“Meg, the boys that choose to date you, the man that will want to marry you, will be special.” I was taking a brisk autumn neighborhood walk with my Mom and Dad in Urbana, near our home. “But Mom, no one has ever been interested in me….not like that… at least.” I gave her a look, so she could immediately get my point. Instead, she turned to me and stopped walking. “Darling, don’t you see? There will be boys that see your difference and can look past it and still want to date you…..those are the ones worthy of your attention anyway. Those are the ones that can find even the beauty in your physical imperfection…in you.”
“C’mon Meg! Let’s just talk to them for a little while.” It was my close friend Jenny who I had been friends with since we were little kids. She was beckoning me to walk over to a group of teenage boys who went to Champaign Central, our rival high school. Jenny had been to the last Illini Football home game at the University of Illinois stadium in Urbana earlier that month. One of the boys from Central had exchanged numbers with her the week before, so she was anxious to meet up with him again at the University of Illinois stadium. Like mine, Jenny’s parents allowed her to go to Illini games without parental supervision as long as she was with a friend. So she called me.
The weather that day was cold and damp, and I was wearing my brother, Peter’s Illini rain jacket. My hair was frizzy from hanging out at a tailgate party before the game. Overall, I looked like an orange and blue drowned rat. Jenny, on the other hand, looked beautiful, as usual. “Hey Jenny!” We had been spotted, and as I slowly followed my friend to her new acquaintances, I quickly shoved my one-fingered hands into my jacket pockets.
As it turned out, the boys were really funny and sweet, and fun to hang around with. Rather than watching the game in the rain, all of us ended up spending the rest of the time inside the stadium near the concession stand. One of the boys was named John (not the John I would later marry, by the way). He was boyishly handsome, rather tall and of Italian descent, had dark hair, and captivating brown eyes. From the moment John smiled at me, I felt an instant attraction. At sixteen, I had yet to have a boyfriend. Sure, I had many, “friend-boys,” as I used to call them, but there had never been a boy willing to take a friendship with me to the next level.
“Hey, Meg. Come here for a sec….” It was John. “The game is almost over. I’d like to call you sometime…..here’s my number.” And at that, John extended his hand out with a small piece of paper. Even though the paper was folded, I could see part of the phone number written in blue ink. In that moment, I hesitated. Taking the paper meant removing my hands from my pockets where I had attempted to keep them there, safe and hidden from sight most of the game. I glanced over at Jenny who was clearly excited for me. Hesitating only for a moment more, I looked at John directly. “Thanks!” I said, quickly grabbing the piece of paper and shoving it back along with my hands into my pockets.
Little did I know that I had just met my first boyfriend. After only a few dates, John told me that he had noticed my hands early on when I had inadvertently pulled them out, but didn’t care. He was much more focused on the rest of me.
This past week, with my husband John out of town with another obligation, my friend Samantha and I took my kids for a fun weekend at Hershey Park, PA. For Samantha, it was a final getaway before she had to go back to her senior year at college. Not only is Samantha a student at University of Wisconsin-Madison (my alma mater), but she just completed interning this summer in the same department at the same company where I was first employed. In short, I adore her and somehow despite the generational gap, we have loads in common.
As we drove to our chocolate-infused destination with Ethan, Charlie and Savanna in tow, Samantha and I began to get caught up on various things, including (her) dating life. She turned to me. “Meg, haven’t you heard of ‘Tinder?’” Feeling my age, I admitted I hadn’t, and was about to get a lesson in the current approach to the ’80’s version of meeting in a bar or at a game. “No. Is it like JDate or EHarmony?” Samantha laughed. “That is so yesterday, Meg,” she laughed and continued. “Tinder is the new way everyone meets each other. It’s a free mobile app. User profiles display up to five pictures….. a first name, age, distance away, mutual friends and mutual interests. You can dismiss a potential match with the swipe of your finger to the left, or approve someone you think looks hot with a swipe to the right. If you both swipe to the right, a mutual match is made, and then you can private message one another and go out on a date potentially.”
As we continued on, I couldn’t help but think back to my own teenage years. Back then, there was no option for an online opportunity to date. In that moment, I wondered if that was a good or bad thing. Given my blatant physical differences, I began to imagine how I would handle something like Tinder, or even Match.com etc. if I were single. On the one hand, assuming I was attractive enough, it seemed like the perfect mechanism to show my headshot and have someone just see me, at least initially, and not focus on my physical imperfections; it’s the professional equivalent of getting your foot in the door and then proving yourself later in an interview, right? However, I couldn’t help but wonder, if someone only saw my face, how would I have handled a first “matched” meeting as my teenage self? Would I have hidden my hands in person for as long as possible? I already know the answer (sadly) would’ve been yes. In fact, as far as I was concerned back then, the longer my date got to know me without realizing my difference, the better. I would have convinced myself that that was the only way I could have a chance of someone “swiping to the right” for me. And even worse, if I saw someone else that had a blatant physical difference like mine, I would have invariably swiped to the left…..instant rejection. Why? In truth, I was far from fully accepting myself. In my mind, the thought of partnering with someone else imperfect would only draw attention to my own disfigurement.
As I listened to Samantha’s hilarious Tinder swiping stories, I was not proud of this realization about myself. Then again, I am pretty sure that most young adults would not choose to swipe right for the imperfect person. It’s hard to fault them, given all the other options available and the priorities of most youth. However, based on my life experience, I have come to realize something important. During my dating years, the act of hiding my hands in my pockets (only to reveal them later) was the equivalent of a ‘bait and switch’ experience at a store. If I was being honest, how could I expect someone to like me if I wasn’t being truthful to myself?
Years later, married with three kids, I fortunately have gained some wisdom. In the context of 21st century dating, as it turns out, I believe having a difference is actually a huge blessing! Here is why: If you can find the strength and confidence to purposefully flaunt your difference when posting your photo or profile, then you have instantly weeded out those who may have swiped to the right initially, only to reject you later. By finding the courage to reveal the very thing you believe will deter another from considering you, you’ll actually attract with those rare, special individuals who can look past physical imperfection and appreciate you for you.
There’s nothing better than getting a “right” swipe for the right reasons.