Why People Are ‘Reverse Catfishing’ on Dating Apps—And Whether It’s Ethical

Photo: Getty Images/Willie B. Thomas
My friend Stephanie met a guy on Coffee Meets Bagel. His pictures were "average-looking" but she liked his sense of humor and his messages were kind. But when he showed up to their first dinner date, she was stunned: The dude was ripped. And handsome. She described him as "beefy Robert Pattinson with striking turquoise eyes." His photos didn't do him justice at all. Stephanie was pleasantly surprised by his appearance, but also confused. It seemed like he'd posted unflattering pictures on purpose. As it turns out, he did; he "reverse catfished" her.

Reverse catfishing happens when folks use… not the best photos of themselves on dating apps to attract suitors who are interested in their personality rather than appearance. (It's a riff on the term "catfishing," which describes using a false online persona to deceive someone.) “While most people work on the logic that they're only as hot as their worst dating app photo, other people want to ensure that their potential dates are genuinely interested in who they are,” says London-based dating expert Hayley Quinn. “This could mean they upload unflattering photos because they don't want to oversell their looks. They want someone to be attracted to their personality.”

But while some daters, like Stephanie, may embrace being reverse catfished as a welcome surprise, could there be drawbacks to kicking off a potential relationship by intentionally presenting an unkempt version of yourself? According to experts, not necessarily.

To reverse catfish…or not?

“It makes sense to me that someone who repeatedly matches with people who fawn over them and show little interest in getting to know them ‘on the inside,’ might downplay appearance and amplify other traits,” says Maggie Vaughan, PhD, a psychotherapist based in New York City. “Downplaying your looks is no better or worse than posting only your best photos, which is what most people do. As long as the photos are actually you, it’s not dishonest.”

"As long as the photos are actually you, it’s not dishonest.” —psychotherapist Maggie Vaughan, PhD

Furthermore, Dr. Vaughan contends that all dating profiles are just a small slice of a whole person. Showcasing any part of that whole—whether it's the part with bedhead and a stained shirt or otherwise—is just fine. “All profiles are a manipulation designed to attract a potential mate,” Dr. Vaughan says. “If you’re merely presenting yourself in a particular light, that’s to be expected.”

But, while Quinn agrees reverse catfishing isn't necessarily a red flag, she wouldn't recommend folks definitely try it, as it could be a turn off to potential matches. “Authenticity often scores people the best and most compatible, matches,” she says, and even though sharing a not-great photo of yourself isn't lying, doing so with the intention to manipulate the way someone may receive you isn't reflective of being totally straightforward. It can be viewed as akin to kicking off a relationship with a test.

Handling unwanted attention on dating apps

According to Lydia Kociuba, an online-dating expert who helps people write their profiles, it's key to remember that no matter who reaches out to you or why, you aren’t required to respond to anyone. “You can’t control who reaches out to you, but you can control how you react to them,” Kociuba says. “You can just move on from them.”

Quinn agrees that most daters are bound to get unwanted attention on apps—or attention from people who have different relationship goals. Because ultimately, neither photos nor a well-written profile will protect from meeting incompatible matches. “Just like if you walk into a busy bar, the attention you receive on dating apps may be a mixed bag."

With that in mind, Kociuba says writing a profile that will attract the right mate is more important than using a good or bad photo. “The biggest thing people miss when writing their profiles is talking about things that they value; naming the things that they’re super passionate about and not just saying, ‘I like to go hiking.’ Why do you like to go hiking? Why do you like to go to the beach?” she says. “People forget to put the meaning and the passion behind what they like to do.”

Furthermore, it can be helpful to have a goal in mind and to put it out there, Kociuba adds. “When I write profiles, I basically say something like, ‘I’m looking for the right person for me.’ So that way, it leaves you open to explore possibilities, but it also exemplifies the fact that you’re serious about this and you want to find the right person. You want something genuine and long-lasting out of this experience,” Kociuba says.

Even so, there's no surefire dating solution—including reverse catfishing—that'll guarantee you find your mate. After her date with the Robert Pattinson–doppelgänger, Stephanie said she wasn’t planning on a second one. The date was fine but she didn’t think he was “the one” and the feeling, she said, was clearly mutual. He just wasn’t right for her.

So while reverse catfishing didn’t hurt in this case, it didn’t help, either. Sometimes, finding someone who’s genuinely interested in your personality isn’t enough for a match, but Kociuba says that's no reason to get discouraged. “Just do the best you can,” she says. “Create the best profile that you can with information that is true and good. From there, it’s about human nature. Have conversations and see what happens.”

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