Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Q. Fat history: From the ages of around 7 to after college, my beautiful, loving wife of 20 years was morbidly obese. By the time we met when we were nearly 30, she had lost a huge amount of weight, and since then has been a very healthy fitness geek. While she was obese, she suffered from social anxiety and depression, and regaining her health gave her a huge amount of self-confidence. I’m very proud of her, but the issue is she has entirely erased any part of her life that took place when she was overweight. She has no pictures, yearbooks, or mementos, and when our athletic preteen daughters ask what she was like at their age, or about any event that took place before she lost weight (like her 16th birthday party), she deflects the question. I understand the desire to forget about what was a very traumatizing portion of her life (and she has gone to some therapy), but I don’t think it’s right to hide her entire childhood and the journey that shaped her so much from our children. Who’s right?
A: This is not a situation where being “right” is very important. It would be good for your wife if she could consider her past as part of what made her who she is today, rather than a dark history she needs to keep buried, but you can’t argue someone into making peace with their former selves. If she’s asking you to lie to your children on her behalf, that’s something else entirely; you’re under no obligation to preserve a fiction or present an altered history to your daughters. I hope you can make the gentle suggestion to your wife that she has always been a person of worth and value, regardless of her size or mental state, and that therapy specifically addressing her self-image might be of great use to her. She will be a better mother to your children if she can be more loving toward herself. You cannot believe this on her behalf, of course, but it sounds like she spends a great deal of emotional energy trying to hate the person she used to be out of existence. This is an impossible task, and I hope very much that she gives it up.
Q. My gynecologist has opinions about my pubes: I’ve been happy with the care I’ve received from my gynecologist, with one exception: She comments on my downstairs landscaping. One time I went in for an annual appointment a few days after a Brazilian wax and got a lecture about how hair is “supposed to be there” and that razor burn and ingrown hairs are an infection risk. She doesn’t seem to make the same comments when I’ve only shaved my inner thighs, bikini line, armpits, or legs, even though presumably hair is “supposed to be there” as well, and I’ve certainly had ingrown hairs and razor burn on those body parts the past. Should this be a doctor-patient relationship deal-breaker?
A: I don’t think it’s a deal-breaker, but then again, she’s not my doctor. She wasn’t cruel or overly antagonistic about your grooming choices (it sounds like she only brought it up once, but you say she “comments” on your hair removal, so I’m not sure if this is a frequent topic of discussion), but it seems that scorched-earth waxing is a bit of a bugbear of hers. If it comes up again, feel free to let her know you’re aware of the risks but you prefer getting Brazilians and don’t want another lecture. But if it makes you deeply uncomfortable to be in the same room as her, find someone else. You’re the one getting naked and vulnerable, so your comfort is the real priority here.
Q. Political Difference: I have many things in common with my boyfriend, except for one key difference: We have very different political views. I’ve always been liberal/Democratic whereas he is very libertarian/Republican. He says he votes for whoever will lower his taxes the most (he does well for himself financially) and that he sees nothing wrong with voting only with complete self-interest. He otherwise is a kind and caring person to me, family, and friends, so I’m having trouble reconciling these two things in my mind. I worry that his self-interest in politics will spread to self-interest in other aspects of his life later down the line. Is that a legitimate worry? I don’t want to marry and have children with someone who turns out to be just plain selfish, but I also don’t want to lose someone great over political differences (you can’t agree about everything, after all).
A: If he doesn’t behave selfishly toward you now, I don’t think you should extrapolate anything from his political views. If you can’t imagine yourself long term with someone who doesn’t share your basic views about what constitutes a good and healthy society, then by all means break up, but if you’re just worried that he’s going to take as laissez-faire an approach to your feelings as he currently does to capitalism, I think you can set those fears aside.
Q. Feminist dating nonfeminist: My boyfriend is a well-educated, successful doctor who does not consider himself a feminist. I am an equally educated and successful woman who feels like I finally met someone who is my match in life. On this one topic, he has painted it as a linguistic distinction rather than a belief about women’s rights—he is South Asian. I know feminist is still a loaded term, and he is very supportive of my career and my ambitions. Over time, unfortunately, some misogynistic attitudes seem to be creeping into our relationship. Although in general he treats me well, he doesn’t seem to respect women as a group and I hear him call other women “crazy bitches” and rant about women’s hormones, etc. He loves to hate on Hillary Clinton for the sheer fact that she is a woman. He is quick to describe my attempts to discuss relationship issues as “drama.” He feels no qualms about going to strip clubs. He also habitually befriends attractive women and flirts with them in front of me and via text—he thinks there is nothing wrong with that as long as he doesn’t sleep with them. Also, when he leads other women on, they are often rude to me, but if I speak up about this, he tends to classify it as my being a hysterical illogical woman. This is all a problem maybe 5 percent of the time, while 95 percent of our interactions are happy. I know he cares about me deeply. He is a very smart and compassionate man and these attitudes do not line up with who he is in most other contexts—it is truly baffling to me and seems to have very little to do with me, personally, but it is hard not to feel upset by it, nonetheless. Would I be out of line to ask him to work on these behaviors, perhaps in the context of couples therapy, or is this the type of situation where I should accept that this is just how he is and cut my losses and run?
A: Someone who calls women “crazy bitches,” dismisses them as “hormonal” (men don’t have hormones?), considers the fact that you want to discuss your relationship proof that you are artificially manufacturing conflict, flirts with other people in front of you and does nothing when they insult or condescend to you is not a compassionate person. You have a terrible boyfriend who acts like a jerk substantially more than 5 percent of the time, and you should dump him. Save the therapy for afterward, and go by yourself.
Q. Re: Fat History: The big thing for him to watch for here is his wife passing on her body issues to the children, especially if the Freshman 15 strikes.
A: That’s the part that had me concerned! I don’t want to forecast problems that aren’t brought up in the letter, but it’s easy to imagine that if the LW’s wife is so full of shame and hate for her past self, she would have a difficult time being loving and present with her daughters if either of them ever gained weight beyond what she deems “acceptable.” Kids are pretty perceptive. It’s great that she’s a fitness buff—that’s not a problem. If she were simply happy with her weight loss and able to talk openly and comfortably about her history, I’d say leave well enough alone. But if she feels that being fat is a shame and a burden and something to hide, they will eventually pick up on it. It’s both for her own sake and for the sake of her relationship with her children, regardless of what size they are or become someday, that she should work on being kinder to her former self.
Q. How to get someone into rehab: My mother-in-law is a longtime alcoholic. She had a heart attack two years ago but continues smoking cigarettes and drinking at least a handle of vodka each week. My husband and I used to live with them but had to move out because my work suffered and I was having panic attacks. She refuses treatment of any kind, saying drinking is her issue. My father-in-law threatened divorce and they’ve made threats of sending her to rehab, but no follow-through ever occurs. It’s incredibly painful to watch her continue to harm her body. She knows how I feel about her actions and I’ve had it. Can she be persuaded to get treatment and, if so, how? Also, I want to cut off communication with her, including on social media, because it’s not worth the stress. Is that appropriate?
A: You’ve attempted to persuade her to pursue treatment in the past and she’s turned it down. Her husband has threatened divorce, and she’s called his bluff. Her heart gave out, and she’s still smoking and drinking. If she ever does decide to go to rehab—unlikely but not impossible at her age—it will probably not be because her daughter-in-law continues to bring it up. If you do cut her off (which I think could be appropriate, and probably healthier for you in the long run), do not do it as a punishment in order to induce her to quit, but because you are no longer going to participate in her active alcoholism. You are neither punishing nor disowning her; you are merely opting out.
Q. Newly disabled ableism?: I’m a woman in my early 20s who has, in the past year, been struggling with quite literally crippling joint issues. I’ve always been fairly active (lots of walking, lots of yoga, lots of dancing), and these issues have been both physically and emotionally painful. I’m now starting to come to terms with the fact that I’m probably not ever going to get “better” or be able to enjoy all the same activities I used to. That said, as I become more aware of my limitations, I’m also becoming more aware of ableism as a concept. More specifically, I’m starting to wonder if it’s “ableist” of me to be uncomfortable referring to these limitations as a “disability”? Furthermore, I miss wearing swimsuits and high heels, and I still can’t bring myself to buy the cane I really need. Am I being a bad Intersectional Feminist™ by hating the way my bruised swollen joints look and feel instead of just loving my body for itself?
A: If loving yourself at all times without ever experiencing a negative feeling is feminism, we have all failed at it. You can feel however you want to feel about your body and your experience; I don’t think I’m the person to tell you whether to refer to your joint issues as a “disability” or a “limitation” or something else. Feel lousy. Feel angry. Feel everything. Please don’t berate yourself for not experiencing your own body “correctly,” and especially don’t feel like you are underperforming as a feminist because you miss swimsuits.
Q. Re: Fat history: I agree that it’s important that people not pass on their body anxieties to their children, but I don’t see how a parent owes it to her children to “share her journey” with them. Some things are personal. Plus, it’s likely that when children ask these questions they are looking for information that will help them align their expectations (“what kind of 16th birthday party can I expect to have?”) or understand roles/norms/the world around them. A parent can do that well without personal storytelling.
A: Oh, of course she doesn’t have to be the kind of person who shares her life journey at the dinner table, but if she can’t bear to acknowledge the fact that she had a 16th birthday because she was fat at the time, I think there’s something wrong there.
Q. Masseuses: My 26-year-old son is engaged to a 27-year-old “massage therapist.” She goes to clients’ homes to provide her services. I am 58 years old, and unless a masseuse is affiliated with an athletic team or training facility, a masseuse is a near prostitute. Remember Chuck Robb? And a massage parlor in my neighborhood was just shut down for this reason. My son is not concerned about this. I realize they are adults, and having expressed my views, I now need to back off. However, the thought of my future daughter-in-law fondling naked men, or other women, creeps me out.
A: I do not remember Chuck Robb. Masseuses often pay clients in-house visits. You are behaving absurdly. Stop imagining your daughter-in-law fondling naked men, and all your troubles will be over.
Mallory Ortberg: Good advice for all: Let’s none of us picture our in-laws fondling the nude, and we will all feel better for it. Until next week, guys.