How Tinder Boosted My Self-Esteem

Before this summer I had zero experience with dating apps (and dating in general). Tinder wasn't even released until two years after my long-term boyfriend and I had started dating. In the nearly seven years of our relationship I had played around on my friends' apps, but never swiped left/right, Bumbled, Grouper'd, OkCupid'd, or Coffee Meets Bagel'd for myself. Finding myself suddenly single at the beginning of the summer, and in desperate need of distraction, I dove headfirst into the pool of online dating. I started with Tinder because a) my town is too small for anything else and b) my cold, dead heart wanted hookups, not dates. That's the whole purpose of Tinder, right?

Tinder met most of my expectations: the initial “wanna fuck?” messages, dick pics, and an ejaculation video (why is that a thing?). I went a handful of dates, met some cool guys and some not-so-cool guys, and I hung out with a few truly interesting people (a radio DJ who runs a wedding business on the side and a former Marine/aspiring sommelier, just to name a few). What I did not expect from Tinder, however, was how most of these interactions started to make me feel good about myself. I mean, really good about myself.

Like nearly every other woman in the world, I have never been happy with my body. At a size ten, I’m labeled “plus sized” and I have worn glasses on and off throughout my whole life. I feel I give off the sex appeal of a dictionary. When I'm out with my girlfriends I am never the girl who is hit on, flirted with, or picked up. Ever since hitting puberty and becoming aware of attractive vs unattractive I have thought of myself as filling the role of “the fat friend,” who just sits back and smiles while her thinner, prettier friends make eyes with guys across the room. Obviously, I’ve had boyfriends, but they have always been my friends first so when they said, “You are gorgeous,” what I heard was, “I found you gorgeous only after getting to know you. I didn't immediately think you were pretty.” I know that having someone attracted to your personality is more substantial than them just thinking you're cute (my old counselor always reiterated that looks eventually “sag and fade” as if I didn't already know that), but I wouldn't hate having just one guy, who doesn't know me at all, tell me I'm attractive. Friends, family, and boyfriends I don't believe, but a total stranger? That person I might actually listen to.

This brings us back to Tinder (I'm focusing on Tinder because my current home is too small to use more than one dating app). On one of my first nights using the app, a friend and I sat on my back deck, drank wine, and decided who to swipe left and right on. With each “It's a Match!” we laughed and looked into the guys' profiles a bit more. After the third or fourth match, I said, “These guys are just judging me on my appearance, right?” My friend nodded. “So they are only swiping because they think I'm cute? Or are they just swiping on every single girl?” We concluded that obviously some of the guys were swiping right on every girl, but the chances of every single guy doing that were slim. We swiped some more. When I started matching with guys who were classically good looking (you know the type: triangle shape, buff, square jaw, etc.)…well, I won't lie, that felt really fucking good. A hot guy actually thinks I'm remotely attractive? What? No. How can that be?

Then the messages started. Some guys went right in with “you're really pretty!” or “beautiful smile :)” or “what gorgeous blue eyes.” Others went in for a conversation first before doling out compliments here and there. I know that this is how people operate on Tinder but keep in mind that I am not used to this at all. I can count on one hand the number of random men-who-I-wasn't-dating who have complimented my appearance (and I'm not counting the man who used to stand on the corner near my train stop and catcall every woman).

It wasn't until I started meeting with these guys that I wondered: Can Tinder boost my self-esteem? Two guys asked how someone as pretty as me was still single. I went on a date with one guy who told me, in Spanish, that I was beautiful and kissed me. Another guy, who I'd met up with a few times, blatantly asked, “What about sex?” I laughed like a loon in response. It wasn't the question that surprised me, but the fact that it was coming from an incredibly attractive, incredibly fit guy (because yes, I'm being shallow and only swiping right on guys who I find physically attractive––so sue me). When I was done laughing I said something awkward like, “Oh? Maybe? I mean, I'm not against it?” My mind, however, was saying: Are you serious? Do you want to sleep with me? Have you seen yourself? Have you seen me? Aren't there hotter girls you'd rather sleep with? I then had horrific visions of this guy, with all of his muscles and hott-ness, seeing me naked and realizing that I was in fact not attractive, but simply knew how to dress well. I promptly retreated into my unhealthy shell where I only sleep with random guys when I am inebriated.

Soon after Buff Guy, I hung out with a sweet, nerdy medical student, who was in town on vacation. We got along well, I drank too much trying to feign confidence, and, as is typical with Tinder, we hooked up. The next day, as we hooked up again, he seemed shocked that anything was happening at all. He kept repeating, “You're just so sexy. I never get to do things like this! You're just…you're really, really hot.” I don't know how to respond to compliments so I reflexively reached for my shirt. Med Boy shook his head. “Don't do that,” he said. “Don't body shame yourself. You are so attractive. Have you seen yourself? You are gorgeous.”

Something about Med Boy's insistence made my typical self-depreciating thoughts start to lose hold. Again, I know that this is the type of stuff people say on Tinder, but, let's be honest, Med Boy had nothing to gain by being so insistent. We'd already had sex. Why put in the extra effort? Unless…because it's true?

Somewhere between the casual Tinder chats, the handful of dates, Buff Guy, and Med Guy, my mind circled a new thought: am I attractive? I stared at myself in my full-length mirror. I tried to see what these guys saw; guys who did not know me at all, guys who are not being swayed by my personality, and guys who have no real reason to compliment me because I’m not looking for another relationship anytime soon.

Suddenly I'm starting to see it. Where I used to see unsightly lumps, hips that needed nipping and tucking, and a stomach I sucked in before turning off the lights, now I see a healthy, curvy, and––dare I say it?––slender body. I have muscular legs, hips and a torso that do the typical hourglass curve, and a stomach that actually does not protrude like a watermelon, despite my perception of it for the past two decades. Friends, family, and boyfriends have always told me I am attractive, but it wasn't until these strangers started repeating it over and over that I actually started to hear it.

So which is boosting my self-esteem: Tinder or just plain dating? Or are they working in tandem with one another because without Tinder I probably wouldn't be dating at all? Romantically, I tend to not “put myself out there.” I typically wouldn't dare approach a guy and try flirting with him for fear of rejection and humiliation. With Tinder, however, just matching with someone seems to lessen the fear of rejection. Whether you matched with them because they are genuinely interested in you or you matched because they’re saying ‘yes' to everyone––seeing the “It's a Match!” message eases a tiny bit of the tension that goes into dating.

Whether it’s thanks to Tinder or not, in the past few months I have discovered newfound confidence. When someone compliments me I say thank you instead of responding with a self-deprecating joke. When I meet a date for the first time, I work at being my usual chatty, sarcastic self, rather than being shy and quiet. I’ve flirted with guys, chatted them up, and even gave a random musician my number. For once in my life I feel like I am someone worth dating rather than fearing my significant other may be too good for me (as I have learned with my ex, that was certainly not true). Did Tinder give me this confidence boost or am I just getting older and wiser? I don’t know for sure, but what I do know is that I’m not going to stop online dating anytime soon.

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