This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Modern love is hard work. Between navigating unsolicited dick pics and thinking up not-lame answers to Hinge prompts, dating in the digital age comes with a lot of stressors. But none are quite as nerve-wracking as the moment when the group chat asks for a photo of the new person you’re seeing.
We all know how it goes. You’ve been dating for a couple of weeks now and naturally, your friends are all curious. “Send a pic!” they say. So, you grab a screenshot from his or her Instagram and hit send. But then you notice that the picture isn’t actually that flattering. Maybe the lighting’s weird or their outfit doesn’t look as good as it did IRL. Before your mates have even had a chance to respond, you find yourself bizarrely vouching for your new crush's attractiveness, like some desperate lawyer in a trial for hotness.
I admit to having done this countless times, but I’m no less baffled by my own behaviour. Surely it’s weird to want your mates to find your partner attractive – you’re the one dating them, after all. But for many, a friend’s opinion can be a huge factor in deciding whether someone is worth seeing.
AJ was gearing up to meet a match on Hinge when a friend’s comparison left things turning sour. “I sent his photo to one of my friends. At first he didn’t say anything, but after pushing for a response he just sent a picture of Megamind,” she says. “After that, I couldn’t not see that the guy had a really large forehead. I went on the date, but it was not a good time – I was sat there talking to his forehead.”
AJ isn’t the only person to have a friend’s unexpected disapproval put them off. “I had a friend that called a girl I was talking to hideous,” says Oso. “I was shocked he could say something like that, but as bad as it sounds, I did not view her the same way after he made the comment. We did not last.”
Clearly, some friends aren't afraid to let you know that your fantasy spouse-to-be is actually pretty clapped. But research shows that taking their response to heart might not be as shallow as it seems.
Dr. Taha Yasseri is a social science researcher at Oxford University whose work covers both human dynamics and online dating. He says that there might be an evolutionary component to why we want others to approve our romantic partners. “Social influence and the way that we affect each other’s behaviour has been a mechanism to help our societies grow and sustain,” he says. “To survive, we needed to live in groups and communities with an identity; to create that identity we copy each other’s behaviour.”
Yasseri’s research suggests that social conformity within friendship groups can affect individual behaviours, such as music listening choices. This can extend to who we date, and we often validate our dating choices using the opinions of others. “We know that attractiveness is fluid and more of a social construct, rather than something someone could define, and the most appealing evidence for that is how attractiveness trends change from country to country,” he says. “Because attractiveness is socially defined, the best way for us to confirm that we are following the same rules is to try to get the confirmation from our social circles.”
This checked out with many of the people I spoke to. Most agreed that they sought reassurance from friends that they had chosen a good partner. “If you walk past a restaurant and there’s nobody inside, you become a bit concerned – like, why is that restaurant empty?” says Doyin*. “So if you’re seeing this guy or you’re interested and people find him repellent, you start to second guess. Because why does everyone think he’s ugly? That means he’s ugly!”
Sharing a photo of the new person you’re seeing can have other benefits, too. Tor is non-binary and has experience dating both men and women. “My attraction leans more towards girls,” they explain, “so I find that with guys, I’m not sure how much it’s me or compulsory heterosexuality thinking I should be attracted to a guy that’s conventionally attractive. It helps me assess my own opinion.”
It’s fine to enjoy the ego boost that comes from having an attractive partner. But the problem arises when the number of flame emojis their pic earns in the group chat becomes a deciding factor in whether to keep dating them. We should all be mature enough to be able to date whoever we want, regardless of what our pals say or what they look like.
“The trend of receiving influence from more friends is not necessarily a bad thing,” Yasseri says. “But we have to know the parameters and take control back.”
*Name has been changed.