“High maintenance” is considered a red flag on dating apps. Women are always expected to shrink

The term “demanding” is common parlance and generally refers to a woman who places a high value on her personal image, wants or needs.

Often uttered in the context of dating, the implication is that the woman in question is too hard-working; an easier, easier to understand companion would be preferred.

Rarely, if ever, do we come across the term “high maintenance man”.

On dating apps, users make split-second decisions, relying on profile pictures to guide them.

In my research on dating apps and heterosexual dating, I found that men seek to portray themselves as handsome, muscular — even tanned — in their profile pictures to attract more matches.

Conversely, women sought to present themselves versus a cultural idea.

The women sought to develop profiles that presented them as “not very demanding”.

Women on dating apps try to make themselves attractive, but not “too much”.(Pexels: Artem Podrez)

What does “high maintenance” mean on dating apps?

“High Maintenance” was a slippery yet sticky category defined by physical and behavioral characteristics.

In her profile pictures, the demanding “girl” (as she was often described by both men and women in my research), was probably wearing “too much” makeup or tight clothes. She would be dressed for a party (or “going out”). She would pout for the camera, Instagram style, or carry an expensive handbag.

Once dulled with the high maintenance brush, it was hard to be seen otherwise.

Behaviourally, she was seen as difficult. She wanted things, and expected a high standard. There was a job involved in dating her, and therefore, a financial burden.

As one male participant put it:

“There are plenty of super attractive girls on dating apps […] but I mean, I can’t afford that kind of thing. It’s too much maintenance”

The women in my research sought to present themselves as “pretty” but “relatable”. They didn’t want to “intimidate” a potential match with their images and behavior.

As one participant put it, a high-maintenance woman expected too much.

The need to appear attractive and yet undemanding meant that women had to conduct a balancing act.

There was a sort of effortless, pretty, requisite nonchalance:

“My everyday look is an oversized t-shirt and very comfortable clothes, but on my profile there is the photo of the festival where I am visibly made up and there are two other photos where I am with friends […] I felt the pressure where you should at least be pretty, but at the same time you have to look understandable. So I guess at the same time, people aren’t intimidated to approach you.

“There’s this pressure that you need to look friendly enough, but pretty enough, but not too friendly at the same time. It’s a weird line.”

Identity management

This type of identity management is not new, especially on social networks. It is distinctly pervasive for girls and young women who are typically portrayed as having (or having) too little or too much. Too fat or too thin; too smart or too stupid; too free or too restricted.

Here, the line was between sexiness and effortlessness. The contestants felt the need to be pretty, but not so pretty that they might scare away potential matches.

Physical attributes, or ways of presenting oneself, were also often confused with personal behaviors and expectations. Indeed, women had to present themselves as naturally pretty, capable, without expectations, fun-loving and, above all, easy-going.

Everything to ensure the comfort of a man.

A woman wearing rainbow shorts and pigtails poses at a festival, next to another woman dancing and another watching.
Women may feel more comfortable in sweatpants, but they put festival photos on their dating app profiles.(Pexels: Wendy Wei)

Behind this seemingly insignificant, even innocuous statement, lurked something far more sinister.

He seemed to describe the multitude of ways women hold themselves back from placating men: not complaining, not demanding too much, not expressing their needs, not having expectations of emotional openness or fulfillment.

Indeed, make no claims, which are the necessary conditions for an intimacy based on relations of equality and mutuality.

In the end, the “high-maintenance” woman was too much to handle – which confirmed known stereotypes that women are meant to be quiet, submissive, opinionless, and always accommodating. They shouldn’t be difficult.

He strengthened the feminine pillars that a woman should smile and make pleasant. Don’t be too explicit and ultimately don’t take up too much space.

A certain invisibility was required, even in an online dating space.

Lisa Portolan is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University. This piece first appeared on The Conversation.

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