Life

Why the LA dating scene left me broken - and how I put myself back together

When Alicia Lutes moved to Los Angeles, her experience with dating apps and sites destroyed her self-confidence. Then she realised she was the one responsible for her self-worth…

When I lived in New York City, I had your run-of-the-mill, not great, but ultimately generic time befit of any single woman dating in her 20s. Because all the stereotypes you hear about dating in New York City are true. Websites like Plenty of Fish and OKCupid didn’t do the job any worse or better than dating apps like Hinge, Tinder, or Bumble. Then I moved to Los Angeles. Started figuring my shit out and dropped a significant amount of weight (slowly!) along the way. I was going out more, and saying yes to things — doing everything you’re told to do to “put yourself out there.” I was optimistic, feeling better about myself than I ever had, and yet my experience with dating got so, so much worse.

Let me explain. 

Hollywood sign from behind at night
Dating in Los Angeles: it’s tough out there

When I was 130 pounds heavier, I absolutely felt more secure. I knew how I fit into the world that existed there, one that I loved, and how to navigate its deeply familiar terrain. Growing up in and around New Haven, Connecticut, I had been going to New York City since I was very young (a day skating at Rockefeller Center that, to my mom’s dismay, none of us remember), and as I got older, I would regularly decamp (often completely on my own) since I was about 14. It was easy, it made sense, so I moved there after graduating college in 2008. I had friends I knew and was firmly entrenched in what I felt was my role: the funny fat friend. 

I stopped weighing myself after I’d hit 338 pounds, but I tried to ignore it as much as I could, and — in a sense — just tried to make sure I said and did enough to make myself seem desirable (in any sense) enough for people to want to keep around. I felt good at that, at times it even felt easy, especially surrounded by people like the friends I had. When I started an OKCupid account during one of my early years, I played at it like a game (minus the sweaty near-panic attacks I had before going on most any single date), but with enough distrust in my heart (or fear from my own experiences with sexual abuse) to keep any experiences I had with shitty dudes extremely limited. There was never anyone serious (just a seriously long-standing crush on a guy from college who did not live that close).

A few years later I moved to Los Angeles on April Fool’s Day with a slight hope there would be some positive irony or humor to that date down the line in my career. I knew two people in town. I worked two full-time jobs simultaneously for most of that first year and by Christmas, I was absolutely empty, to the point that I couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks, I was so sick and exhausted. It was a wake-up call that I needed to get my health—mental, emotional, and physical—right. It was a slow process, thanks to unemployment and learning to freelance and landing a full-time job and back again, but it netted a lot of immediate gains: I got healthy fast (tip: learn what you are allergic to and fight back against medical fatphobia!), I felt like I was figuring out my work/life balance.

Venice Beach sign LA California
“Sure, New York has its fair share of attractos, but LA is truly living on another, far more curated and sculpted, level.”

But my sense of self was crumbling, alongside my perceived worth to other people. Living in the capital of American entertainment, in this place where people’s stories on screens large and small help define our cultural norms and our ideas of physical perfection, surrounded by a sea of incredibly, particularly hyper-attractive people, absolutely overwhelmed me. Sure, New York has its fair share of attractos, but Los Angeles is truly living on another, far more curated and sculpted, level. It is insane how something as seemingly insignificant as this can throw your entire sense of who you are out the window. But it did.

Even though I’d lost weight, even though I’d started a career as a professional writer, and even though I tried to “put myself out there” in my genuinely earnest-but-ultimately-misguided way, it came at the cost of my own sense of self and self-worth. What little confidence I had slipped through my fingers. I let Los Angeles into my head: the images it projects, the environment in which I exist (the entertainment industry), all of it runs on idealism. Which is great, but if you internalise it to the point of assuming you have no actual value or worth, you’re not going to attract anyone good — especially if you try hard. Maybe especially because of that. I was insecure and terrified and afraid to assert myself and what I wanted out of fear that it would send the people who deigned to come into my life away. And it wasn’t just in my intimate relationships, either. 

Moving to Los Angeles was one thing, trying to fit into it was another, but now—trying to turn it into my home—meant I had to face the mirrors this place held up to me, the mirrors that forced me to confront my own unresolved issues. This, funnily enough, also makes dating quite hard. Especially in a town full of very insecure people, many of them enabled in their dysfunctional behaviors and attitudes (and often given many dollars or impressive jobs to further cushion themselves), making them unable to either see or want to deal with things that they may need to change within themselves. Los Angeles will force you to build either confidence or something like it, or it will eat you alive, spit out your bones, and harvest your soul for energy. 

Women with Los Angeles in the background
Dating in LA, California: “Moving to Los Angeles was one thing, trying to fit into it was another.”

Also, dating and the apps had changed. For one, there were so many options of apps and sites - plus Hinge and Tinder had just launched. But also everyone was using them now. What felt like an earnest, semi-embarrassing experiment not totally, wholly accepted as “the way it’s done” in 2009 was, in 2012/2013, already morphing into the oft-complained about drag it feels like now

One of the first messages I got via OKCupid in Los Angeles was this:

Dating in Los Angeles: just some of the messages Alicia received on OKCupid

The next guy who messaged me wanted to talk on the phone. So we did. Multiple times until I asked if we were going to go out—he stopped calling. Another guy was a PA on one of the Kardashian shows who asked me to drive him places and then invited me back to his weed-and-dust-covered (when I say every surface, I mean it) studio in Venice and was confused when I didn’t feel like hooking up on his futon/bed underneath a poster of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit girl, surrounded by garbage. Never heard from him again, either. 

The creepiest guy I talked with during that spell of online dating insisted that I meet him at his apartment for our first date, far away from where I lived, and park my car in his locked garage so he could drive us to the date. When I told him I would just rather meet him somewhere, he got pissed off in a way that sent off major warning bells. I blocked him. 

Venice Beach Los Angeles at dusk
Dating in Los Angeles: “I loved myself more in NYC than I ever have in LA. Or so I thought.”

The last guy was a musician-slash-filmmaker-slash-director who only talked about himself and the “micro-budget film” he was making thanks to money from “a disgraced former pastor from Florida.” He was originally considering Joaquin Phoenix and Giovani Ribisi for the main role but, after considering the emotional heft of his semi-autobiographical film about a manic pixie dream girl drug addict that changed his life one night on the Santa Monica ferris wheel, then decided they couldn’t handle it and that he would play the role instead. He tried to scout my apartment for the film.

There was also a guy whose uncle is a famous director—and wouldn’t stop talking about him. There was the guy who said: “You know that thing that Lady Gaga sings about?” “The Fame Monster?” I asked, horrified. “Yeah! I have that.” There was a friend I genuinely liked and told him that and it ended awkwardly and made me sad. And, of course, the TV showrunner’s extremely pushy and aggressive assistant, who ignored every boundary and then, when I told him I was uncomfortable, asked me (I kid you not): “Can I ask you sort of a deep question? So you’re not the first woman who has said this sort of thing to me. What is it about me do you think that makes me this way?” I call him Sex Nightmare. 

Lady Gaga
There was the guy who said: “You know that thing that Lady Gaga sings about?” “The Fame Monster?” I asked, horrified. “Yeah! I have that.” 

Thankfully, it wasn’t all bad: I had a boyfriend for a spell (who I did not meet on the apps) who was one of the kindest, most lovely men I’ve ever known. He made me feel safe and cared for when I had to be vulnerable and honest about my experiences with sexual trauma, and dealt with some particularly intense phone calls after a trip back east to visit family. I broke it off with him but I will always cherish that relationship because he showed me the first bit of true kindness and respect a man ever has in a romantic situation.

Recently my therapist asked me to get back on the dating apps. I groaned. She expected it, and confronted me on my resistance and negative attitude. To be fair, I don’t think she fully understood just how bad the apps have become even compared to the beginning of this decade. So I downloaded Hinge. In the last two weeks, I’ve been asked to join a sex club, negged by a pick-up artist, harassed by a fan of screenwriter Max Landis (because once we matched he saw my full name, googled me, and saw some tweets), and asked to go on a date by a man who immediately deleted the app. I showed my horrified therapist who agreed it was cool if I deleted the app again. (I did.) 

Los Angeles California at dusk
Dating in Los Angeles: “being surrounded by a sea of incredibly, particularly hyper-attractive people, absolutely overwhelmed me.”

Sometimes I go to New York and daydream about being back there, with all my friends and the comfort and stability a city I’ve known so well for so long, provides. There are a few men there I have caught myself wondering what it would be like to date, but I don’t let those thoughts linger. In many ways romanticism thrives in New York in a way that just doesn’t seem as possible in LA, at least to me. I think it’s inherent in the way the two cities operate (walking/subway vs. driving; NYC is naturally a more communal city), but that’s another piece entirely. I also think it’s my own inherent bias; I loved myself more in NYC than I ever have in LA. Or so I thought.

Things are a bit different now. I have more confidence and boundaries; work is going well so, loathe as I am to admit my dependence on work to give me self-worth (I’m working on it), I feel more stable and complete as a person. I’ve grown to like myself more in the last two weeks than I ever have in the last 11 years. And so maybe, for a while, that is going to make dating a little bit harder in Los Angeles—I’ve been told many a time that I intimidate men. I have a tendency to be a bit of a talker and a riffer—that’s not for everybody. I’m not worried about it so much anymore, though: if the right man is out there, he’ll make himself known no matter where he lives, and we’ll both do the work to be together as wholly realized, separate but teamed-up, people. 

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