acceptance. I’m reckoning with all of the ways I’ve always wished I could look different: fewer dark spots, fewer bumps around my nose, symmetrical eyebrows, softer laugh lines, and way less facial hair. I could go on, but I think you get the point.
Lest you think this whole catfish thing is a metaphor, I do wonder—while swiping my life away in my gross bathrobe—if I actually am a catfish online dating right now. One of the most appealing things about online dating is that you can do it on the couch. But what was once an ongoing joke pre-pandemic (luring dates into my secretly unkempt clutches) now feels almost dishonest, given just how different I look without all my usual extras. The thing is, after thinking about it, I know the real question isn’t whether or not I’m a catfish online or on swipe apps. The real question is: Who needs the added pressure of trying to look like their dating profile pictures right now? Much like the expectation that during quarantine I should Marie Kondo my closets, learn a language, take up knitting, or read more books, it’s just not realistic. I don’t need to show up for anyone as anything other than I am. Ideally, my self-love would include celebrating my dark marks and unwaxed lip. But at a baseline, it’s about prioritising my own comfort as much as I can right now.
Honestly, even having the energy to scrutinise my face serves as a sign of a relatively calm day. The past few months have been a near-constant parade of bad news, grief, and anxiety punctuated by moments when I fall into bed with very little awareness that I was once a person who put on makeup, wore actual dresses, leaned up against bars, tossed her (sometimes purchased) hair, and laughed with people she found attractive. So, yes, feeling like I might need to call MTV’s Catfish crew on myself is a bummer, but in a weird way, it’s also a comforting reminder of a more free-spirited time.
This essay doesn’t have a neat ending. Sometimes I like myself; other times I don’t. Ultimately I can groom myself to look like “myself” at any point. So if you’re like me, and you think you’re catfishing people on dating apps, you’re not alone. But if it’s causing you major angst, I do have a suggestion: When everything is in flux, it can be helpful to remind yourself that you can still feel like you. Try doing something small and manageable with that goal in mind. If a shower, some clip-ins, or your favourite outfit can serve that purpose, it’s definitely worth a try.