I Was a Teenage Catfish and I Regret Nothing
I grew up in the early 2000s, before we knew how noxious diet culture is (actually, before we knew what “diet culture” even was)—a time when we glorified skinny bodies to the point of putting our health and well-being at risk. “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” was one of the many phrases my mother and aunts would casually throw around while talking about whatever new fad diet they were trying that week. None of them were even fat to begin with, but the obsession with shrinking their bodies was still ever-present. I, however, was fat; I’ve been fat for most of my life, actually.
Growing up in that environment, I used to think the way my body looked meant I wasn’t worthy of love. For most of my life, that’s pretty much the only message I got: from my parents, from my friends, from my extended family, from the media. The books I spent hours reading and the movies I loved so much all featured skinny women finding the loves of their lives and getting that “happily ever after” I so desperately wanted for myself. This, as far as I could tell, meant that before I could even dream of someone being remotely attracted to me, I’d have to lose weight, no matter the cost.
At the time, probably around 9th grade, I was what we’d now call “midsize.” However, at a size 16, I was still the fattest girl in my class—and even then, I could tell I was treated differently by guys. I got used to being the sweet, funny friend—never the girlfriend. I was deemed worthy enough to keep a secret, but not worthy enough to take on a date or sleep with. Back then, it shaped the way I viewed and understood the world (and my place in it). Even now, at 30, I’m struggling to unlearn all of those things I was programmed to believe about myself because of the way my body looked.
Sure, things are better now, in a way. Fat women get some representation here and there in mainstream media. We finally have fat icons to look up to and celebrate (hello, Lizzo!). But the reality is, things haven’t changed all that much. It’s still hard to find sex and relationships content that is focused on the experiences of fat women, written by and for fat women. I still can’t find advice columns or essays that help me come to terms with the darker and more shameful parts of what growing up fat meant for me. It’s always things like: “Here’s my weight-loss journey! It changed my life for the better!” (as if being skinny is the only possible way to be happy), “I can’t find clothes,” or “I was bullied as a kid,” but never anything that goes deeper. So, I decided to write it myself.
I’m going to assume we’ve all seen (or at least heard of) the infamous MTV show Catfish. You know, the one where folks who’d fallen hard and fast for internet strangers enlisted the help of Nev Shulman and Max Joseph to find out if their online lovers were who they said they were. There were really no winners in this show—we’d all end up making fun of the person who misrepresented themselves online and lied to strangers for attention, as well as the person who was naive enough to fall for the ruse. In the early days of social media, however, leading someone on with a fake online persona was fairly easy. You'd create a fake email, a fake Facebook or MySpace, add a couple of photos of your hot friend, and wait for the friend requests to roll in. I know this because I did it. Hi, yes, I was a teenage catfish.
I must’ve been around 13 years old when I created my first fake profile. At the time, I truly believed something was wrong with me and my body. I longed to be like the other girls in my class: thin enough to feel confident wearing bathing suits in public, with no hips and no boobs (developing “early” isn’t always fun, but, I’ve gotta say, I’ve now become quite fond of my boobs). I was tired of not getting attention from boys and tired of being made fun of for liking the hottest boy on the soccer team while other girls laughed and told me he’d never like me back. So I did what my young, body-shamed brain thought was best: I became someone else (at least while I was online).
I carefully curated a new online persona—the perfect mix of someone else’s looks, another friend’s talents and hobbies, and my personality. In my mind, this was the winning combo that would finally make me worthy of love and attention; I really thought this just might be the way to finally get a boyfriend. I’d go on full-fledged like and poke sprees (remember Facebook pokes?), sending friend requests to anyone who would send a poke back or message me after I’d liked some of their posts. Friend requests turned to Facebook messages, which turned into texts, which turned into hours-long phone calls (always phone calls, never Skype video calls!).
I’d tell these people about my day, vent to them when things went wrong (as wrong as things can go when you’re in your teens), flirt and get compliments, and I’d listen to them tell me about their lives and plans for the future. I loved hearing them tell me how beautiful “I” was (yes, I know they weren’t aware of how I really looked, but when you rarely hear the words “you’re beautiful” from people who know what you actually look like, a second-hand compliment feels good enough) and how much I made them laugh. They’d tell me I was their perfect girl and how happy they were to have found me.
It never lasted, of course.
Eventually, I’d slip and my story wouldn’t match up to something I’d previously said. I’d either get caught or ghost them when I realized the illusion was no longer sustainable. Once it happened, it was time to start over again; I’d block the person and start from scratch, hoping to find some new source of dopamine and “love” to make all my dreams come true—at least for a little while.
I really thought this little scheme would give me the confidence boost I needed to be myself (ironic, I know). I was sure that in these interactions, I'd find whatever piece had been missing that would make me "good enough." Spoiler alert: I didn’t. Even now, with all the work I’ve put into loving and accepting myself, I don’t always feel good enough; now and then I still feel like I need to change who I am to be worthy of everything I want. (Like when the guy I like tells me Sydney Sweeney is his celebrity crush—because duh, she’s gorgeous, and I happen to look nothing like her. The rational side of my brain knows this is not a judgment on me as a person, but the emotional side? Yeah, she cried herself to sleep that night.)
I regret nothing, though; I did what I had to do at the time. In hindsight, pretending to be someone else probably wasn’t the best thing to do, and it probably hurt my confidence more than it helped. But again, it felt like the only way out of the dark hole I’d built for myself. Pretending to be someone I wasn’t felt like my only escape from the fears and insecurities that plagued my younger self.
After a while (and after a few too many fake profiles), I stopped doing it. I'm not exactly sure what changed or how I decided to stop. I like to think I finally realized it was doing more harm than good, but I wasn’t quite so self-aware at the time. It was probably the rise of dating apps—those beautiful-yet-exhausting, bottomless pools of potential matches. It was a numbers game, and I just knew that someone on there had to like me for me. I decided to start putting myself (the real one) out there—no more masks, no more fake profiles.
Even now, as a mostly confident adult woman who knows full well how attractive and valuable she is, I find myself still feeling guilt and shame for my catfish past—I never want to go back to it. My dating apps are carefully curated to show my whole body in the “least flattering” angle possible (by which I mean photos where I'm not trying to trick the camera into perceiving me as smaller than I am). The words “I’m fat” are right there in my bio, and I make a point to tell people I’m fat before any first dates—not because I owe anyone an explanation or a warning about my looks and my body, but because I’m only interested in people who will appreciate and admire me exactly as I am.
Every now and then, I'll remember my past life as a teen catfish and cringe—partly because of how “pathetic” it was, but mostly because I wish I could tell my younger self that she was enough, just as she was. I still struggle with hiding my body sometimes, but age (and a couple of screwups along the way) has given me the confidence and wisdom to know that those who can’t accept my perfect fat body and my sparkling personality are not worth my time or energy.
Yes, I was a catfish, and no, I don’t regret it. I now refuse to change who I am or mold myself into something (or someone) I’m not just to get romantic attention. I don’t need to be someone else to make people look at me with awe and admiration; I can do that all on my own—no matter how large my body is.
You Might Also Like