Although we had never met, I knew I would have no trouble recognizing Brenda the second she walked into the Melrose Avenue bar where I sat waiting for her. After all, it was her photograph -- the leonine curve of her green eyes and coquettish cap of blond curls -- that compelled me to contact her on an online dating site where I happened upon her profile. We conversed via e-mail and agreed to meet in person.
But when a woman who bore little resemblance came through the door and waved in my direction, I assumed she was motioning to someone behind me. When she introduced herself as Brenda, I was dumbstruck. It wasn't only the deep-set streaks of facial acne scars that didn't register in my memory of her picture; I also didn't recall her mentioning traveling to the moon -- the only place a scale would have informed her of the 110 pounds she claimed to weigh in her profile.
Brenda began gabbing away the second she sat down across from me, but I'll be damned if I heard a single word. I smiled blankly as my brain studied the differences between the online and actual Brendas. It was as if Charlize Theron miraculously agreed to date me, but without informing me she would show up in her "Monster" makeup.
So bewildered was I that after two minutes I excused myself to go to the bathroom. Near panic, I spotted a fire exit in the back and froze in front of it. I silently debated the merits of making a break for my car outside.
Maybe you haven't been in the position of contemplating escaping from a bad date. But chances are you have been affected by this pernicious trend common to both genders online: the often glaring discrepancies between the photo or listed physical dimensions on a profile and their flesh-and-blood appearance. My encounter with Brenda got me thinking about how to manage expectations in the dating world.
The horror stories are many. Many female acquaintances have encountered so many men who lied about their height that they simply deduct two inches from whatever they see listed. And then there was my friend Abby, who agreed to a date with a gentleman whose photo depicted a curly mane she was dying to run her fingers through. The guy turned out to have more hair on his chest than on his head.
If only these inconsistencies were confined to men. Nearly every male I consulted complained that many women misidentify their body type, such as those who characterize themselves as "proportional" when they in fact measure a longer distance horizontally than they do vertically.
In all seriousness, these incongruities must be treated sensitively; I suspect we all exaggerate our attributes to varying extents mostly out of self-delusion, not deceit. But you are crossing into the latter territory if you hire a professional photographer to deliver the kind of headshot an actor might seek. If the resulting image is something your own mother wouldn't recognize, maybe it doesn't belong on a dating Web site.
And to those of you who willingly enhance their images through the magic of Photoshop, for shame, I say. At least doctor your photos in moderation: I recently encountered a picture of a woman whose face was so illuminated by some sort of halogen light that I thought I recognized her from the final scene of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
I've been tempted plenty myself to do a little post-production work on my own face. I seem to add a new chin with each passing year, and the bags under my eyes are capable of growing to Hefty Cinch-Sak proportions. But is it dishonest of me to not post the worst possible photo of myself? As long as the image bears a resemblance to my actual face, my conscience is clear.
Exaggerating would probably get my foot in the door with more women I find appealing, and maybe my sparkling personality could even distract them from the fact I've distorted the truth. But even if that worked, it would bother me that I had to hide who I really am just to curry favor with someone I barely know.
As for Brenda, luckily enough I had downed a Corona before she arrived. That wasn't quite enough to give me the dreaded "beer goggles" that have transformed many beasts into beauties, but it did embolden me enough to return to the table and look her in the eye.
"I'm gonna go," I found myself saying, to which she responded with a quizzical look. Much as I wanted to angrily explain myself, I complained of a sudden headache. She may have deceived me to seem more attractive, but the truth would have been just as ugly.
Andrew Wallenstein writes for the
Hollywood Reporter and serves as a weekly commentator on National Public Radio's
"Day to Day." His work was included in the recently published "Best Jewish
Writing 2003" (Jossey-Bass). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org