Dear New Romantics,
As a bisexual, feminist woman, I often take the luxury of setting my dating apps, when using them, to exclude men. Wading through the murky waters of finding social justice-oriented men who can manage more than “hey, beautiful” as a first message is too precarious.
But every once in a while, after weeks of Tinder telling me I’ve run out of folks to swipe on, I open up my settings to men.
And I am barraged. With fish.
One fish, two fish. Red fish, blue fish. Big fish, small fish. Sea fish, lake fish.
And I thought maybe I noticed this bizarre trend only because I’m vegetarian. Or because I find sport hunting atrocious. Or — I don’t know — because I have no understanding of or affinity for straight, white, male culture. But no. It’s not just me.
According to a 2018 survey by Fishbrain (um, it’s a social media platform for fishers?), 1 in 10 men in San Francisco hold fish in their Tinder profile pics. In New York, it’s 1 in 20. In Florida? A whopping 1 in 5 men feature a fishy buddy in their profiles.
But for f*ck’s sake, why?
Well, let’s start with understanding the science behind mate attraction and selection. “Mate attraction” refers to why and how we’re drawn to other people; “mate selection” is why and how we choose partners.
Much of how science looks at these two related phenomena is based in evolutionary biology and psychology. That is, why have we developed interest in certain traits over time, and how does that help propagate the species?
But sociology also plays an important role in who we find attractive and decide to date. So let’s take a look at how these overlap.
If you have even just a cursory understanding of evolution, you’re probably looking at your laptop or smartphone right now like, “Duh, girl, it’s about providing.” And you’re right!
The concept of provision — the idea that someone can supply something practical for our use — can be seen all over dating apps if you really look. That suped-up car, fancy jewelry, or business suit? That babe must have money… that they could ostensibly share with me.
And a fish pic? I can get fed!
The New Yorker even joked about this in 2017, publishing the satirical piece “I Am a Tinder Guy Holding a Fish and I Will Provide for You.” In it, writer Amy Collier jests, “During our time together, you will never go hungry or fear famine… I will sustain you with my love and with my fish.”
As famine has been, and continues to be, a legitimate survival concern across the country and around the world, a potential mate’s ability to provide for you (as well as your children and extended family or community) is indeed an attractive quality from a practical standpoint.
Like, I don’t know how to fish. If I were suddenly thrown into an apocalyptic scenario in which my only option for sustenance was fresh-caught salmon, I’d be screwed. Forming an alliance with someone with bear-like fishing skills is the only way I could survive.
And the deep emotional bond of a mate would suggest that I could depend on them to keep me alive for a stretch. (Note to self: Check in with your partners to see if either of them knows how to fish.)
Of course, those of you who take biology with a grain of salt already know that much of this research is founded on cisheteronormative assumptions: A man with a penis provides for a woman with a vagina, and together they create lots of human babies who the woman takes care of as a hey, thanks! for the fish.
And the more we believe in this biological explanation — and approach it as infallible truth — the more this theory asserts itself and becomes ingrained in both society’s assumed rules and our brains. I like to call this “evolution as socialization.”
We’re told that men are biologically hardwired to provide for their families, and so we expect it — and as such, of course men would want to signal their abilities to potential partners.
Sure, biology always plays a role in our behaviors: The most basic, primitive part of our brains is focused on survival. So much of what we do comes from this foundational place. It makes sense that, even on a deeply subconscious level, men might post fish pics to poke at a primal instinct in those swiping on them.
But on a conscious level, in the parts of their brains where consequences are considered and decisions are made, men have other explanations for why they depend on fish pics in their dating profiles.
Last April, for Elite Daily, writer Elana Rubin went on a quest: She purposely matched with those she’s dubbed “Fish Men” to ask them why — oh, why — they use these pictures on dating apps. She caught (haha, get it?) only six of them, but a full half said it was because fishing was important to them.
One explained, “I am a professional fishing guide… so it really is an authentic expression of me.” Another said, simply, “I go fly fishing every day. It’s one of my passions.”
With the proliferation of the internet and the onset of folks solely or primarily seeing a bite-size version of us online instead of our full complexity IRL, we have the option to manipulate how people see us.
I post cute selfie boomerangs on Instagram, rather than a livestream of my doing the dishes, for a reason. And this practice is especially prevalent on dating apps, where you have both less room and more motivation to present yourself in an intentional way.
With limited space, we present the most swipeable versions of ourselves, curating our profiles to attract the kinds of people we want in our lives. And if fishing is an important hobby of yours, of course you’d want people to see that.
But because these images, as well as the language we use, also hold sociological context, we signal our values to others with what we post online. We associate fishing, just like everything else, with values-laden qualities.
For example, when I see a man holding up a freshly caught fish, the following assumptions come to mind: Outdoorsy. Conservative. Man’s man. And all of those are a swipe-left for me.
These assumptions may very well not be correct, but when asked to make a lightning-fast judgment, I go with my gut — or my prefrontal cortex — and not my survival instincts. Similarly, other values that can be signaled by images (say, someone pictured at a protest for a cause I believe in) may make me more likely to swipe right.
My brain is still hardwired for survival: It’s why I experience everything from hunger cues to remind me to eat to an adrenaline rush that gives me the energy to jump out of a speeding car’s path. But just as our brains have developed over time and our priorities have shifted further from survival mode, I’ve become more likely to make partnering decisions from a more self-actualized place.
Most likely, the ubiquity of fish pics is a little bit evolution and a little bit thought-out intention, as all mate attraction and selection attempts usually are. Which kind of pisses me off, because now the fish pic phenomenon feels a lot less “LOL men!” and a lot more “Oh, right” to me.
And men? Go ahead and put up that fish pic if it’s important to you. Pro tip: According to the aforementioned Fishbrain survey (I still can’t believe that’s an actual thing), the most attractive fish to hold is a great northern tilefish, followed by a sailfish.
But also consider adding some images that go against the grain to help create a more unique and engaging profile. Ask yourself actively: What do I hope to signal to potential matches? What do I want them to know about me? How do my images supplement my 500-character bio (uh, and yes, you should always write a bio)?
We’ve all seen the fish pic (and the weirdly angled car selfie, and the shirtless-in-the-gym mirror shot). You know you’re a catch. Now show us what else you got.
Melissa Fabello, PhD, is a social justice activist whose work focuses on body politics, beauty culture, and eating disorders. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.