Today, online dating website OkCupid came under fire for an advanced feature where users can pay $4.95 a month for a membership that allows them to search potential mates based on body type. The feature has been around for a while but the site has been promoting it as of late, spurring debate among users that say it promotes body image insecurity.
"I think to discriminate, really, against somebody based on a physical aspect that can be changed, is completely unfair," Donna Barnes, author of Giving Up Junk Food Relationships, said to Good Morning America.
But aren't any number of attributes listed on online dating profiles subject to change? You say you exercise 1-2 times a week. Couldn't that change to 3-5? You say you have a bachelor's degree. Could you not go back to school for your masters? You say you're a blonde — can't you dye your hair? Take up a new hobby? Switch professions? Other than race or eye color, what about a person is eternally fixed?
"How you self identify on the site and how you are going to be perceived on your date by your date is gonna be a point of potential insecurity," said OkCupid user Alana Massey. But it is that "self-identification" that makes this particular feature seem kosher — users identify themselves as skinny, full-figured, or even used-up (what?) and then their potential suitors (and whatever the female version of suitors is) can search based on that attribute. Users can opt to not fill out that portion of their profile, and they can falsely claim to be "jacked" when scrawny might be more accurate.
"If you were at a bar deciding who you wanted to talk to, physical appearance is something you would take into account," said OkCupid co-founder Sam Yagan. "The idea that it is somehow pejorative just doesn't hold water by the fact that people are choosing to self identify that way."
I'm inclined to agree. Lots of people choose potential partners based on whether or not they find them physically attractive — that's why these sites have pictures. If you end up going out with a guy that loves curvy women and you're rail thin then it probably won't work anyway. And if you're looking to date a guy that doesn't care about body type, you can simply leave that field blank.
That said, there is a years-old looks-based search option on OkCupid that is actually problematic. Users can rate the attractiveness of other users on a 5-star scale. When someone thinks you're cute, you get a notification saying so. Regular users can't search based on those star ratings, but those with advanced memberships can search, for example, only people that other people rated an average of four stars or higher. That means that those people with middle-of-the-road ratings will be hidden from searches based on what a bunch of random strangers online thought of their profile picture. That is the messed up part. But perhaps we are asking too much in hoping that a site like OkCupid will be sensitive to body image.