What the West Elm Caleb saga on TikTok is really about
In the past 48 hours, TikTok posts from women claiming to have been charmed, ghosted, and, in one case, sexually harassed by a 25-year-old designer they call “West Elm Caleb” have gained more than 15 million views on the platform.
The internet has turned the story into a circus, with brands and commentary channels salivating over it like vultures relishing a fresh carcass. Even TikTok weighed in with a now-deleted tweet. Photos of Caleb are splashed across the internet, his social profiles deleted, his name a meme, his dating future obsolete. At the core of the story is a single truth that has unified these women, ignited group chat discourse, and mobilized single women in every other metropolis: We’ve all interacted with a West Elm Caleb; we’ve just never been able to hold them accountable before.
Mimi Shou, a TikTokker and jewelry designer, was the first to identify West Elm Caleb as a potential bad actor. On Jan. 11 she posted a video about being ghosted by a man named Caleb, then “kept having girls comment being like ‘is this the West Elm Caleb?'” It wasn’t the same guy, but Shou was intrigued. “Who is this West Elm Caleb… and how do you guys all know this guy?”
She learned he had a history of ghosting and took to TikTok to warn others. “I feel like it’s my duty as your Asian older sister to warn my New York City girls about this ‘West Elm Caleb’ ASAP,” she says while lighting a stick of palo santo, as if to cleanse her apartment of his energy. After summarizing her concerns about his behavior, she ended by saying, “I’m just going to leave it up to the TikTok gods now and if this video shows up on your For You Page and you happen to be dating a West Elm Caleb, consider yourself warned and keep your guard up.”
Mimi’s video reached Kate Glavan, who had started dating Caleb the week prior and had posted what she calls a “giddy” video about him to her TikTok. Glavan connected with a woman named Kellie who told her she had been dating Caleb for the past six weeks. Other users began posting or commenting about their experiences with the West Elm designer and a general pattern of behavior emerged: sending copies of the same Spotify playlist to multiple women; seeing multiple women without their knowledge; telling dates that he deleted dating apps after he began seeing them; or ghosting them completely.
Eventually, the TikToks reached Kate Pearce, a 23-year-old podcaster who had matched with Caleb in October 2021. He gave her his phone number almost immediately, and began texting her photos of his day, which she found charming. “He was very attentive, very funny, very witty,” she tells me over the phone. On Halloween weekend, Pearce asked him if he wanted to meet up, and was smitten when he responded, “No, I want to meet in a wholesome way.” Then she sent him a photo of her Halloween costume (a cockroach). “It was a sexy costume, I guess, but nothing super risque,” Pearce notes. The next thing she knew, she was in line at a bar staring at a photo he had just sent her of his penis. Two weeks later, he sent her a text about how guilty he felt, that he had “freaked out” because “women want to use [him] for [his] body” and it was “hard to make a connection” with anyone because of it. As they texted, he added her on Snapchat. The first photo he sent was of his face; the second photo was of his penis.
Some have opined that West Elm Caleb’s behavior is par for the course in a world of “shitty dating.” But sending someone a photo of your penis without their consent is not shitty dating, it’s sexual harassment. In Texas, it is a crime. Last year, a bill was introduced that would make it illegal in New York State, and potentially require the offender to complete sexual harassment training.
“I saw one girl on TikTok that was like, ‘Maybe I’m gonna get canceled for this, but I think that we’re taking it too far with Caleb,'” Pearce says, “and I skipped past it because I was like, ‘I don’t really want to hear that… I sent him a picture of my Halloween costume. And then like, an hour later, I got a dick pic. That kind of behavior needs to stop.” (Mashable reached out to Caleb directly for comment, but did not receive a response.)
Pearce says she’s looking for accountability. She acknowledges that there’s “a line” between holding someone accountable for their actions and ruining their life. “Exposing him for his behavior is fine… but I don’t want anything detrimental to happen to him,” she says. On the other hand, apps like TikTok are a new type of whisper network — and women don’t have to be silent anymore. “The fact that he is recognizable by so many women in this big city, and the fact that he has done the same exact things to the same women… If this is the chance to make a statement about men’s poor behavior, then why not take it?”
Caleb has sent some women an apology. Kate never got one. Now she is trying to move on. She’s recorded a podcast episode about her experience and hopes to be able to connect with other women who interacted with him. “I want to be best friends with everyone this has happened to,” she laughs. “I really just want to all get together.”
Still, even she has been surprised by all the attention the story has received. TikTok commentators sitting on the sidelines have glommed on to #westelmcaleb like parasites mining the tag for content. News outlets (including, obviously, Mashable) have been asking her for comment. She says she feels like she’s “on display” online. “I woke up, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, more fucking notifications.’ I definitely [don’t have it as bad] as Caleb, but I’m having some anxiety about it now. And just like who’s seeing it?”
Most of the women who shared their stories on TikTok did it to look out for other women looking for love, not to make national news and send Caleb underground. In New York City, and especially in this pandemic, dating apps have felt like the only viable way to meet a potential partner. “It’s hard to meet someone naturally in the city — dating apps are kind of your only option,” says Kate, adding that Caleb exploited that, “using them to his advantage and to women’s disadvantage.”
There’s not much women on dating apps can do about someone like Caleb. Pearce could have reported him for the photos, but most apps don’t fault users for habitual ghosting or lying (yet). What goes on between you and a date usually never leaves the confines of your friend group. So where else would a group of women who don’t know each other be able to connect, commiserate, and tell cautionary tales besides the internet? “The girlies of NYC need to know,” said Kellie, the woman Caleb dated for six weeks, in a TikTok. “Watch the snakes ’cause they’re watchin’ you.”
The West Elm Caleb saga was never about Caleb. It was about people like Caleb, who may take advantage of the peculiarities of modern dating and the eagerness of earnest hearts to feed their own ego. The women whose time he wasted, whose nights he ruined, whose lives he unceremoniously set off balance — they want justice. Who are we to decide what it looks like?