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Is it time to rethink the “leagues” framework of dating culture?

The world of dating gets progressively messier by the minute. Whether your type is the classic James Dean-esque brunette bad boy, the approachable blonde girl next door, the glasses-wearing geek or even all of the above, we’ve all got our preferences. 

A framework that may help or hinder this messy dating culture is the idea of “leagues.” The essential aim to date someone either in your league or higher – judged typically on the basis of physical appearance – is something we’ve all come across. Due to the subjective nature of these leagues, there is no set rule book we’re all handed out, like top-trumps or fantasy football, signposting your league level attached to a small profile picture. Although, there are certain features we’ve broadly come to associate with attractiveness, and so the concept of leagues has probably engrained itself into our thinking so much that we don’t fully realise its effect on who we date. 

That being said, I’ve heard “you’re punching” thrown around as more of a compliment about dating someone classed as better than you. Phrases such as “ugly fit” trend on Tiktok, and an emerging tendency of finding an appeal to what we would usually assume to be less physically attractive. Many prefer a “dad bod,” others are drawn to people with a taller, slimmer physique. How can we still believe there’s leagues in a culture that’s now made room for some of these more unconventional and unique characteristics to be found attractive? 

A possible catalyst for this change in our perspective on attractiveness could be how the representation in media and movies is slowly improving. Contemporary representations give impressionable, love-struck teenagers the chance to see all kinds of dating and relationship stories, while maybe in the past, it was more common to see people “dating within their league.” The Duff, for example, takes a slightly different approach to depicting a typical high school romance. It actively implements a hierarchy of attractiveness in school, but by the end dismisses the importance of this hierarchy, sending the message that there’s nothing wrong with dating “out of your league.” Ideals of attractiveness in the media are also broadening in terms of race, which is exemplified by the colour-blind casting technique used for Bridgerton. Along with diversifying the types of features we’re attracted to, the media is now more inclusive than ever of people of colour, and displays interracial relationships considerably more often than before.

Celebrities can also impact how we class ourselves in terms of who we can date. Pete Davidson has repeatedly broken the internet regarding the women he’s reportedly seeing. Ariana Grande, Kim Kardashian, Kaia Gerber – despite being widely recognised as less attractive than them. The truth is, if we were to maintain the mindset that the only men considered attractive have the demeanour and looks of Ryan Gosling, then the majority of the world would end up alone. We’re allowing ourselves to have more of a say in who we can find attractive by unconsciously following the choices the people on our screens are making.  

As for the people that attempt and sometimes succeed to find a match online: firstly, I have never been you, but secondly, I respect the courage. Can we still have a framework rooted in “leagues” on these apps, though? Well, if the only basis to decide a swipe left or right is four pictures (one of their dogs), and a voice note of them attempting to convey all their humour, substance and authenticity in 30-seconds, then yes. How can you not make a surface-level judgement as to whether that person is good enough for you, too good for you, or (perhaps more rarely) just right?

When chatting to my flatmates about dating leagues, they all talked about the importance of personality. Specifically, they mentioned that good looks can become meaningless in a second if someone isn’t as charismatic, caring or funny as they’re looking for: a further example that the concept of leagues is as over as skinny jeans.

While I’ve only attended a few psychology lectures, it’s already been discussed that people tend to date someone with similar features to their own. There’s also, of course, the Freudian opinion that our parents influence who we choose to date. In this case, whether you believe it or not, you could say that dating leagues are predetermined. Is it really about attractiveness and personal choice, or is there something inevitable about the people we date?

Regardless, I feel that leagues in dating will progressively become more archaic as time goes on. It doesn’t make sense to restrict who we can be proud to date. The saying stands, if you’re told you can’t do something, the desire grows stronger. The more it’s pushed on us that there’s a set of rules about who you can date, the more we’ll be encouraged to explore and find what works for us.



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