Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here 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. Wear a Bathing Suit for the Kids’ Sake?: I have little kids who enjoy swimming at the local Y in our small town. My husband swims with them, but I don’t because I don’t like being in a swimsuit in front of my friends and co-workers. I am quite young but I have hirsutism, a C-section pouch, and am severely overweight. I am otherwise not socially retiring, and I’m happy to work out in the gym in a T-shirt and sweatpants, but I never wear tight or revealing clothes. I am not able to afford cosmetic treatments that would alter my appearance. My husband says I should get over it and come swim with my kids so they don’t develop the same body image issues themselves that I have. I haven’t told my kids the reasons for my discomfort, only that there are fun things they do with Dad and other things they do with Mom (which is true for other activities too). What do you think? Do I owe this to my kids, given how much pain and professional embarrassment it would cause me?
A: Rock the T-shirt and sweats, Mom. You are not a swimming fan and you are particularly not a swimsuit fan—is anyone except the people who appear in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue or the people who buy the swimsuit issue? Is your husband hassling you because he doesn’t want to do pool duty? Too bad. I agree that even if you looked like SI model Gigi Hadid, you’d have a right to say, “I don’t do swim time. That’s for you, dear.” You mention another complication in that at your pool you will inevitably run into neighbors and co-workers. These are people about whom you don’t want the indelible memory of them in a Speedo, and who you’d rightly prefer not gaze on you in a state of dishabille.
Q. Am I My Sister’s Keeper?: I recently reconnected with my estranged sister after I graduated college and am now racked with guilt. Our childhood was unstable at best, with our mother flinging us from one fringe movement to another. Finally when we were in high school, my aunt and uncle took us and my infant brother in. It was heaven for me and hell for my sister. She went berserk—running away, hitting people, biting me one time, and finally pushing my 10-year-old cousin down the stairs. She went into foster care, and my aunt and uncle adopted me and my little brother. Recently I got a friend request from her. We meet for lunch, and she told me that the wreck of her life was my fault for abandoning her. Sexual abuse, drugs, prison—everything I ever feared for her happened. I gave her $200. I have avoided calls from my aunt and uncle because I don’t know what to say to them. My sister wants to crash on my couch since her boyfriend is in jail. I can’t sleep and don’t know what to do. Please help.
A: You did not cause the wreck of your sister’s life. Say that over and over again. You were all children in terrible circumstances who were rescued by loving relatives. An aunt and uncle who would take in a trio of children are surely compassionate people, and it must have been agony for them to let your sister go. But it sounds as if she presented a clear danger to the other children in the house, and the situation was untenable. Some people, tragically, can’t be helped. For them a toxic combination of genes and circumstances leads them to constantly blow up their lives. It’s a bad sign that in trying to connect with you she offered you a guilt trip, asked for money, and now wants to become your tenant. I don’t think you can let her stay on the couch. You will likely find your place taken over by her less-than-desirable friends, and you might also find your cash and valuables start to go missing. You can offer to put your sister in touch with social service agencies (which surely isn’t what she wants) and even meet her in a neutral place—as long as you don’t feel threatened by her. You can have compassion for this lost soul while recognizing you must protect yourself.
Q. Re: Wear a Bathing Suit for the Kids’ Sake?: I disagree. I am self-conscious at the pool too but I think you will likely be surprised by the myriad of sizes and shapes of others’ bodies at the pool. While you’re in the water playing with your children, no one can see your body anyway. Please don’t let Daddy have all the fun and pass down your insecurities to your children. If they’re skinny, will they pick up on the fact that only skinny people are allowed to show their bodies?
A: I don’t think the fact that she gives swim duty to Dad is going to mean she is expressing to them that only skinny people get to swim—they will see that’s not true. She also doesn’t have to tell her children, “Kids, I’m hirsute, I also have an unsightly C-section pouch—thanks, kids!—and you may have noticed that I’m obese. So that’s why I hate bathing suits.” She’s just a mom who doesn’t like swimming. Sometimes one parent loves skiing and the other hates it, etc., but that is not going to pass a slalom insecurity to the kids. Dad’s all wet if he keeps harassing her about this.
Q. Regretting Nicknames: I have a co-worker who’s, well, a bit of a diva (she expects the secretaries to do stuff the rest of us do for ourselves, that sort of thing) though fundamentally a good person. My best friend (who also works in the office) and I share privately some not-very-nice nicknames for her, based on this quality. Lately, however, the diva and I have been spending more time together, and I think might be moving in the direction of dating. She’s a sensitive person and would be devastated if she knew the things I’ve said about her. Is it feasible to just lie to her, forever, about the way I’ve thought about her all this time, or is a relationship just a nonstarter here? She was just promoted to the same level as me, so I’m not concerned about workplace ethics issues.
A: I think it’s a nonstarter to say, “I find myself increasingly attracted to you and would like to move things to a more personal level. I just want you to know that in the coffee room I regularly referred to you with our other colleagues as Lady Gaga and Debbie Diva because—well, you get why I would call you that!” I think you don’t say anything and just see how this progresses. If you two become a couple and the people you teased her with raise their eyebrows, you can say, “Actually, I was wrong, she’s a lovely person.” If she hears—and someone would have to be really malicious to pass that on, but offices have malicious people—then you take the hit. “It’s true that before I got to know you I thought you sometimes acted imperious with the support staff.” If that’s going to cause her to crumble, consider the consequences of getting together with someone so delicate.
Q. Play Season Again: I live in a great house that I’ve been renting for two years. Everything is wonderful, but my backyard is right next door to a private school’s outdoor stage. I find the normal squeals of children playing sweet. However, every spring they put on a musical with pretaped music, which they practice for two to three hours after school. They use their PA system to practice the lines and play the music over and over… and over, loud enough that it shakes our house. There is no reason that the small group needs to use the PA system at all for practicing, much less play the music that loudly. They clearly have no respect for the neighborhood they are just feet away from. As I write this, I am listening to “Kung Fu Fighting” for the 20th time and it is only the first week of practice. I can’t see how asking this $15,000-a-semester private school to turn it down would lead to anything positive, probably only a snotty response about how we shouldn’t rent next to them if we can’t handle the noise. They already know how much noise they’re making and how close our houses are. It is during the day, so I doubt that the police would even come. I am at wits’ end. I don’t think I can make it through another “play season” without playing 2 Live Crew on my porch.
A: I disagree with you about the snotty reaction you’re expecting. Any school, especially a private one, has to be sensitive to the disruption it causes neighbors. I’ve seen this play out with parking, drop-off, noise, and almost always the school needs to make an accommodation. First, record the sonic boom. Second, talk to other neighbors who are home during the day and are also being driven mad. Then make an appointment with the head of school and say you work at home but you can’t work when they’re rehearsing their spring musical. Let’s hope this gets an immediate response. If not, notify your landlord and escalate to the police and the local representatives responsible for your district.
Q. Re: Regretting Nicknames: I hope he also gently tells her to treat the support staff better.
A: Great point! Yes!
Q. Money for Car Repair: My neighbor reversed into my car and caused a minor damage. I got the quote to fix it and he says it’s not worth going through insurance, so he is paying me directly. My car is old and I don’t care about having it repaired, but I could do with the money. Would it be dishonest if I took the repair money but used it to pay some of the balance on my credit card? He does owe me for repairs anyway.
A: Yes, he does owe you for the damage to your car and you can use the money from the damage he caused to fix the damage you’ve done to your credit score. If you would prefer not the fix the car then sell it later at a discount because of the damage done to it, that’s your choice. Let’s hope the neighbor never says anything about the lack of repair and does a better job looking both ways.
Q. Professional Courtesy: I work in a two-person department with a great supervisor who showed me tremendous support while my mother battled and ultimately succumbed to cancer. The company we work for, on the other hand, is completely stagnating in a culture of negativity that comes straight from the CEO. Last week I received a job offer from a forward-thinking firm that is growing by leaps and bounds. The same day I submitted my application, my current supervisor confided that she has been diagnosed with cancer. I thought about it over the weekend and came to the conclusion that I cannot possibly abandon her in this time of need. My departure would be a blow under the best circumstances, and would cause tremendous stress on top of the illness she’s facing. Am I crazy to pass up this new opportunity to stay onboard a sinking ship?
A: I may be exposing my cold or nonexistent heart, but I think you need to go. Your boss has been wonderful to you, but whatever anyone’s personal circumstances, your primary relationship with her is professional. I don’t see how you pass up this chance for a new career trajectory in order to see your boss through her treatment. You can separate out your personal affection for her—and your desire to help—from your professional needs. In a way, when you are no longer her subordinate, you can act as a friend, helping to organize dinners for her, getting people together to run errands, etc., if she’s unable to work during her treatment. Once you accept the new job, you need to break the news in a sensitive but nondefensive way. Explain that while you won’t be seeing her during the day, you want to continue to be part of her life.
Q. Re: Wear a Bathing Suit for the Kids’ Sake?: For years I refused to wear a bathing suit in public. This changed when I had grandchildren. If I wanted to go to the water park or beach with them, I had to appear in public. I found a retailer that specialized in swim suits that minimized various types of body issues and found a couple of suits I didn’t hate. Then I took the plunge. The fun I had with my grandchildren made me forget that I didn’t like what I looked like. I also saw people who were more overweight than I and appeared unconcerned. Go and have fun. No one else cares, really.
A: This is a lovely answer to the question, and yes, the original letter writer could get fitted at a specialty shop. But if she wants to carve out a “no bathing suit” zone in her life, I don’t think that means she has profound body shame issues that need addressing or that her boycott will destroy her children’s self-image.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next Monday!