Illustration: Sarah Beetson
A few years ago, I wore a backwards baseball cap to a friend’s birthday celebration at an East Village bar. Maybe I didn’t like my haircut; maybe I wanted to feel sporty — it feels like a crucial distinction now, but honestly, at the time, it was probably a little of both. When I arrived, another friend looked right through me before doing a double take: “Oh wow, I almost didn’t recognize you. You look so different.” I laughed it off, though the absurdity of the comment rankled. I look that different with a hat? Just what was he trying to say? That I was hatfishing?
Have enough single friends trade enough bad-date war stories, and you’ll eventually hear the one about the guy who, with his hat on, looked like Prince William circa St. Andrews and, with his hat off, like Prince William circa the Royal Wedding. When I was single and using dating apps, I’d learned to left-swipe those guys whose heads — and more importantly, hairlines — were strategically obscured in photos: Puppy-dog selfies with half the forehead out of frame, a Carhartt beanie while making snow angels, a fitted Yankees cap for a beer with the bros. Real-life situations were trickier. Is that guy in a hat because he just came from Barry’s or because he’s hiding his bald spot? Is skullcap guy really that cold or is he self-conscious about his temples? To be fair, I’d generally give guys wearing hats IRL the benefit of the doubt — though anyone who’s keeping his hat on in a setting that can’t be remotely categorized as “active” should be considered suspect.
“I went out with a guy who wore a baseball cap on our first date,” says Jean, a 32-year-old writer. “We got a coffee, so it wasn’t a super-formal setting, but then I remembered that he was wearing a hat in one of his profile photos on Bumble, too. After we started dating, I realized that he wore his hats all the time to hide his bald spot.”
Jean’s ex-boyfriend would have to wear suits to work but would keep a fitted baseball cap in his bag to put on for dinner or drinks afterward. “So we’d be in a nice restaurant or bar trying to be sexy, but he’d be in a suit with a baseball cap. Looking back, he was obviously trying to hatfish me on Bumble and even kind of in real life,” says Jean, “but the funny thing was that it was so obvious that I couldn’t even feel misled.”
Eventually, he confessed. “We took this weekend trip and at one point he sat down with this serious face and said he had to show me something: He pulled back his little curtain of hair for this big reveal of his bald spot. I had to pretend like I didn’t know he was hiding it the whole time — it was mortifying.”
Surely this effort was all for naught — wouldn’t Jean have gone on that Bumble date even if he’d had a bald spot? She’s not so sure. “Well, if someone has a great job and great personality, then the bald thing is fine,” she says, “but if they don’t have those things — and you can’t really tell on a dating app — I hate to say it, but I think the bald spot would have put me off. When you don’t have that much to go on, the photos matter.”
The hatfish, then, may just be par for that smoke-and-mirrors first stage of dating, when you use a three-year-old selfie from a trip to Bali or fudge your height an extra inch or two — one of those innocuous white lies that lands you a first date and the opportunity to win someone over to the extent that height or weight (or hairline) doesn’t even matter.
“I got hatfished a few weeks ago,” says Deon, a 27-year-old PR manager. “When I met him at the bar, he had a hat on and was really cute, but the next day, he texted me this photo of himself with no hat on, and he had the weirdest hairstyle I’d ever seen. It was this wet, curly, half-bleached thing.”
Deon lost interest almost immediately, though the exchange feels different than Jean’s, whose ex was really trying to pull a fast one. I’d assumed that hatfishing, like catfishing, required a certain intent to deceive, like the spurned lover who steals photos of Insta-hotties to trick an ex. If a guy willingly shows you what he looks like without a hat on — presumably because he doesn’t think he has anything to hide — can we still call him a hatfish?
“I do think you can unintentionally hatfish,” says Deon. “Because it’s not that he was looking to deceive me with his hat. I guess I just assumed that what was under the hat would be much more attractive.”
Certainly, everything we put on our bodies communicates some statement of self. Stilettos say something different than sneakers; a peacoat something distinct from a bomber. With gay men, hatfishing becomes complicated by the additional (and highly loaded) wrinkle of masculinity. The hat — specifically the baseball cap —is perhaps one of the most politicized articles of clothing a gay man can wear. Impassioned discussions have been had on the subject of whether donning a baseball cap is straight drag, or perpetuates toxic masculinity, or represents internalized homophobia — or whether a hat is just a hat.
Five years ago, a Gawker story notably called the baseball cap “the cheat of cheats — the easiest, most temporary way of projecting butchness in the entire Land of Gay.” If straight men hatfish to disguise a receding hairline, gay men, the argument goes, hatfish to also appear “straight-acting.” (The gag, of course, is that once you open your mouth and projectile vomit a glitter rainbow, the jig is up.)
A 30-year-old communications director, Kevin owns four hats that he often wears after work and on the weekend — and, thus, on social media. Speaking with a modern internet user’s fluency around identity, he considers his hats utility more than a means to broadcast masculinity. “Obviously we all ‘perform’ gender to a certain extent, but the baseball cap only has these associations because we assign it that sporty jock meaning. More often, I’m wearing hats just because I just like the way it looks or I don’t want to do my hair.”
In the club or on an app, the idea that a baseball cap tricks romantic partners into thinking you’re some masc bro feels like a stretch. You are, after all, still a dude trying to have sex with dudes. Kevin thinks the hat’s power is not in what it inspires in others, but what it does for the wearer himself: clothing as placebo. “Maybe he thinks the hat gives him a little edge or pulls together his look. Obviously, if you’re an effeminate person wearing a hat, it doesn’t really change anything fundamental about you.” I’ve started to think of gay guys who wear baseball caps to attract men as the savviest of reverse cultural appropriators. Name a more subversive grift than co-opting the tokens of hetero-sexist culture to land dick.
It’s when the hat’s psychic power becomes a crutch that hatfishing gets in the way of romantic compatibility. “I met this guy at a party who was wearing a baseball cap the entire night, which I remember thinking was kind of weird,” says Aaron, a marketing director in his late 20s. “At one point I playfully pushed it off him, and he got really flustered and threw it right back on. We hung out a little bit after but didn’t end up going home together.” The attraction (or dissipation thereof) came down, as it always does, to confidence. “I think if he’d reacted differently and owned his baldness, maybe it would’ve been different.” Aaron pauses. “But his hairline was really bad — like halfway up his scalp.”
When the internet talks about hatfishing, it’s regarded as a male analogue to women who overdo makeup. The idea is that both sexes use some form of trickery to misrepresent who they are underneath, but no one walks outside with the express intention of duping the world. We all buy things to make ourselves feel better — though hatfishes would probably be better advised to save that New Era money and invest in a razor instead.
The truth is that nobody cares nearly as much about your hair as you do. (Male-pattern baldness is a lot like other people’s vacations or babies that way.) Wear a baseball cap because you like it or because the sun’s out or because you hate your haircut.But if you’re wearing it to hatfish, well, eventually you’ll end up in someone’s bed — and there’s no bigger red flag than someone who fucks in a hat.
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