Illustration by George Heaven
Online dating as a bigger woman can be brutal. I've been called a "fatty" or "fat bitch" by men on Tinder, or told that men would only have sex with me as a favor, because men could never be attracted to someone my size. I'm not insecure about my appearance, but when I first got into online dating, I found myself obsessing over my weight in an entirely different way. I worried my pictures made me look thinner than I actually am, and men would call me out for "lying" about my size. On sites like OkCupid, where you have to fill out a series of questions relating to sex, dating, and personality, I'd preemptively check how a guy answered questions like "would you date someone who is overweight?" before messaging him.
I eventually got over this, and I realized I'd created problems for myself that didn't need to exist. But I was intrigued when I heard about WooPlus, a new dating app for plus-sized men and women to date freely, without the fear of being fat-shamed. According to Michelle Li, one of the co-founders of WooPlus, the idea for the app came after viewing a viral "social experiment" video, where men reacted viciously to being set up on a Tinder date with a woman who ended up being fatter than she appeared in her photos.
"It stuck with us," Li told me. "But not everyone is interested in small, petite-framed women so we decided we wanted to create a dating site that caters to admirers of bigger-framed people."
This same video cites a study that says women's greatest fear in heterosexual dating is that they'll be matched with a serial killer, and men's greatest fear is that they'll be matched with a woman who is fat. If that's actually true (I couldn't find the study), I can see how an app like WooPlus is meant to be a safe space of sorts. "We're trying to make people comfortable with their bodies, and comfortable with themselves," added Li.
Of course, the idea also has its flaws: Does an app like WooPlus put too much emphasis on weight, rather than looking past someone's size to get to know him or her as a person? Does it fetishize big women, or attract people who are simply looking to fulfill a fantasy with someone BBW? (When I later asked Li about this, she said: "We can't stop it all, but we have a lot of features already in place where we're detecting certain words [like fetish] and removing those users right away. We're not tolerating that sort of idea on our site.") And how do you decide who is "fat enough" to be on an app like this?
I had my hesitations, but fuck it, right? I decided to just try it out. As the age-old saying goes, never judge a dating app by it's user interface.
After downloading WooPlus, I started crafting my profile. There's a section to select your interests, but you can only check off five pre-selected options. Unable to personalize, I became Alison Stevenson Basic. Alison Stevenson Basic is a lover of Western and Chinese cuisine, pop music, rock 'n' roll, punk, and jazz. She likes to drink cocktails and watch comedic films but also romance, horror, and documentaries. When she is not eating Western and Chinese cuisine, or being entertained by movies and/or music of many genres, she enjoys cooking as well as animals. My profile read like every OkCupid profile I hate, but there was nothing I could do about it.
The next step was describing my physical appearance, which brought on an internal crisis. I was first asked to define my body type on the range from "slim" to "supersized." I went with "chubby," having no idea what it means to be "skinny-fat" and conceding that the modern definition of "curvy" assumes I have no gut, which isn't true. Then there was a section to consider my body's shape: Was I an hourglass, inverted triangle (what?), a rectangle/banana (are these the same shape?), a rounded/apple, or a triangle/pear (again, what?)? After a moment of consideration, I chose "banana," because bananas are one of my favorite foods, which I didn't have the opportunity to list earlier.
I finished up my profile with a few photos—one of the few fully-body shots I have, and a selfie I took while in the bathroom of a Buffalo Wild Wings—and got to swiping.
WooPlus is currently geared only for heterosexual men and women, which Li told me was in the process of changing. For now, though, I had a small crop of men to choose from (around ten or so), then had to wait five minutes before I could "play again." When the five minutes were up, I got an equally small batch of singles, and I was then told I was out of matches for the day. I didn't match with anyone.
Many elements WooPlus are borrowed from Tinder, OkCupid, Hinge, Bumble, and all the other dating apps that came before, but a seemingly unique feature is gift giving. Within 24 hours of having the app, a user I did not match with sent me a digital gift—a slice of cake. (Sadly, not a real slice of cake.) I asked my digital sugar daddy what he thought about WooPlus.
"Me personally, I wish there were more apps like this," he wrote. "I've [tried] other dating sites and apps before and well, let's just say if you're not a certain body shape it sucks to be there haha."
A few days later, I talked to another user who I actually matched with, who lives over 50 miles away from me. He told me he was "into bigger girls, tried Tinder and others, happened across this [app] so figured it'd be worth a shot." Clearly, there are people on the site who see this as a solution to a problem.
But after being on the app for close to a week, I found that the biggest hurdle was the lack of users. The men I was being forced to interact with often didn't live in my city, or even my state, which makes it literally impossible to date. According to statistics Li sent me, since its launch in November of 2015, WooPlus has amassed around 10,000 users, most of whom live in the United States, and it's almost two-thirds men. But even still, it didn't feel like there were many men to choose from.
Even if WooPlus continues to grow, I'm not convinced that removing myself from men who are not loud and proud fat admirers is going to do anything to change negative stigmas. A lot of the men I've dated in the past told me I was the first "big" girl they dated. If I were strictly on a site like WooPlus, I might not have ever had the chance to change their perspective on fat women.
That's not to say WooPlus is a bad app. Li and the team behind the app really do want to create a safe space for plus-sized people, but it's hard to do so without marginalizing us in the first place. Plus, if you're going to have a gift-giving feature, you should really give away real cake.
Follow Alison Stevenson on Twitter.