Dear Prudence

The Curse of Beauty

Colleagues think I benefit from being super hot—but I work really hard!

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
I’ve been blessed with good looks, which I work to maintain for my own self-esteem. The trouble is that people attribute what I believe are earned accomplishments to my appearance. For instance, I recently began a career in sales and in my first month grossed more than all of the other new associates combined. I worked hard to do this and dressed professionally and appropriately (my attire has not been a point of contention), but a number of people have commented that my success is due to my looks. I won’t deny that my appearance could not have hurt, but I find these comments hurtful. Thus far, I’ve responded by stating that I’m just a workaholic, but the comments persist. These types of comments pervade my day-to-day dealings, as well: “Oh, the handyman only helped you because you’re pretty.” How can I discourage or deflect these comments?

—Hard Worker

Dear Hard,
I suppose quoting the line from the old Pantene shampoo commercial, “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful,” is not going to ameliorate this situation. It’s great that you have launched your sales career so successfully. Doing better than everyone else combined is impressive and, yes, bound to provoke some jealousy. But even if you’re Helen of Troy, or the spit and image of Mila Kunis, there’s something odd about your assertion that your daily existence is punctuated by people sniping at your outstanding looks. The key may be your first sentence. However much effort you put into making sure that when you glance in the mirror you get a self-esteem boost, you don’t want to convey that to others. Your looks should look effortless. Think about the signals you’re sending, about whether you’re preening, which means people will be responding not to your pleasing exterior, but your vanity. I spoke to Harvard Medical School faculty member Nancy Etcoff, author of Survival of the Prettiest. She says that good-looking people do have an advantage in the marketplace, both in work and life. (Going into sales was a canny choice on your part.) She describes the halo effect of good looks: People respond positively to the aesthetically pleasing, which boosts the confidence of those getting this feedback. But the benefit of good looks is not an absolute. You’ve just started at your job, but your letter indicates you need to put as much effort into developing camaraderie with your co-workers as you do into maintaining your appearance. In response to assertions that everything goes your way because you’re pretty, try a skeptical—though fetching—smile and the all purpose “Oh, come on!”


Dear Prudence: Existential Doggy Dread

Dear Prudence,
It’s near Thanksgiving, and once again I have to decide whether to go home for the holidays. I dislike my parents. My mother criticizes everything and everyone (including me and my father). My father has always put himself and his needs ahead of everyone else’s. I left home as soon as I could and, through therapy, friends, and trial-and-error, managed to become pretty functional and happy. My parents are verbally and emotionally abusive and aren’t going to change. Even talking to them on the phone is draining, and going home would be an act of pure altruism. If I never saw them again, I wouldn’t be too unhappy. Is there something wrong with me to feel this way, and what should I do about the holiday?

—Talking Turkey

Dear Talking,
You have two choices for Thanksgiving. One is to go home, and afterward give thanks the holiday is over and you’ve escaped. The other is to be grateful that you understand your mental health requires you to skip the family visit. I vote for your mental health. If spending time with your parents fills you with dread and leaves you feeling battered, then not making the trip over the river and through the woods is a sensible decision. If an occasional phone call is all the contact you can bear, then your parents should raise a toast to Alexander Graham Bell. You say that your friends have been a great source of healing, so perhaps you can open your home to them, or ask if you can be a guest at one of their celebrations. Volunteering at a soup kitchen is another possibility (although these places would prefer that volunteers show up the other 50 weeks of the year besides Thanksgiving and Christmas). Let this year be the start of your own tradition, one that allows you to be happy for the good life you’ve made.


Dear Prudie,
Three years ago, just before we got married, my husband started working at a company at the same time as another employee, “Elaine.” The two shared an office for a while and became good friends. We are all in our early 30s, and Elaine is single. Elaine left the company six months ago, but my husband gets together for lunch with her every week, sometimes with others, sometimes just the two of them. Elaine had a car wreck about a year ago, and my husband gave her long rides to and from work and assisted with getting her new car. It bothered me that he spent so much time helping her, especially since I take the bus in order to save us money. Now he says he wants to bring Elaine’s car to our house to wax it. This annoys me more than anything else so far. Elaine has a good job and can afford to get her own car waxed. I don’t like that my husband does things to “take care of her” in addition to socializing. I am not opposed to my husband having female friends. I like Elaine myself. But I feel that a line has been crossed. What’s more, my husband told me that he thinks he would be “on the list of guys she would date” if he wasn’t married. I’m hurt and jealous. Am I overreacting?


Dear Stung,
If my husband told me he was spending the weekend waxing the car of a single woman friend, I might tell him to buff to his heart’s content because I was going to be off hiking the Appalachian Trail. I am generally against one spouse, consumed with free-floating jealousy, quashing the other’s friendships with people of the opposite sex. However, even more destructive than that is a husband playing his wife for a fool and waxing the car of an actual or potential romantic partner under her nose. I’m not saying your husband is having an affair with Elaine. But if you’re waiting in the rain for a bus, and your husband is providing chauffeur (and possibly other) service to Elaine, any wife would be unsettled. You and he need to have a serious talk about this friendship, and it’s fair for you to say it’s gone too far. Explain that you think both of you are entitled to friends of the opposite sex. However, in this case his attentiveness to Elaine is undermining your marriage, and, as a favor to you, you’re asking that he put this relationship in the deep freeze. If he counters that nothing has happened, you can say that means a break comes at a propitious time. If he won’t acknowledge your request is reasonable, it’s better for you to know if he’d actually like to put himself on the list of guys Elaine dates.


Dear Prudence,
I’m a crisis counselor who works the night shift in an emergency room at a major trauma center. At work, I see people with everything from new cancer diagnoses, to horrible accidents, to child abuse, to maiming and death. It’s a very stressful job, but I’ve come to love it in most respects. It is the people outside of my work that I can no longer stand. My partner complains about the little inconveniences of his day; my friend is mad at another friend because of “Blah blah blah.” People come to me because I’m a good listener, but I’m starting to get irritated with baseless complaining. Compared to not only my patients, but also to most people in the world, my circle is unbelievably safe and privileged. How can I tell them I don’t want to hear it anymore and that they need to learn some gratitude? I’m starting to wish I came home to an empty house.


Dear Exasperated,
You will come home to an empty house if your attitude toward your loved ones is: “Your leg wasn’t just sheared off, so shut up about your boss being mean to you.” My sister had a major stroke at age 30 and had to learn to walk again. When friends came to visit they would drift into chatting about themselves, realize they were complaining about some little thing, and start spluttering, “Not that I think that’s a problem!” My sister would reply: “I don’t want to lie here thinking about my problems. If you have a pimple on your nose and you’re going out on a blind date, that’s a problem!” I also have a friend who was an emergency physician. While she had many harrowing, and some hilarious, stories, I never heard her dismiss the concerns of her mostly privileged friends with “If you’d pronounced a child dead today, you’d stop complaining.” No matter what your profession, if your partner and friends do nothing but natter about minor annoyances, then you’ve surrounded yourself with a bunch of bores. It seems, though, that you’re judging them harshly because of what you see during the night shift. If you feel people are taking advantage of your listening skills, then learn to gracefully close the conversation. But if you want everyone you know to go around with a permanent happy face because they managed to avoid a trip in an ambulance on a given day, then despite your training as a counselor, you need to have a better understanding of human nature.


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