I could run off a list of the people I’ve crushed on that I never even considered asking out or flirting with because I thought there was no chance they’d say yes.
Rob, Andrew, Lindsay. Scott, Heather, Sarah.
And that’s just the ones with names common enough that I’m okay with saying them publicly.
These were all beautiful people, talented people, people with that spark in their eyes that made people like them and want to be around them. I was quite sure that if I ever approached them romantically, the best I could hope for was a look of pity and letting me down gently.
In the phrase we so often use, they were “out of my league.”
When we say “out of someone’s league,” often we’re talking simply about attractiveness, but sometimes it’s a combination of attractiveness, wealth, social status, and other skills or assets. The idea is that one person is distinctly and recognizably “above” another person in these ways, so of course they wouldn’t date them.
As I’ve gotten older and had more dating experience, I’ve begun to think more critically about this notion of “leagues.” I’ve noticed that the assumptions I make, when I think of people in those terms, don’t hold up in the real world.
I’ve come to believe that the “out of someone’s league” concept traps us in thought patterns that are both harmful and false.
So here’s why I think we should stop thinking of people in terms of “leagues” – and what we should be asking about instead.
What’s Wrong with ‘Leagues’
1. It Assumes There’s One Hierarchy of People
The basic presumption of “out of your league” is that people can be ranked from least to most desirable, whether it’s based on attractiveness, wealth, social status, or a combination of these and other factors.
Of course, people differ from each other in thousands of ways.
Noticing these differences isn’t the problem. The problem is assuming that these differences stack up in a single, uniform hierarchy.
When we do that, we’re saying that certain people, with the sum of all their qualities, are objectively worse or better than others – and more or less worthy of romantic love.
When we rank people like this, we’re ignoring a basic truth: People want different things in their romantic partners.
To me, playing the piano beautifully is a huge turn-on. My best friend is attracted to people who are good at practical, hands-on skills like carpentry or auto maintenance. The person who leaves me awestruck and weak in the knees usually just gets a “they’re cool, I guess” reaction from her.
Even when it comes to physical appearance, people find many different kinds of faces and bodies beautiful. And often people are more turned on by someone else’s skill or passion or articulateness, the way they carry themselves, their humor or creativity.
And then you get into factors apart from sex appeal: how fun someone is to be around, how well they encourage and support you, how well their dreams mesh with your dreams.
It’s ridiculous to think that we can reduce all those different qualities into a single universal ranking of “leagues.”
It’s true that often people want others who value and put effort into the same things as they do. For me, it’s very important that my partners be compassionate and self-aware, and I’ve declined to date people who don’t show those qualities, even if they’re rich and hot. For someone who works really hard at activism or career success, someone with a similar level of drive might be the most exciting person.
Even though we think of looks as something you’re born with, most of the time when we see someone and think “Whoa, they’re hot,” it’s because they’ve put a particular kind of effort and thought into their dress, hairstyle, and attitude.
If you tend to be romantically interested in people who put a lot of effort into their physical appearance, you might discover that paying attention to your own style and appearance gets you more dates.
That’s not because they’re in some mythical “league” that you need to get into – it’s because appearance matters to them and they want a partner who is also good at the art of looking their best.
2. It Erases Women’s Choices in Dating
When it comes to heterosexual couples, the notion of “leagues” often comes with a sense of male entitlement.
Many men will rank women by attractiveness, decide what level of woman they “deserve,” and then feel entitled to date any woman who falls into that bracket. Rejected by a woman two “leagues” above him? No problem, it was a long shot. Rejected by a woman in his league, or, god forbid, below it? How dare she?
What these guys are actually doing is creating an imaginary system of worthiness in dating, and then deciding that’s the only basis on which a woman should be allowed to choose a dating partner.
Never mind chemistry or personal tastes. If she’s within his league, based solely on her adherence to socially constructed beauty ideals, then she should be willing to date him. If she’s not, then she’s a stuck-up bitch who thinks she’s too good for him.
Ranking women in “leagues” is a way for men to avoid thinking of women as individuals with unique needs, interests, and desires.
A woman in the real world might feel strong chemistry and connection with somebody who doesn’t appear to have risen very far at all in the imaginary hierarchy of dating prospects. Or she might be totally uninterested in someone who looks, from the outside, like an ideal partner.
When people are locked into the “leagues” mindset, these choices seem like they need to be justified and explained. People will talk as if the woman is being irrational, rather than making the perfectly rational choice to date someone she likes.
3. It’s a Self-Reinforcing Cycle
Maybe you agree that it’s pretty crappy to imply that some people are objectively better than others as dating prospects, but you think that’s just a harsh reality of our world.
Maybe you’ve read articles talking about how couples tend to be similarly ranked (by outside people) in attractiveness. Maybe you’ve observed in your own friend group that people tend to sort themselves out in ways that match their “league.”
Here’s the thing about that: This whole “leagues” concept is self-reinforcing.
The more we use it to talk about how we select partners, the more likely people are to actually make their dating choices based on it.
Descriptive norms – beliefs that other people usually behave in such-and-such a way – are actually pretty powerful in influencing behavior. So when your social circle considers it normal to rank people in terms of most and least desirable for dating, people will actually be more likely to judge others that way.
There is a thrill in telling your friends “I have a date with Cameron on Friday!” and having them say, “Wow! You’re so lucky!” or “How’d you pull that off?” It’s an ego boost, for sure.
But that thrill is completely separate from the question of whether you actually enjoy spending time with Cameron.
What if you have kind of a mediocre time, and find out you and Cameron don’t really connect? If you put a lot of emphasis on the idea of leagues, you might ignore your actual feelings because, come on, who would turn down a second date with Cameron?
On the flip side, you might avoid dating someone who others perceive as “beneath you,” even if you find them attractive and like hanging out with them – just because you don’t want to hear “what are you doing with them?”
The same peers who were impressed when you went out with Cameron might tease you for dating someone they don’t rank as highly – even if that person makes you way happier.
As much as we like to think of ourselves as independent, what our peer group thinks of us does matter. So the more social pressure you feel, the more likely you are to stick to people in your own “league.”
And then others hold you up as an example of why this “league” concept is real.
What You Should Be Considering Instead
1. Do They Have What I Want in a Partner?
If every person existed in a hierarchical “league” structure, it would make sense to try to get the highest-ranked person you can.
Society is ever-so-helpful in telling us what we’re supposed to want: from what our ideal partner should look like to what kind of job and skills and friends they should have.
Often we get so hung up on whether someone matches the things that we’re supposed to want, that we don’t ask ourselves what we actually want.
If you’re having trouble separating what you want in a partner from the things your society says are better and worse, think about your own relationships, past and present.
Who are the people who have made you feel happiest and at your best, whether friends, family, or previous partners? What things about them made them so great? Then look for romantic partners who have similar qualities.
Of course if you’re looking for a sexual relationship, you also want a partner who’s sexy to you, but once again, keep the focus on who is sexy to you and not who is going to impress your friends or society at large.
2. Do We Value and Prioritize the Same Things?
As I mentioned above, though, people often want partners who care about and put effort into the same things they do.
They might express that kind of preference in terms of “in my league” when what they really mean is “I want someone who also invests a lot of time and work into their appearance” or “I want someone who has developed their skills in making friends and connecting easily with people.”
There are times when someone wants a person who complements their skills rather than matching them, but it’s more common for people to date others who have similar priorities and similar areas of excellence.
So if you continually find yourself drawn to people who prioritize things that aren’t important to you, you might want to consider whether you actually want those things in a partner, or whether you’re just letting your society tell you what qualities are most desirable.
Or you might decide that they’re important to you, but for whatever reason, you haven’t been prioritizing them in your own life, and maybe that should change.
Often, our attractions represent things we aspire to or want to be ourselves. If you’re continually drawn to people who have qualities you lack, consider developing those qualities for yourself. We could be talking creative abilities, athletic skills, social popularity, sense of style.
All these are areas you can develop in, if you decide they’re important to you.
3. Do We Enjoy Being Around Each Other?
Friends and family will ask you all kinds of things about someone you’re dating or hoping to date: What’s their career path? What’s their family like? What achievements and status markers have they won?
What I rarely hear people ask is, “Do you like being together? Do you enjoy talking with them? Do you have fun when you’re around the other person?”
It wasn’t until my third or fourth relationship that I learned to ask whether I actually liked being with the person I was dating. I was so fixated on having a partner at all, and with how great a match our friends thought we were, that I didn’t pay attention to how I felt when I was with them.
I didn’t notice how much of the time I spent bored, or just doing date stuff because that’s what we were supposed to be doing. Sure, there were some good times, but I didn’t have nearly as much fun with them as I did with my friends.
Date people who you like as much as you like your friends.
If you don’t, they’re probably not a good match for you, even if everyone else in your life sees them as this amazing “catch.”
The “leagues” that people may be in or out of are imaginary, and using them as a dating framework does a lot of harm.
What’s real is the connections you make with people, how you make them feel, how they make you feel.
Make your dating decisions based on those things, and leave the league talk to professional sports.
Ginny Brown is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism, as well as a speaker and educator specializing in sexuality and relationships. She writes for various publications and has her own blog here. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her poly family and three cats. Follow her on Twitter @lirelyn.