What it Really Takes to “Level Up” in Love

We don’t have to dim ourselves to get what we want. It’s out there.

Photo: Christopher Malcolm/Getty Images

When California rapper Saweetie appeared on Instagram Live with her boyfriend, Quavo, and told women that a man isn’t worth dating “if he’s not getting you a Birkin,” it sparked a heated debate about women and their standards. How high is too high? But for me, that brief viral moment called to mind a real virtual movement taking place among Black women who dream of securing the bag, even if not a $100,000 Birkin, by leveling up.

Every day a new guru emerges with trade secrets for Black women who want to learn to be “feminine” in order to attract wealthy men. They are a part of a rapidly growing online community that embraces hypergamy — the practice of marrying a spouse of higher social status.

I get it. Some Black women have become so jaded in their pursuit of love, they’ve settled on the pursuit of money instead. And while I agree that Black women deserve to level up in every way imaginable, I’m wary that the ideas peddled in these hypergamous hives may be hindering them from doing just that.

We have Ciara to thank for the now-ubiquitous term “level up.” Her 2019 comeback song championed personal growth, while also being a thinly veiled reference to an Instagram post that implied single women did not have the right “spirit” for marriage. Today, much like the song, the “level up” movement blurs the boundaries between female empowerment and reproach, recycling a motley of regressive, superficial ideas about femininity taken from religious conservatism, celebrity culture, and the “trad” community, an offshoot of the misogynist “red pill” movement, which embraces traditional gender roles. A quick trip down the YouTube rabbit hole reveals titles like “femininity training,” “how to become high value,” “masculine traits to avoid,” and even “I changed my hair to become more feminine.”

Black women are seeking love in a society that believes they are better suited for labor and sex, and we should be wary of advice that attempts to solve problems created by racism and misogyny by leaning more deeply into it.

Perhaps the most glaring issue with telling Black women how to be feminine is the presumption that they are not. Much of the “level up” literature insidiously perpetuates racist, antebellum stereotypes that characterize Black womanhood as the antithesis of fragile, respectable, and chaste femininity — a status historically reserved for White women. Many women will stumble into this hypergamous community on the heels of heartbreak and romantic disillusionment, at their most vulnerable, only to buy into an ideology that presents lovelessness as the penalty for their failure to adhere to conventional femininity. Sure, connecting to your feminine intuition and sensuality can enhance your relationship with yourself and others, but the femininity glorified in these circles is a false, man-made construct designed to distract women from their authentic power. Black women are seeking love in a society that believes they are better suited for labor and sex, and we should be wary of advice that attempts to solve problems created by racism and misogyny by leaning more deeply into it.

When we encourage women to conform to a narrow, “one size fits all” feminine ideal rather than owning and developing who they are, we’re teaching women to dim the very qualities that make them interesting and attractive. More significantly, we send even louder messages to Black women that they are not enough, a belief that creates the very feelings of fear, guilt, and inadequacy that sabotage relationships, and primes women for exploitation. We don’t help women secure the bag by handing them even more emotional baggage to carry.

But while the media narrative pushes the idea that a good man, with funds, is hard to find, fueling a sense of desperation and desire to prove ourselves worthy — the numbers offer some reprieve.

Though hypergamy is a universal practice, these days, Black women are perhaps feeling more pressure. Black women marry less, and that marriage gap coexists with a growing wealth gap, establishing a stark contrast between reality as seen on TV, in shows like The Real Housewives and Love & Hip Hop that perpetuate the jet-set lifestyle to which these women aspire, and the lived reality of income inequality. Black women make 62 cents for every dollar paid to White men, and even though women outnumber men in education, marriage persists as a woman’s most likely route into the top 1%.

But while the media narrative pushes the idea that a good man, with funds, is hard to find, fueling a sense of desperation and desire to prove ourselves worthy — the numbers offer some reprieve.

One study found that 75% of Black women marry before age 35, and contrary to the belief that Black women pursuing higher education and career success hurt their chances at marrying well, it actually helps. Furthermore, while Black women do outnumber Black men in education (White women outnumber White men too), twice as many Black men still make over $250,000 annually (thanks to the gender wage gap) and 83% of married Black men who make at least six figures are married to Black women. Black women seeking to marry a breadwinner have options, even more when they date outside of their age group and race. And while the hypergamy movement positions WAGS (wives and girlfriends of athletes) like Ciara as aspirational icons, chances are your successful husband is signed to neither record label nor sports team.

Frankly, I know Black women of all persuasions who’ve married successful partners not just once, but two and three times. I’ve spent a lifetime around affluent, happily married Black women and contrary to popular belief, these women are not a monolith — and neither are their spouses. There’s no skeleton key formula. In spite of the infantilizing literature instructing Black women on how to appear “soft and feminine,” there is no singular look. There’s no magic bullet. If it were that simple — everyone would do it.

If there is any common denominator it’s that they are dynamic women whose life path put them in the same orbit as like-minded men.

Yes, looking and feeling your best matters, but women who “level up” in love often have the same unshakeable confidence, emotional maturity, and soft skills it takes to “level up” in life. They find the best partners while living their best lives — traveling, pursuing passions, and expanding their social circle. They make smart choices, even when their hearts are on the line. They recognize that having high standards without healthy boundaries is hustling backward, and that, Hermès aside, ultimately the most important labels are those we give ourselves. Just like a Google search, how we label our own self-image determines precisely who can find us.

I’m the Sex & Love columnist for Zora 🍯, founder of Women Love Power, a talking head & salsera 💃🏾! WomenLovePower.com | IG & Twitter @ayeshakfaines.

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