Colorism & Catfish(ing): Online Deception, Romantic Relationships, and the Effects of Skin Tone Bias in Catfish, The TV Show

Curator's Note

“I didn’t mean for it to go this far. I got caught up and wrapped up in being Neveah. I actually liked it. I did. I’ve been told that, ‘Oh, you’re pretty for a dark skin girl, you’re pretty to be chunchy, you’re pretty to be short, but Neveah’s confident. She’s pretty. She’s light. She models. Everybody wants her, and I had to remember they wanted her. Not me’.”  Ericka, S6E2

MTV’s Catfish: The TV Show brings couples together who've interacted and fallen in love solely through the internet. The premise of the show is to investigate ongoing, online-based romantic relationships where one of the romantic partners has assumed a false identity, often using a different name, location, and profile picture. While Catfish appears to be geographically and racially representative in the number of cases it features, a closer look at the images of Black individuals on the show reveals a deeper systemic issue with body image dissatisfaction and colorism.

Colorism, the belief that light skin is more attractive than dark skin, has often been explored as it affects economic, political, and social status (Harris, 2008), including mate selection. Mate selection through deception is where Catfish provides real-time examples of colorism’s pervasiveness. Several romantic deceptors adopt a fake profile because they want to find love and don’t believe it is achievable in their own dark-skinned bodies.

Since the program’s inception, viewers have witnessed a recurring and familiar phenomenon of Black love being situated and performed inside of colorist ideologies. Regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, and racial group, when the goal is to lure a Black individual’s attention, the profile photos that have been stolen and then adopted as one’s self have most often been an image of a light-skinned individual; from there, a digital life is crafted based on the potential that is found inside of that light skin for the sake of love and connection. In the hour-long program, audiences are privy to a computer love (cues a Zapp & Roger song) -- a technological love story filled with identity theft and lies. Our analysis shows that more than 50% of the episodes featuring Black individuals included the use of a light-skinned image. What is more interesting is the explanation the Catfish-er used in order to gain romantic advances. “I just wanted to know if he didn’t like me as a person or if he didn’t like my face,” said Sha’Quan in S7E29 after he was confronted by his love interest. In multiple episodes, the assumption appears to be that to find Black love, one must adopt physical features of whiteness.

The context of romantic depiction inside of the reality-based TV series Catfish provides a global primetime media visual about how colorism motivates the identity deception occurring in online matchmaking services. Beyond the historical paper bag test, skin-lightening creams, and photo editing filters applied to appeal to global white beauty ideals, Catfish illustrates the historical and persistent assumptions of social and romantic capital needed to acquire love.


Catfish: The TV Show: Season 7 Episodes (TV Series). (2019). Retrieved November 8, 2019, from

Harris, A. P. (2008). From color line to color chart: Racism and colorism in the new century. Berkeley Journal of African-American Law Policy, 10(1), 52-69.

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