Feeling Bad About Your Body? Many Gay Men Point to Grindr
On any given day, Matt Potts opens up Grindr to a menu of bodies spread on a gridded map around him. Torsos, headshots, and ass pics — many looking for a hot hookup. If Potts is in the mood, he’ll sometimes filter for weight, height, and body type. From there, he’ll start messaging. “It goes from, ‘Hey, how are you?’ to ‘What are you into?’ to ‘Want to exchange pictures?’ to ‘Here’s my album,’ which typically includes a few face photos, a full body shot, a dick pic, and an ass pic,” says Potts, a 27-year-old consultant in Philadelphia. “And then we never talk again.”
This can send him into a tailspin. “They might have jerked off and gone to bed, but for me, I don’t know what happened,” he says. “If I’m feeling bad about myself that day, then the story is, ‘Oh, I’m ugly. It makes me feel smaller.’ ”
Grindr is by far the most popular queer hookup and dating app, with 12 million active users. The company launched in 2009 and had a valuation of $2.1 billion when it went public in 2022. Since its inception, Grindr has attracted queer people from around the world through its ability to offer users a list of people in close proximity who are looking for everything from fast fun to a monogamous partnership. I’ve used Grindr since 2011 and have found dates and mates in Hong Kong, Scotland, Australia, Los Angeles, and beyond, and I have friends who have met their husbands on the app.
Yet like all social media apps, Grindr also has its pitfalls. In the past few years, studies have found that Instagram’s algorithm is making body image worse for one in three teen girls and that TikTok use is associated with body dissatisfaction.
While there has been speculation about Grindr’s impact on users’ body image, only recently has research started to back this up. A 2023 study published in BMC Public Health found Grindr was one of the most important predictors of orthorexia, the unhealthy obsession with eating healthy foods; a 2019 study found that Grindr negatively affects body image through weight stigma, sexual objectification, and social comparison. “These discussions have been around since at least the early 2010s,” says Eric Filice, lead author of the 2019 study, which was built around in-depth interviews with 13 Grindr users. He says Grindr has specific facets that perpetuate the pressure queer men face to fit a certain body type, like the option to categorize yourself into one of the app’s 14 so-called tribes, like the jock (muscular, fit), the bear (larger, hairier), or the twink (young, slim, hairless).
Unlike other popular dating apps, like Tinder and Bumble, Grindr doesn’t involve swiping. Instead, its interface is a grid (similar to the way photos are displayed on an Instagram profile), where you see dozens of people in order of proximity. For example, within 100 feet of my couch in Manhattan, I see a “hung muscular couple” with a picture of themselves in bathing suits on a beach, a torso of an “Asian toned twink,” and the bare ass of a “bottom 4 now.” Of the 15 closest profiles, nine of them include photos of only torsos or body parts.
This system was originally created by Joel Simkhai, Grindr’s founder and former CEO. Simkhai tells Rolling Stone that he came up with what he describes as the “Brady Bunch-esque” idea when he was looking through his iPhone’s photo album in 2008. He has since changed his mind on that presentation. “Scrolling through your personal photo album is meant to be done in bulk,” he says. “But I think applying this to human bodies on Grindr commoditizes people and doesn’t give them enough time to look at someone and reflect about who they are beyond their torso.”
Since leaving Grindr in 2018, Simkhai has launched MOTTO, a queer dating app with the aim of remedying some of the unintended problems he believes he created at Grindr. Instead of a grid of bodies, users receive a “daily batch” of 15 profiles of people nearby. There are no filters like body type, weight, or tribe, and moderators check the metadata of profile pictures and only approve photos that were taken in the last year.
Grindr’s global head of communications, Patrick Lenihan — who is skeptical of Simkhai’s criticism, considering he’s founded a competing app — says that body-image issues in the gay community are a societal problem that reach far beyond the app. “These problems are hugely systemic, and Grindr can’t and shouldn’t be tasked with solving them because we would fail,” he says.
In spite of this, participants in Filice’s 2019 study likened Grindr’s grid feature to a “meat market.”
“People are arranged in rows like products on shelves,” says Filice. “Partner-seeking changes from the serendipitous crossing of paths into a series of cold calculations.”
Filice, a 30-year-old in Toronto, says there’s a blind spot in the research about how Grindr impacts body image, especially because gay men are significantly more likely to struggle with eating disorders than their straight counterparts.
Filice’s motivation to conduct his study was personal. He believes being on Grindr perpetuated his eating disorder that began when he was 12. “I’ve historically been preoccupied with abdominal fat and upper body musculature,” he says.
Through his teens, Filice got his eating disorder under control. But when he downloaded Grindr in 2013, at age 21, those feelings resurfaced when he was given the option to filter for weight and body type, something he says reinforced the association he had between his appearance and his self-worth.
While Matt Potts, 27, has never been diagnosed with an eating disorder, he says being given the option to categorize himself into specific tribes and body types adds a unique pressure.
“Grindr was my first foray into queer culture,” says Potts, who identifies as both “clean-cut” and “jock.” “And even now, it’s still the first lens through which I think about my body even though I’m in a happy [open] relationship. I still think of ‘Which box on Grindr am I checking today? Am I living my best jock life or am I feeling more like a bear? And if I feel like a bear, is that negative?’ And to me it feels negative. And that’s hurtful.”
Participants in Filice’s study also experienced negative feedback on Grindr around body weight and shape. “‘No thanks, too fat,’ ‘too short,’ insulting remarks about users’ eating habits, and comments about users being too overweight or too hairy to be a bottom were all common,” says Filice.
Potts says the rejection is “constant” and makes him feel more dysmorphic. “One guy came after my stretch marks saying, he only wants smooth. Another said I’m a bit larger than his typical guy, and he doesn’t like to have love handles to grip on to or see things shake when he’s going at it. And a third said I just might not take good pictures.
“The overt, hateful stuff is harmful. But the specific stuff is more insidious and leaves me going, ‘Why am I not good enough?’” he says.
Potts likens his Grindr use to a gambler at a slot machine. You may lose dozens of times, but then there’s that chance that the hottest guy may want to hook up. “It’s that endorphin rush that I think keeps bringing me back.”
With deepening evidence about how Grindr impacts users’ body image, Brian Mustanski, a frequent adviser to federal agencies on LGBTQ health needs, says it’s important to recognize nuance as we tackle the problem. He says that many users log onto Grindr with the desire to be objectified; many others have found friends and even their life partner on the app. “There’s a lot of positive benefits of people feeling like they’re part of a subgroup or a community. So it’s not universally bad,” he says.
However, since Grindr’s target consumers are disproportionately impacted by body dysmorphia and eating disorders, Mustanski thinks the company should partner with mental health agencies to offer services embedded in the app, like surveys to screen individuals who are struggling and tools to facilitate referrals to medical professionals. Grindr says they have partnered with public agencies in the past to tackle problems like Covid-19 and the monkeypox outbreak; they think Mustanski’s suggestion is great and they’d love to partner with a mental health agency to offer services for Grindr users who are struggling with body image. “We can only do so many things at once. But this is something we care deeply about,” says Lenihan, Grindr’s head of communications.
As Filice continues to advance his research, he recommends Grindr remove appearance-based profile settings like the ability to filter for weight, body type, and certain tribes. Lenihan, who told me he also struggles with body dysmorphia, says Grindr wants its users to continue to express themselves as they see fit and that filters help people connect with each other (e.g., bears looking to meet other bears).
Lenihan says Grindr recognizes weight stigma as an issue on their platform, and they will roll out updated community guidelines “in the next month or so” that will explicitly ban body shaming. He says Grindr has “hundreds of content moderators” who will review user reports that allege other members are body shaming them. Whether the user will be given a warning, a suspension, or an outright ban from the app will be determined on a case by case basis.
As for Potts, he says he has no plans to delete the app despite knowledge that it negatively impacts his body image. He wants Grindr to add more features that are personality-driven and that focus less on the features that reduce users to their bodies.
“I wish Grindr would recognize that you can fuck personality,” he says. “If I know what your hobbies and your passions are, then that makes you a sexier person, like you’re a real person. And if you understand who I am, then I no longer feel like I’m just an object to be used.”