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Kittenfishing: The common dating trend you're probably (slightly) guilty of

The online dating strategy is characterized by using little white lies — like misrepresenting your height, age or interests — to hook a potential date.
Gif illustration of a hand moving a phone with a photo of a man to reveal a similar, but different looking man.
Kittenfishing is misrepresenting yourself in an online profile — like wearing hats in all your photos if you’re bald.Jackson Gibbs / for NBC News

The 2010 documentary "Catfish" chronicled photographer Nev Schulman's journey to discover who was really behind the long-distance relationship he'd been having with a beautiful 19-year-old singer named Megan. Ultimately, Schulman finds that the woman he'd communicated with via hundreds of texts, Facebook posts and phone conversations was actually invented by a middle-aged mom living in Michigan.

Since then, catfishing has become a well-known dating term — meaning, pretending to be a completely different person online than you actually are in real life. And while (hopefully) most of us aren't using super sexy photos of someone else to mess with the minds of our online dating prospects, the temptation to lie about age, height, profession and other details to attract more matches is obviously there.

If you've ever had an online date show up IRL looking years older or inches shorter than his or her profile let on, you already know how awkward kittenfishing can make that initial meeting.

"On a basic level, kittenfishing is 'catfishing light,'" says Jonathan Bennet, founder of Double Trust Dating. "While you’re not pretending to be another person, you’re still misrepresenting yourself in a significant way. This could include photos with deceptive angles, lying about numbers (age, height, etc.), photos from years ago, wearing hats if you’re bald, or anything else that makes you appear radically different than how you would show up in person."

Kittenfishing is 'catfishing light.' While you’re not pretending to be another person, you’re still misrepresenting yourself in a significant way.

This also extends to the lifestyle you portray on your dating profile. While it's understood you're probably not posing with tigers on safari on the regular, passing off an expensive rental car as your own, pretending your rich buddy's parent's yacht is yours, or listing your occupation as something it's not (PSA: working in "finance" is not the same as being a bank teller) that also counts here.

Why do people kittenfish?

Online dating is competitive, flaws are easy to hide in the virtual world and at the end of the day, we all want to be loved. So bending the truth might seem like the best way to increase your chances of snagging that first date.

It' s no secret that online dating apps have changed the way we date. Why approach someone in person and risk rejection when you could safely swipe left and right from the comfort of your own home? For people who truly believe they're better in person than they are via photos, Sharone Weltfried, a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in San Francisco, says kittenfishing can be looked at as a strategy.

"Kittenfishers try to optimize the likelihood of getting a first date because they believe they can win people over in person with their personality, charm, wit, intelligence, sense of humor, etc.," says Weltfried. "Kittenfishers may also use outdated or greatly filtered images of themselves because they believe that they look better in person than their more recent or unaltered photos."

But at the end of the day, even the most winning of personalities doesn't shake the fact that you're kicking off a potential new relationship with a lie. "Kittenfishing is ultimately a form of lying and manipulation and, even if your date is forgiving, it’s a bad way to start a relationship," says Bennett.

Elisa Robin, Ph.D., gives a vivid example of how kittenfishing could backfire. "I met a man who said he was 5' 8" but was clearly my height (5'5") or a bit less. So my first impression was that he lies. I might not mind that he is shorter, but I do mind that he lied."

Signs you're being kittenfished

You'll obviously know you've been kittenfished once you do meet up for that first date. But psychologist Ana Jovanovic says there are a few signs to look out for in order to spot it beforehand.

  • Inconsistencies in what a person is telling you. "You may notice contradictory details in their stories or see them fail to respond to a relatively simple question about a topic they seem to be very passionate about," says Jovanovic.
  • Lack of details once you become inquisitive. "They may avoid telling you specifics about their job, experience, background – because the specifics may reveal the truth," Jovanovic says.
  • Idealistic self-presentation. If it seems as if they have no flaws, whatsoever, Jovanovic says there's a high chance they're probably too good to be true.

It's ultimately up to you to decide whether or not you want to investigate further. But if you are faced with a kittenfisher, Jovanovic says to ask yourself: "What is the person trying to cover or lie about, how severe is the kittenfishing and how important is this to you? You will need to make your decision on what to do based on the answer to this question."

Wait ... am I kittenfishing?!

If you've read this far and can't get that one profile photo from last summer out of your mind — the one where you threw a sepia filter on to make yourself look a bit more sunkissed — let’s stop and talk about it for a minute. If you think you might be kittenfishing, Jovanovic recommends asking yourself the below questions, and answering honestly.

  • If a person was to meet me now, what differences would they find between who I am online and in-person? Imagine yourself showing up for a date with a potential match. Would they recognize you from your photos? Do you look the same in person as you do in the pictures they've seen of you? We all have our good angles, but are you intentionally hiding the way your body actually looks?
  • How many white lies have I told this person? A matched asked what you were up to and you thought "cleaning the bathroom" wasn't the most endearing response, so you embellished a bit and said you were out with a friend instead. White lies inevitably happen via online dating. But if you've consistently told ones that paint a picture of a very different person than you actually are, you may have set unrealistic expectations.
  • How do I think this person would describe me? Is this how I would describe myself, too? You've described yourself as adventurous and outdoorsy, but you've never been on a hike in your life ... and now your match thinks that'd be an ideal first date.
  • If a close friend who knows me well and this person were to talk about me, would they be able to recognize me as the same person? Would your best friend recognize you from your online dating profile? Asking a friend to vet your online dating profile is a surefire way to make sure you're putting your best foot forward without misleading a potential match.

If this sounds like you, Jovanovic says spending some time identifying your true best qualities can be helpful. "Reflect on what it is that you have to offer," she says. "What are your strengths? Accomplishments you are proud of? What is it that you and people around you like about you? If you are not sure what there is about you that people may be drawn to, talk to people around you. Ask them about ways they would describe you."

Behind kittenfishing, there's a desire to be better. And while there are some things you can't change, Jovanovic says working toward that better version of yourself can help you move past the need to kittenfish. "Set goals to become this better version of yourself," she says. "If you’re continuously finding yourself in need of representing yourself as more successful, better looking or more sociable than you are, you may consider setting goals for yourself to actually improve in the areas you find important."


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