Marie Southard Ospina had an inkling that her online dating profile would receive a lot more attention if it was accompanied by different pictures. So, she dressed up and embodied a slew of different personas. But when she uploaded the shots to her profile, the responses she received left her speechless.
As a writer who’s had articles published on BuzzFeed, Everyday Feminism, Refinery29, Bustle and Romper, Ospina’s work has covered a range of topics. But the areas she tends to focus on most are feminism, body image, sexuality and women’s lifestyles.
In an August 2014 piece, Ospina rehashed an experiment she had tried seven years earlier. Then, she was enrolled in a sociology course at a community college, wherein she and her classmates regularly discussed stereotypes, as well as the cliques they had experienced in student life.
Her last task before completing the course was to step out of her comfort zone, and, in doing so, evoke a response from the world around her. “Because I was friends with the emo-goth hybrid kids in high school, I decided to spend a day as one of them, aesthetically anyway,” she wrote on Bustle.
So, with a thick layer of eyeliner, spiked chains, and black lipstick, hair and clothes, she went forth into the world. Subsequently, she had what she called a “not-so-shocking realization,” which was that “humans are pretty cruel.” For example, a hostess seated her in a secluded corner of a restaurant even though it was empty. Furthermore, other people she encountered while in disguise tended to avoid her.
That one day still gave Ospina pause even seven years after it happened. “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how harshly we judge others based on their fashion choices,” she wrote. “We all do it to some extent or another, and I admit to being guilty of it myself.” So, she decided to do her experiment again – but this time through a different medium.
To start with, Ospina logged on to the dating and friendship website OkCupid to build a dating profile. The information she wrote about herself – including her passion for writing and the TV show Breaking Bad – would remain the same. However, every day she would change her profile picture to see what type of reactions she’d get from men and women who wanted to date or simply chat as friends.
She started the same way she had in that sociology class seven years earlier – with a goth girl persona. Ospina tied her hair into two poufy buns, brushed on the same dark makeup and donned a black-and-white outfit. Then, she snapped and shared her images to her OkCupid profile.
And the replies she got were revealing. In response to her new looks, one 19-year-old man left a message saying, “Let’s be sad together.” Another 25-year-old guy also assumed she was unhappy. “You’re depressingly beautiful,” he wrote. “Get it? Because you’re beautiful and I am betting depressed.” And a 23-year-old woman also got the wrong end of the stick. “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but can I help you somehow?” she wrote.
For her second persona, Ospina did a complete 180. “I wanted to do a night-life-deluxe thing I’d normally reserve for raving clubs and packed on the heaviest makeup I could fathom,” she wrote. “There is undoubtedly a lot of stigma toward women who dress what is so often called ‘provocatively,’ so I wanted to put this ensemble to the test.”
And as she suspected, the responses this new look elicited were more forward in tone. “Babe, you look like you’re ready for a good time, and I wanna give it to you,” wrote one OkCupid user, who Ospina actually recognized as a former classmate. “You know what they say about a girl with big eyebrows? She’s got a big appetite for, you know,” wrote a 31-year-old guy. Another man, who was 26, wrote, “You look like you know how to use that body.”
Her next style was called the “manic pixie dream girl,” a phrase coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in a review of Kirsten Dunst’s performance in the movie Elizabethtown. Rabin said the MPDG was “that bubbly, shallow, cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life in its infinite mysteries and adventures.”
To create that look on her OkCupid profile, Ospina went with a look quirky enough to fit the Zooey Deschanel types who Ospina reckons get pinned as MPDGs. She wore her hair in pigtails and secured the braids with scrunchies. Meanwhile, a thick knit sweater covered her ruffled dress, and, to complete the look, she “even added a beautiful and somewhat mystical-feeling stone necklace.”
“You look like you’re from a storybook,” wrote a 22-year-old man, who added, “I’d like to take you to a bookstore and read some old fables with you.” A woman two years older than him messaged Ospina to ask, “Can you teach me about crystal healing?” And another woman really picked up on the MPDG vibes, writing, “I bet you’re quirky, like Zooey Deschanel.”
Moving away from her blush-heavy pixie look, Ospina tried something completely different for her fourth day. “I’m not wearing a single drop of makeup and didn’t bother to try and get my hair into coherent form,” she wrote of her “I Woke Up Like This” style. She completed the look with a pair of leggings and T-shirt that didn’t match. So, how would potential friends and beaus react to her most natural look?
“You’re kinda cute but look a little sickly,” wrote one 24-year-old guy. Another, who was 22, messaged Ospina to say, “Part of me really appreciates that you’d post totally unaltered photos of yourself on a dating site, but another part of me thinks you’re mad.” Even a 28-year-old woman chimed in to say, “I don’t know about that T-shirt. Think about re-evaluating, you might get more messages.”
Ospina’s final experiment was a vintage-inspired ensemble, her “go-to fashion choice,” she wrote. “I tried to vamp up my traditional style to a bit more of a classic look. Pearls, rosy red cheeks and a waist-cinching belt did the trick,” Ospina added. She thought it’d be a good test because she looked traditionally feminine and imagined OkCupid users would be more receptive to her new pictures.
Needless to say, her prediction was spot on. “Such wife material,” a 24-year-old man wrote. Another guy, 32, said, “You look like you shoulda been born alongside Marilyn Monroe. Striking.” Even a guy who had previously sent her “night-lifey” persona a raunchy message had nice things to say. “Wow, you’re stunning. I’d love to take you out to dinner,” he wrote.
At the conclusion of her experiment, Ospina wrote that she’d hoped to find that people were different than they were when she first dressed up as a goth for her community college class. However, she deduced, “It seems once again that we are shallow, shallow creatures. We put people into boxes. We put ourselves into boxes. And my biggest worry is that this isn’t something that will ever change.”
Meanwhile, Ospina’s experiment has inspired at least one other similar undertaking, the details of which were posted on BuzzFeed. And like Ospina, the writer also concluded that online daters – and people in general – can be extremely judgmental, and that’s something we should all work to change. As for Ospina, she continues to do just that. Leading the charge for body positivity, the trailblazer is also setting a positive example for her young daughter, Luna.