MTV’s docudrama, Catfish, has become an instant television craze. Based on a documentary film of the same name, the TV show focuses on hopeless romantics who are dating someone they’ve never met and, after failed attempts at meeting in person or even video-chatting, suspect that their significant other might not be exactly who they claim to be.
To help uncover the possible deception, the show’s hosts, Nev and Max, help suspicious lovers finally meet their virtual sweethearts face-to-face. In most scenarios, after doing a little Google-searching, Nev and Max end up discovering that their clients have been deceived by the online mystery partners.
In one of the show’s most viral episodes, Anthony, a military vet, fell in love with Marq, a light-skinned Black man with an athletic build and boyish good looks. As it turned out, Marq was actually Framel, a dark-skinned Black man who was about 100 pounds heavier than the profile picture he stole for himself. Though Anthony admitted he noticed signs that “Marq” was lying about who he really was — like making up excuses as to why they couldn’t meet up in person — Anthony continued to engage in the relationship anyway.
The show’s popularity has become so massive that it’s found a foothold in pop culture’s ever-changing lexicon. Initially explained by a fishing analogy in the film, a "catfish" is commonly understood to be a person who dates online using a fake social media profile made from pictures they stole from another person and a life story that they made up. The word is often used as both a noun and verb and, as strange as it may sound, catfish and the catfished are very real.
In the abstract it all seems so unbelievable that people could allow themselves to love someone they've never met in real life. But it wasn't until a friend of mine was lured in by these same tactics that I started thinking: What causes a person to walk into the trap of a catfish?
Celebrity psychologist Dr. Jeff Gardere says people who fall victim to catfishing typically suffer from real self-esteem and self-perception issues, usually from a previously traumatic relationship.
“They may feel that because reality has been so difficult for them as far as dating, that entering into this fantasy world and hoping for the best is the best that they can manage,” he tells EBONY.com. “They don’t think as much of themselves as maybe they should, and they’re perhaps trying to find redemption in this dream person.”
Gardere, who’s an assistant professor of behavioral medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, points out that ignoring signs that one may be being lied to, is all a part of the fantasy and denial.
But there are consequences to living in a dream world. Gardere says that for the person being catfished, finding out that they’ve been played like a pawn is a major nail in the coffin for their self-esteem, as they are victimized, or in some cases re-victimized, by someone they’ve given their love and trust to. More alarming, Gardere says that a catfish can have a very sadistic personality.
“They have had people reject them in the past and now they’re putting themselves in the driver’s seat and going from victim to victor of being the person who is now the aggressor instead of the victim.”
According to Gardere, these type of individuals have less of a chance of being in healthy relationships because, by hiding behind a veil of who they truly are, they’re obtaining a perverse pleasure from being in control of someone else’s emotions.
Though Dr. Gardere reaffirms that the desire to love and to be loved is quite universal and natural, he urges being cautious when finding love online:
“Trust your gut instinct, disengage from the denial and take your time. Get to know the person and as far as your expectations, don’t set them to an impossible level that engages you in fantasy. Find what it is that you really want. If it’s companionship, then be willing to accept someone who may not be that ideal that you have in your head, because you’re going to be disappointed each and every time.”
If you learn nothing else from watching Nev and Max "investigate" on Catfish, please remember to do a reverse Google image search on any picture an online love sends your way. Upload the pictures to Google's "Search by Image" page and Google will show you every place that image and similar images have appeared online. That way, if your love has stolen pictures from someone else's public profile–or worse, it's a stock photo–you'll know in .18 seconds. Catfish averted. You're welcome.
Gerren Keith Gaynor is a freelance writer in New York City and a graduate of Morehouse College and Columbia University Journalism School. He’s also a movie and television writer for XXLmag.com. Read more of his work on his website, MrGerrenalist.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MrGerrenalist.