Having gotten out of a long term relationship last year, I hadn't been in the single world long enough to have much experience with first dates. So, when the opportunity came about to put myself back out there, I decided to go for it.
I ran into this guy I'd met before through mutual friends, and decided on a whim to say hello. We hit it off almost immediately, and our messages back and forth were charged with chemistry. Going on a date just seemed like a good idea.
And it was a good idea, because I learned exactly what makes a first date become a last date.
I tried something different with my hair for the date, putting it in a French braid instead of letting my curls hang loose. In retrospect, it wasn't my favorite hairstyle. Other than that, I actually felt kind of cute. I put on a sundress, and as the material flowed across my body in what I thought were all the right places, I was rather pleased with myself. To avoid seeming too fancy, I kept my jewelry and makeup simple, and threw on a pair of white Converse. And because I have a physical disability, no outfit is ever complete without my wheelchair. Though my disability contributes to body image issues that I experience, when I checked my reflection before heading out the door that night, I liked what I saw; it was a rare –- albeit quickly destroyed -– moment of bodily content.
For the majority of the night, our date seemed to be going well enough and I was having a relatively good time. We went to a Mexican restaurant in New York City for dinner and then ventured to the Highline, old railroad tracks turned into a park that overlooks the city skyline. It was quite possibly the most romantic place I’ve ever been. Even so, I can’t really say I had butterflies, though I figured a second date wouldn't hurt in helping me decide. But by the end of the night as he walked me back to the train station, things started to feel super weird. My date got really quiet, claiming he was just tired, but the vibes I was getting told me otherwise. When I finally couldn’t take being the only one keeping the conversation going, I decided it was time to make a pit stop on a bench and outright ask him what was up.
He could have just told me he wasn't feeling it. He could have just told me he thought we'd be better off as friends. That would have been no great loss to me, because even though I thought he was a cool guy and he made me laugh, similar thoughts had crossed my mind. Then we could have made small talk on the way to the train station and parted ways, no harm, no foul.
Instead, I was subjected to a round of good old-fashioned body-shaming in what easily ranks as one of the top five most awkward and uncomfortable conversations of my life.
For what felt like an eternity, my not-so-charming-anymore date tried to come up with the right words to tell me that things weren’t clicking for him. He managed to get out that he wasn’t quite sure why he wasn’t feeling it, but that his confusion was the explanation for being “aloof.” I didn’t understand what had gone wrong, because while we had been talking earlier in the week, he had told me he thought I was “smart and sophisticated.” The date wasn’t awful. We got along well enough. However, something in his cryptic reasoning set off alarm bells in my head that perhaps his issue had to do with my disability. Because my disability is visible, I’m unfortunately rather well adjusted to experiencing discrimination because of it.
When I asked if that was the problem, he denied it. Then, we got up so I could try to catch my train, and in an attempt to convince me that my wheelchair was not, in fact, the reason things weren't clicking for him, he proceeded to ramble on during our entire walk to the train station about all the reasons he didn't find me to be aesthetically pleasing. Seriously.
"It's not that you're big," he explained, trying to find the words to tell me that my face is too round. I needed "a bigger nose," he said, and "fuller lips." The shape of my body was not the shape he usually goes for. Ultimately, he said the problem was that he found some parts of me attractive, but not others. If he could have Photoshopped my face right then and there, I don't doubt for a second that he would have.
I wondered if trashing my appearance was just his way of covering up his discomfort with the fact that I use a wheelchair, even though he has his own physical issues. But he was certainly persistent in noting things he considered to be flaws other than my disability.
And then he had the nerve to ask me if he was sounding like an asshole. What the hell was I supposed to say to that? "Nah bro, nice save calling me unattractive to clarify you're not actually hating on my wheels." I responded that he was being a jerk, but since the situation was already so far gone, I'd let him keep digging his own hole. I actually felt a little sorry for him.
I could have listed all the things I wasn't feeling about this guy, appearance and otherwise, right to his face like he did to me, but insulting another person's appearance just doesn't feel right under any circumstances. Making constructive comments or giving solicited, tactful feedback to a person about their features can be okay in very specific situations. But if all you have to say are things that will diminish a person's self-esteem or tear down someone's body image, keep it to yourself. Especially when you've just met someone, you never know what that person's experiences with body issues have been.
To be clear, I am in no way asserting that it's wrong for people not to be physically attracted to each other. Personal preferences are part of life. After all, I don’t look at everyone who passes me thinking: “Damn, that person’s hot.” But somehow, society has landed itself in a culture where body-shaming seems to be a perfectly acceptable verbal sport, and that's just not fair to anyone. From playground bullying to memes mocking a person's looks, far too many people act as though they’re entitled to spout their opinions without considering the weight behind their words. Or, as was the case with the guy I went out with, they realize their words could be hurtful (he told me he knew he was being shallow) and try to justify saying it anyway.
My date’s words sent me from feeling confident to feeling sorry that I don’t have a face or a body more like Kim Kardashian. Irrational? Completely. Yet, this is a pretty typical emotional effect that stems from body-shaming talk. And it’s not OK. No one should be made to feel as though they need to apologize for what they look like.
So, I’m not apologizing any more. I’m speaking up about my experience. Initially, I planned to let it go quietly, but body-shaming is far too common to take it in silence. Maybe there’s something to be said for my date’s…honesty…but I don’t think that excuses how he handled himself. How about if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all?
Or better yet, how about learning to appreciate people for all that they are, and not just for what’s on the outside? It's timeless wisdom for a reason. We all have the right to be respected just as we are.