Revenge Dating as a Swan

A lot of us who grew up fat or were fat for a long time but overcame that have what I call “Ugly Duckling” syndrome. I’ve mentioned it before obliquely, but it’s basically what you’d expect: we went from fat to fit but still carry the fat kid with us in a few ways. It actually reminds me of something my brother said – though it’s a pretty common aphorism I think – when talking about chasing women. He said that you don’t want the girl who has always been hot, because she knows she’s hot and expects more. You want the girl who used to be a fat dork because she doesn’t know she’s hot yet and you have a much better shot! A lot of us are like that. No matter what we look like on the other side of our journey through fitness, we will still be, to a lesser or greater degree, dysmorphic. What we see doesn’t really line up with reality entirely.

It’s a mixed experience, though, to be honest. That is to say, it’s not as though I always feel like a heifer despite whatever it is I’m seeing in the mirror. The sensation can be strong and discouraging – when we, even at some high fitness level, obsess over local imperfections and it feels exactly the same as it did when our whole body was fat – or it may be fleeting and subtle – a momentary hesitation to take your shirt off, for instance, even around someone you’re in a relationship with… or even just being stumped when someone pays you a compliment (God knows I haven’t really mastered accepting compliments). Those sensations bump up against objective reality, which is that I’m more fit than the majority of Americans… by a long mile. That I’m not overweight by any stretch of the imagination. That I’ve literally never had anyone notice the (glaring) imperfections in my body that I notice. That it’s been a long time since I’ve been rejected because of how I look (well… regarding my weight at least). My problems are all in my head. But even knowing that, it’s hard to grit my teeth and keep them from guiding, if not governing, my behavior.

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In that vein of Ugly Duckling Syndrome governing behavior, I’ll relate a short story about an acquaintance of mine. J___ used to be bigger and now he’s working out and making really excellent progress. He looks much better than when he started actually and I’m proud of all his work. We were talking recently about that and about how it changed his dating life. He told me that he was having a lot more fun, but not necessarily because he was dating a lot more. Sure, he’s getting much more attention because he looks better… but the attention comes in large part from people who apparently weren’t nearly as interested before he got fitter. The fun part, for J___, has been blowing off people who used to not give him the time of day.

First let me say that I sympathize with revenge dating, and that J___ obviously isn’t the first former fatty to think of it. Everyone who went to their high school reunion either fitter or more successful than their peers expected knows the temptation to letting the haters have their comeuppance. And not even just explicitly… J___ isn’t being mean to anyone. But brittle smile and a “sure, maybe we can hang out some time…” does the trick quite nicely. I sympathize with the impulse, definitely.

I asked him, though, if there was a difference between just being indifferent or not-interested when he was fat vs. being actually unkind. I asked because it seems to be as though revenge dating against the first group kind of conflates them with the second. Being uninterested in me doesn’t automatically make someone a jerk any more than I’m a jerk for not being interested in every person that crosses my path or shows some vague interest. I can still be a friendly guy but not be at all attracted to you… and others can be perfectly nice people without wanting to date me.

This goes back, somewhat, to the discussion about being shallow that I had a while back. The impulse behind revenge-dating I think is the desire to punish them for being shallow… but, like I told J___, let’s all be real: physical attraction is a real thing and matters. Obviously we think so, or we wouldn’t have lost all that weight. And… not to put too fine a point on it… but neither J___ nor I are really blowing up the phones of seriously overweight people trying to get dates. But we still think of ourselves as decent guys.

Because being attracted to someone is separate from basic human kindness. Something that’s easy to forget, I think, when you’re on the other side of rejection.

He had to think about it for a moment before agreeing that there must be a difference. I think it means that he’s now giving otherwise reasonable people a fair shake and only weeding out people who were genuinely assholes to him. It’s a much better dating strategy, I think, since it takes care of people who were actually cruel – there’s no reason rejection has to be unkind – from people who, quite reasonably, made decisions based on personal taste.

Plus, as a guy who spent most of his life with a really narrow dating pool, it’s probably a silly idea to artificially keep it just as small as it was when I was fat.

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