Our advice columnists have heard it all over the years. Each Sunday, we will be diving into the Dear Prudie archives and sharing a selection of classic letters with our readers.
I’m a college student who’s a little chubby and doesn’t have perfect skin, but I’m able to look in the mirror and smile. Unfortunately, my mother doesn’t feel the same way about me. When I became a teenager she started telling me about the benefits of plastic surgery. I simply don’t want to do it. I have tried explaining this, from polite statements, to tantrums, to cold indifference, with no effect. Once, when I was in high school, she told me she wanted me to come with her to visit my grandmother, but she pulled up to a plastic surgeon’s office, where it turned out she had set up an appointment. It took my tears to convince the doctor that we were there without my consent. After we left, she refused to talk to me for a month. Now she constantly insists that men will not be interested in me because of my nose or other things. I’m going to a therapist, and it helps emotionally, but the therapist also doesn’t see a way out. My father doesn’t get involved in family issues and usually ends up saying if my mom wants something for me, it’s for my benefit. I’m going back home this summer. Next term, my face might not look how it does now! What can I do?
Your mother may be the progenitor of a new psychiatric illness: Instead of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, let’s call it Wildenstein syndrome by proxy. If your mother is such a fervent believer in the life-enhancing arts of plastic surgery, then she is free to offer herself up for a Joan Rivers look-alike contest. But it is abusive for her to harass and demean you over your looks, or to use subterfuge and emotional manipulation to try to get you to become the Barbie of her dreams. It says something remarkable about you that in the face of this endless disparagement of your face you’ve managed to stay strong and confident. I’m glad you’re seeing a therapist; it’s important to have a sympathetic person to unload to. But you should consider finding a therapist who takes a more active approach to helping you manage your parents. If you’re financially dependent on your parents, that complicates things, but it doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to extricate yourself from this oppressive situation. Unless you are committed to a summer job at home, run to your college placement office and see if there are positions that would give you room and board—maybe as a research assistant or a camp counselor. When you are at home, set firm ground rules. The first time your mother brings up surgery, tell her that no elective surgery can be performed without the patient’s consent. You don’t want to submit, so the discussion is ended. If she keeps pressing, get up and explain you will leave the room each time she talks about it. If she gives you the silent treatment, think of it as blessed relief from the lectures on rhinoplasty. And when you brush your teeth, continue to smile at your perfectly lovely face. —Emily Yoffe
From: Help! My Mother Keeps Trying To Force Plastic Surgery on Me. (May 10, 2012)
A few months ago at work a young, handsome intern started talking to me. He was flirtatious and would act thrilled to see me. He would do this when other people were around, even other supervisors. I admit that I was flattered, but I’m a divorced woman 20 years his senior and in a relationship, so I didn’t take it seriously. All I did to respond to him was smile and exchange small talk. I recently found out that he isn’t flirting, he is making a joke of me. I was told by a friend that he was talking about me at an event in front of other employees, including a supervisor, and they were all having a laugh at my expense. This also explains the times when I would walk into the cafeteria and this intern and some co-workers would start smirking at me and cracking up. I am a bit overweight and not all that attractive, so perhaps this makes me a good target. He’s continuing his overtures and I simply respond “Hello” with a flat smile and go on my way. My friend told me to beware because she was afraid that this young man might get me into trouble. I am concerned that he could file a complaint against me and I don’t know what to do. How should I handle this situation?
—Not a Sexual Harasser
If only I could file a complaint against him. It would actually be a class action suit against all the sadistic snot-nosed little punks like him who try to bring misery to the innocent people in his path. As you describe, he was flirtatiously friendly and you responded with smiles and a few banal exchanges. In Saudi Arabia that might get you flogged, but you have nothing to worry about as far as any action being taken against you. The behavior of this young sociopath is disturbing, but even more outrageous is that he seems to have enlisted much of the office in his evil little games. Perhaps he fancies himself a would-be Neil LaBute and is working on a variation on The Shape of Things. I hope he’s on his way out soon, but in the meantime you have to live with him and the colleagues who have been part of this charade. Once you found out what he was up to, you were absolutely right to revert to cool cordiality and monosyllables. So from now on, if he comes over to flirt, look blankly at him and say, “Brad, I don’t have time to chat.” When you see him coming down the hall, you can focus your eyes on the middle distance and not even notice him. If you have to acknowledge him, nod, or if you must, exchange the minimum words necessary, and keep your face expressionless. With your spiteful colleagues, just continue to keep your dignity. Your office sounds like a den of rhesus macaque monkeys. You might want to start looking around for a place to work where the culture has advanced beyond middle school cafeteria bullying. —EY
From: Help! A Cute Guy at Work Pretended to Like Me Just to Get a Good Laugh. (Oct. 21, 2013)
I asked a familiar-looking, elegant woman at the gym if her name was Maria, an old and well-liked acquaintance I had not seen for years. I am a white woman, the person I asked was Hispanic. She replied, “No, my name is Vangie. We all look alike.” I was PO’d, and I want to challenge her regarding all the assumptions she engaged in when making that reply next time I see her. Should I just let it drop?
Buddy. Guy. Chief. Do not compound your rudeness by “challenging” this woman for telling you her real name. The person who made assumptions here was you. The person who was rude was you. (If you’re that unsure whether your elegant gym compatriot is a total stranger or an old acquaintance, try “I’m so sorry, but you look familiar to me—is it possible that we’ve met somewhere?” rather than “Hey, you seem elegant. Are you Maria?”) You got caught looking foolish and low-key racist, and now you’re embarrassed, and you want to blame the other woman for your feelings; just acknowledge that you messed up, and don’t start a fight with another member of your gym because she wasn’t willing to pretend to be someone you knew once in order to help you save face. —Danny M. Lavery
From: Help! I Was Accused of Thinking All Hispanic Women Look Alike, and I’m Furious. (Dec. 12, 2016)
My wealthy family allowed me to be a homeless teen: When I was a teen, my mother threw me out for getting in the way of her drug-dealing boyfriend. I hopped from couch to couch until I ran out of couches. I slept in my car until it was towed. And then I slept in alleyways, behind dumpsters, and in parks because of the lack of shelters in my area. I even checked myself into a psych ward just for a warm bed and food; I was suicidal, but it was the least of my problems. I had plenty of family with big houses and extra rooms, but no one would allow me to stay. They are the type of people who think these things only happen if you deserve them. Not old enough to sign a lease, I stayed homeless for years, struggling to keep jobs. I feel I had to fight for my life entirely on my own when it would have been nothing for someone to offer me their guest room. I’ve been back on my feet for five years now and live a comfortable life. My family has continued our relationship without missing a beat. I don’t hold a grudge, but sometimes when I visit them, I feel this seething resentment bubble up, especially during the holidays. My fiancé thinks I might be happier cutting ties but understands that I have so little family that I cling to those I do have. I’m at a loss at what to do.
Cutting ties with family members, even deeply flawed ones, is a drastic move, and if you don’t think that it would make you substantially happier and healthier, you don’t have to do it. Maybe keeping them at arms’ length—calling every once in a while and getting together for lunch when you’re in town, rather than staying overnight during the holidays—will help you to feel more in control of the terms of your relationship. It may be that, at some point, you will want to have a conversation with your parents about your resentments about the past. If you do choose to go this route, by the way, I recommend seeing a therapist first so you can figure out your goals and expectations for any such conversation, and how you’d likely handle their possible responses. It’s unlikely, after years of radio silence about the subject, that they’d immediately recognize and apologize for their neglect and indifference to your plight, but for your own mental health, you might find the conversation necessary regardless. —DL
From: Help! My Wealthy Family Let Me Go Homeless Through My Teens. (July 25, 2016)
My boyfriend and I have been together for five months, and we’re both 36. He treats me well, is caring, and I enjoy his companionship. The dilemma … our sex life is sparse. It’s been over a month since we’ve been physical. I brought this up and told him I wanted to get to the bottom of it. He told me that he is not physically attracted to me and never was. He had hoped that how well I treat him and how strong our connection is would help overcome this, but it hasn’t. He’s by no means repulsed by me and is willing to work with me on this. For reference, I make healthy choices food-wise and have trouble getting motivated to go to the gym (which I admit); I am of average weight and height, and all of my labs are normal. I was understandably hurt by this. Last night he came over, apologized for how much he hurt me, and cried for two hours. He wants to stay together, and I asked him for time to think about what is best for me. What are your thoughts? It is worth staying with someone who treats you really well but isn’t attracted to you?
No. And there’s something desperately sad about having to say something like “my labs are normal,” as if having good blood work would somehow, magically, make you so objectively and overwhelmingly desirable that your boyfriend would develop an attraction to you on the spot. You’ve only been together for five months and he’s simply not attracted to you; that’s not going to change no matter how much he cries at you or promises to “work with you on this.” (How, exactly, does he plan on working to become attracted to you? Attraction isn’t a muscle one can develop through calisthenics.) All relationships are hard, but no relationship should be this hard, this early. Break up with him and find someone who is attracted to you just as you are, lab results be damned. —DL
From: Help! My Boyfriend Wants to Stay Together Even Though He’s Not Attracted to Me. (Aug. 1, 2016)
More Dear Prudence
Over lunch the other day my brother mentioned that he had taken his 2-year-old son to buy a helmet so he can ride his tricycle outside, and that my nephew’s first choice was a yellow and pink helmet covered with cartoon flowers. My brother gently steered him toward a more “manly” helmet. This provoked a lively (amiable) discussion around the table as to whether little boys should be allowed to wear pink and flowers if they so choose. My immediate response was that they should, but I suppose I can see my brother’s point that allowing kids to wear anything they please might get them bullied. What’s your position?