You’re swiping on Tinder and you come across someone suspiciously good looking. It’s almost definitely not them. They’ve probably only got one picture, and you would definitely have noticed if they lived a kilometre away from you.
Catfishing has existed forever and it wasn’t conceived just for internet dating.
Before the internet, you could write a letter pretending to be anyone you like: Albert Fish, a cannibal and serial killer, pretended to be a letter-writing Hollywood director, Robert E. Hayden, in the 1920s to get women to whip him with a rope soaked in brine.
I wanted to know why regular people decide to start catfishing in the first place.
Erika began catfishing at aged 16, making profiles on most social media sites, dating sites and Craigslist.
“I desperately wanted attention from guys, but it wasn’t happening for me in real life.”
Since puberty, Erika began showing symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) which include acne, being overweight and excessive body hair.
“When I started I was a very shy girl with incredibly low self-esteem, to put it bluntly was a bearded girl. So it’s no surprise that I felt ugly and undesirable as a female.”
So, Erika created Sarah, an alter ego, who was the epitome of everything she wanted to be.
“For the image of her, I used a girl I went to school with. She was someone who bullied me about my appearance in real life. She was popular, skinny, blonde, and pretty. She had a cornucopia of photos she posted on her own social media sites, so that’s where I got my collection.”
Not all of Sarah was a lie, her personality was all Erika.
“To put it bluntly [I] was a bearded girl. So it’s no surprise that I felt ugly and undesirable as a female.”
“I gave a fake name but kept my true age and location. I talked to a lot of men through those six years and I have to say, for the most part, it was truly ‘me’. I was always very confident in my character and brain. I had real conversations about deep things and shared aspects of my family life and problems I had.”
After five years of catfishing and watching the MTV show Catfish, Erika came to a massive turning point, “It premiered while I was deep in the Sarah web, and I remember sort of being relieved. It made me feel less like an isolated loser. It did inspire me. I actually have written Nev an email thanking him.”
Erika had previously given up catfishing for several months at a time but always came back to Sarah.
“I do kind of feel like it was an addiction. I was online so much that the lines between my real identity and that one became blurred at times. It was a huge part of my life. I even had two cell phones, one for the real me and one I bought in secret for Sarah because I was trying to hide it from my parents who paid my phone bill at the time.”
Although Erika’s story is somewhat unique, now 27, she has been with one of the men she catfished for five years. Not as Sarah, but as herself.
“He lived nearby and I couldn’t make another two years of excuses for not being able to meet or even Skype. I told him everything, showed him what I really looked like, apologised and expected him to never talk to me again. It was hard to do like it pained me physically for lots of different reasons.”
Despite knowing it wasn’t a healthy activity for her to be taking part in she was too ashamed to let anyone know, for fear of the girl in the pictures finding out, but she thrived on the attention she was getting as Sarah, “It distracted me from my reality most of the time, but I still had to go to bed and wake up as myself.”
The relationships she had became a very real part of her life: “I had long term, three years with some, online or telephone relationships. That’s where the deception feels dirty on my part, as I definitely alluded that our relationships could go further. I’d say three men in total actually fell in love with Sarah, and I them.”
“It feels infinitely better to be loved for who you really are.”
“I was suicidal and often had panic attacks, which I was able to use as another aspect to Sarah and why she couldn’t ever meet anyone. I did spin stories about how she was “too anxious because of bad past experiences” and I would cry real tears on the phone and these men would feel sorry for me. And that’s how I got some of them to stick around.”
Erika explained her stance on her experience today, “I feel bad about some of it; mostly for using that girl’s pictures for selfish purposes. It’s embarrassing and shameful, but I don’t blame myself entirely. I live in a society where beauty standards are hard to maintain and I was a young girl affected by that.”
Since coming clean to her partner and deleting Sarah, Erika hasn’t had the urge to catfish, “these past five years living just as myself have been the best years of my life.”
Erika even had a few words of wisdom for anyone on the same path as her: “I’m against catfishing, and I’d tell anyone who is stuck in it for the same kinds of motivations that I was, that it feels infinitely better to be loved for who you really are.”
Featured image by Anonymous Account via Flickr CC