Putting on a Public Face
Prudie counsels a reader on whether it's rude to apply cosmetics on the subway—and other advice seekers.
Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. An edited transcript of this week's chat is below. (Read Prudie's Slate columns here.)
Q. Subway Primping: I often take the train in my city straight from work to meet for a drink with friends or go on a date. Since I usually don't have time to go home, I use the commute to primp, reapplying lipstick or mascara or swapping accessories. I've been doing this for a couple of years without comment, but in the last week two separate people (strangers) have commented that they find this practice inappropriate. What do you think?
A: I don't know if I'm more surprised that your audience has been silent for the past couple of years, or that the season ticket holders have finally decided to start speaking up. I always find people like you, who think they are engaged in a piece of performance art titled "It May Look Like I'm on Public Transportation, But Actually I'm in My Bathroom Primping for a Date" more entertaining than appalling. But let's face it, there are others who are going to be moved to remind you that you are engaged in private activities they'd rather not be witness to. I'll bet anything that your office comes equipped with a bathroom. So before you set out for your date, make a pit stop there to transform yourself, and arrive at the train already dolled up.
Dear Prudence: Family of Sex Offenders
Q. To Wear or Not To Wear: I am a young woman in my early 20s, and I am Muslim. For over 10 years, I chose to wear a scarf on my head, but the problem is I don't want to wear it anymore. I started wearing it on my own because I believed in it, but for several years now I have been reconsidering. I wish I could just take it off, but I have several problems: One, my family is very religious and would freak out if I did. (I tried to bring up the subject once with them and they reacted very badly.) I am a college grad currently looking for a job but haven't found one yet, so I am stuck at home and therefore financially dependent on them. Two, should I take it off, I live in a small, tight-knit Muslim community, which would talk endlessly about it, and it would "ruin" my family's reputation, as it were. At the moment they are held in high regard in the community, and particularly my dad, who is seen somewhat as a religious leader. I don't want to shame my family in this way, nor alienate myself from them, which I know would happen if I took it off, because I am very close with them. What should I do?
A: Thank you for this fascinating insight into one woman's struggle. Non-Muslims are constantly hearing that wearing the hijab is a matter of choice and covering or not covering should be up to the individual woman. But in your case, it's not really a choice, is it, if uncovering will mean shame to your family and your being ostracized from them?
But I wonder if as an experiment you can live in two worlds without, for now, letting them overlap. Why not, when you venture forth to apply for jobs, and hopefully get one, do so without your headscarf? You're a grown woman, so you really will be exercising your choice as to how you interact with the outside world. Then you can cover when you return home. That's not being hypocritical; it's recognizing, for now, that family and work are two different spheres. And the more independent you become, emotionally and financially, the more comfortable you will be with the choices that are right for you.
Q. My Mom Missed My Wedding: A few months ago I married the most wonderful man! We chose to have a small ceremony, just our closest friends and our family, and everything was perfect, except for one thing. My second mom (stepmom) missed the ceremony because apparently she "toasted us" a few too many times the night before. I grew up with her, she has been in my life for almost 20 years, and while we didn't have a perfect relationship, I thought we were close. Deep down, I feel that if it had been her daughter, she would have been there with a bucket by her side if she had to. I have not said anything to her because I don't want to hurt her, but how do I get over this? Should I approach her so this doesn't fester, or just chalk it up to it being her loss and move on?
A: That must have been some rehearsal dinner. Does your stepmother have an alcohol problem, because even a couple of cocktails too many should not keep someone from being able to sit upright at a wedding the next day. You need to speak up. You won't get anywhere by putting her on the defensive ("I can't believe you got so drunk that you missed my wedding!"), but you can't pretend it didn't happen, either. Next time you see her, get some private time with her and say, "Deb, I know you ended up under the weather on my wedding day, but we haven't mentioned it since. I just want to talk it out with you because I still feel sad that you didn't see me marry Paul." Let's hope she has the grace to apologize so you feel better about moving on. And if she doesn't have that grace, accept that you got if off your chest and move on anyway.
Q. Marriage Tips: I recently got married and adore my husband. However, I go through phases where I don't mind (and I actually want and seek out) affectionate physical contact, but any sexual contact is almost repulsive to me. It isn't my husband that is repulsive since I still want to be close—just sexual contact. I'm not sure how to handle this or what to say to him. Do you have any thoughts?
A: My immediate thought is that you need to address this quickly before you receive annulment papers from your husband—unless he, too, finds sexual congress to be repulsive. If he doesn't, you need to talk to him about the fact that you are not having a normal reaction to marital sex and you are disturbed to find yourself avoiding it. Tell him you're going to get a thorough physical exam and also find a sex therapist (start by asking your gynecologist for a referral). Tell your husband you'd like him to come with you to those sessions because you want more than anything to have a happy, fulfilling marriage with him.
And if you actually are just looking for a way to say, "Honey, I adore you, but sex is repulsive and I'm not having it with you," you've come to the wrong place.
Q. Girlfriend Too Quiet: I have been seeing a wonderful girl for the past couple of months; she is sweet, mature, and above all easy to get along with. My problem is that when we are around my close friends and family, she completely clams up. I've explained to her multiple times how important it is that my family and friends approve of my mate, and she seems to understand. Yet she can't seem to maintain a conversation with anyone other than me. She truly is a great girlfriend, but my loved ones are beginning to think she is cold and undeserving of my attention. I want things to work out, but I don't see how they can if this problem persists. What should I do?
A: I can understand that it's annoying when your lovely new girlfriend falls mute every time you two socialize, but it's creepy that you tell her you want her to speak up so that other people "will approve" of her. That could make even the chattiest Cathy want to zip her lip.
Your girlfriend is shy, so be comforting and understanding. Tell her you know it takes her a while to warm up to other people, so you'd like to start socializing with your friends and family in small, comfortable settings. Prep her with info about these people ("Josh had Elena Kagan as a professor at law school"), so she can have some conversational nuggets to throw out. Smile at her and squeeze her hand during these sessions even if she says nothing. And tell her you know that as she gets more at ease, everyone will get to know what a lucky guy you are.
Q. An Odd Crush: This is going to seem odd. I am married and 30 years old. I have been friends for the last two years with a woman who is 59. We talk every day, grab dinner once a month, and text all the time. I think at first this was an innocent crush, but I cannot stop thinking about her. I know it's wrong (considering we are both married), but why can't I stop thinking about her? We haven't acted on anything, but that doesn't mean I don't want to. Also, how is it humanly possible for a guy my age to be so into a woman my mom's age? Any advice you can give would be very helpful.
A: When it comes to attraction, anything is "humanly possible." Also, if you wonder how you could be having these feelings, you obviously have never watched Sex and the City. The least important thing here is the other woman's age. The most important thing is that this innocent crush is heating up. It's pretty obvious that you need to cool it down. Either go cold cougar and break off the friendship, or ratchet it way back so you can enjoy each other's company without being emotionally—or eventually physically—unfaithful. That means you start getting too busy at work to talk and text constantly, and you put off your next dinner until the end of the summer.
Q. Nagging Girlfriend: I have found myself to have a horrible habit—nagging my boyfriend! It's never something I mean to do, I find it usually comes up because I am frustrated with something he has said or is doing. To help, a few examples would be: [While we are] sitting on the couch, he will jiggle a foot or leg so the whole couch will move, I'll ask him to stop. Brushing his teeth in the morning, he won't wash the sink out, and I'll ask him to do this. Over the last few years, my asking has becomes less of a question and more of an exasperated, "Would you please just ... !" Though we are both around 30, sometimes I find we sound like a couple of 8-year-olds when I ask him to stop doing something, and he grumbles at me in response. I don't want to become that old couple that can barely have a decent conversation because all they do is argue, but I fear if this is not under control soon, this is where we will be headed. On the other side, he pretty much never nags me about anything, which in some ways bothers me as well ... since I'm sure my nagging must be bothering him! How can we get through these minor annoyances like a pair of adults?
A: This is a very refreshing letter because instead of casting your problem as, "How do I get my boyfriend to stop his incredibly annoying habits?" you want to know how you can stop yours. Simply being aware you don't like how you sound or act is an important step. Why not decide that for 24 hours, you will not criticize any of your boyfriend's little habits. No matter how much jiggling or how much spittle, you surely can contain yourself for just one day. Then decide to do it the next day. Let him inspire you—think of all the annoying things you must do that he just lets go because he loves you.
Then, when you feel you have a better handle on this, pick your spots. People who are jigglers have to jiggle, so just accept this is a lovable quirk. Not so lovable is having to clean out someone else's toothpaste. So after you've shut up about this for a while, bring it up by saying, "Honey, I just need to have a clean sink. I know it doesn't matter to you, but is there a way you could get in the habit of washing the sink out after you brush?"
Q. Primping: From a makeup-less eternal tomboy who hasn't worn makeup since her mom made her put lipstick on for a wedding 10 years ago and has no idea about these things: Why is putting lipstick on on the Metro inappropriate? I'm not saying it isn't, just that I have no idea about the Proper Etiquette of Girly Things. Is there some physical reason one doesn't put makeup on on the bus, or is it simply some sort of faux pas?
A: A quick fix of lipstick or swipe of powder is fine. But the letter writer says she does her full transition from work look to date look—primping, makeup, changing accessories—on the train. That's different.
Q. Muslim Girl: I was you a few years ago (though I did not live at home, which does make all the difference). Prudie's advice is good, but as we know, people who talk are everywhere. Am I right? :) I made the plunge and made it through a few icy phone calls and a long period of time without speaking to my parents, but in the end they did come around. Just know that there are plenty of folks whose parents are leaders in the community whose kids have chosen otherwise, and they are still respected just the same. Everyone in the community looks like they have the perfect Muslim family, but trust me—no one does. (I don't know if there is some way to get in contact with the original poster, but if there is, I'm glad to pass on my e-mail address if she wants to chat.)
A: Thank you for this insightful response about giving up the head covering from someone who has lived it.
Q. Disturbing Person in Our Midst: We are a small choral group that has been in existence for 30 years. We do not require auditions or musical background to join our group. Several years ago, a mentally-ill woman joined our group. This person has enormous boundary issues and is a distraction to the group every time we meet. Additionally, her personal hygiene is extremely poor. We spend much of our rehearsal time dealing with her disruptive behavior. Our group is torn with many wanting to ask her to leave and others who feel that this is unkind and unfair. (We have never turned away anyone before.) Rather than a divisive vote, do you have any suggestions for our group on how to deal with this problem?
A: You are a choral group, not a support group, and although the woman's situation is heartbreaking, she is not being helped by being allowed to behave in ways that don't conform to the group standards. Perhaps a few people in the group can kindly, but firmly, give her a warning and explain that she has to address her hygiene issue and not distract the group from rehearsal time—it's only fair to see if she can actually behave more appropriately. If she can't, then tell her you all do this with reluctance, but you have to ask her not to be part of the chorus. Perhaps some of you could reach out to her in other ways—say have dinner with her occasionally or take her to a movie.
Q. Why Is Putting Lipstick on on the Metro Inappropriate? It's in the same category as other personal hygiene that we don't want to see on the sub (or in the office): flossing one's teeth, clipping one's nails.
A: I had a letter once about a boss who clipped his toenails at the office!
Q.Bridezillas: I have been invited to the wedding of two good friends later this summer. The bride confirmed several times that I would be present, and then I received the invitation asking all the ladies to wear a long dress. I am short and neither like long dresses nor own one because they make me look even shorter. I also do not particularly wish to purchase one for this, in addition to a gift and travel expenses. It doesn't help that I disapprove of brides who try to dictate everyone's clothing choices on their "special day," even if they are friends. Unfortunately, the bride is a very exacting sort of person who will no doubt notice and comment on my lack of conformity. What would you suggest as the best way to avoid a fight without shelling out? Try to explain my choice beforehand, or show up in a tasteful short skirt and hope for the best?
A: It's perfectly appropriate for an invitation to designate "formal attire/black tie" or
"casual dress" for the comfort of the guests. But beyond that, one then leaves up to the discretion of the guests how to interpret that. It's perfectly proper to attend a dressy wedding in a dressy short dress, so it sounds as if the bride is orchestrating one of those moving tableaux in which her guests are the objects d'art. (At least she didn't dictate what colors she wants you to wear—yes, I've heard from guests who were told to dress in blue or green.)
You don't owe the bride a discussion of your sartorial choices, but if you're in frequent contact with her—just to try to avoid a hissy on the happy day—you could mention that you don't have anything long, so you're going to wear an appropriately dressy short dress. I hope she says, "Sounds great." But if she starts to lecture you about how your legs will ruin her photos, just say, "Jen, I know you have a million details to worry about, so let's not even discuss my wardrobe any further." If she has that hissy, end the discussion and re-evaluate the friendship.
Q. Pittsburgh: Here's a goofy question. I'm a man in his 30s. After spending a lot of years alone, I've been dating a lot lately—some really fantastic women. The date goes fine, we have a wonderful conversation, we end with a kiss—but I get excited quickly—and before long, we are making out in her car. At the time, she seems very happy (I never push women to do anything they don't want)—but when we talk later, she tells me that she didn't plan to "go that far." Suffice to say that I don't get a lot of second or third dates. I'm worried that these women see me as some kind of creep. Adding to my problems, I'm something of a sexual late bloomer, so I'm quite "inexperienced" for my age. So it's not surprising that I get so worked up. But I think women think I'm too intense. I'm not interested in dating women at my same "experience" level (that would land me in jail), but women my age think I'm acting like some out-of-control teenager. Which is so not what I am in every other part of my life. What should I do?
A: When you're worried that other people have concluded you're acting like some kind of creep, you're acting like some kind of creep. You're taking advantage of the fact that most women, after having a good time on a date, don't want to have to take out a truncheon to keep you from forcing yourself on them. You're a grown man, so decide beforehand that on the first date you're not going to do anything but give a brief, gentlemanly kiss. Think how much more intriguing that will make you. Keep acting like an out-of-control teenager, and you'll find you don't actually get to advance your experience level.
Q. Just Trying To Be Nice: I suffered a miscarriage at 11 weeks pregnant approximately five months ago. I am expecting again. Because I told everyone as soon as I knew last time, and thus everyone knew of my loss, I was lucky to have a strong support system during the difficult loss, and that made me decide to share the joyful news again. The problem is that people are now saying things like, "That's great! Are you worried?" or "How exciting and scary—you must be terrified." I understand that people are concerned for us, and I feel blessed that so many people care for me. However, these comments just bring up a terrible time for me and cause me to be even more worried than I already am. How do I respond to the well-meaning who are just making me stress?
A: "I hope you understand that I'd rather not talk and think about my miscarriage."
Q. "A few people in the group can kindly, but firmly, give her a warning": Can someone offer to take her to social services for mentoring from a social worker? There are people who are paid to help people like that, take them shopping for appropriate clothes, teach them rules about deodorant, and get them into group sessions to learn how to cope and act in public.
A: Very good idea for the mentally disturbed woman in the chorus—thanks.
Q. More on Applying Makeup in Public: You still haven't given a satisfactory response as to why it's so annoying to people to see someone putting on makeup while commuting. It bugs me, but I think it's only because I feel like I should be annoyed. The more I think about it, why do we care? How does it affect us in any way? We don't have to look at the person. As long as her mascara stays off my clothes, then what's the harm? I used to commute with a friend and would be mortified when she would do her makeup. I asked her to stop and I could never really come up with a good reason why. Sometimes I think we worry too much about things that have nothing to do with us. (I'm guilty of it, too.)
A: We care because we're group-living social animals, and there are certain accepted codes of behavior in various settings. This doesn't mean they can't change as the culture and technology changes. But right now, we prefer not to see someone do their toilette on public transportation.
Q. Can "the One" Be the First One? I am 27 and have been dating a wonderful man for about 8 months now. He's smart, talented, funny, and sexy, and he's very serious about me. (We've discussed marriage.) What's my concern, you ask? This is my first relationship. I'm worried about settling down with one man without dating anyone else. I can't turn off the nagging thought that I can't possibly know that this is a wonderful relationship without any other relationship experience, and any time some little issue comes up, I worry that maybe a truly great relationship wouldn't have those sorts of problems. Do you think it would be a mistake to decide that my boyfriend is "the one" without checking out any other ones? Thank you!
A: Let me assure you that every relationship has problems. But now that you've got a relationship under your belt, only you can decide whether this was a starter relationship for you and you want to see what else is out there. You can't freeze dry your boyfriend and thaw him out if you find you like him best. That's why this is a big decision, but one only you can make. And if you realize you've found "the" guy for you, it's just fine that he's also the only guy.
Emily Yoffe Writes: Thanks everyone, have a great week, one that's free of others' finger- and toenails.
Photograph of Prudie by Teresa Castracane.