Dear Imprudence: So Close, Yet So Far

I took a gander through the Miss Conduct archives, as I do now and then, and encountered this letter from early June:

I have a friend who has made comments to me such as ‘You look so thin. Are you sick?’ and ‘You look so thin. Is something wrong?’ I see this person on a regular basis, and my weight has been the same (give or take 10 pounds) for the past 20 years. I find these comments rude and hurtful, so I usually don’t respond and try to change the subject. My husband says that I’m being overly sensitive, but I’d like to put an end to these remarks without being rude or insulting. What do you suggest? Anonymous, Boston

I feel for Anonymous. Comments about weight seem endless sometimes (whether it’s about being ‘too thin’ or ‘too fat’) and people apparently think it’s perfectly acceptable to not just comment on weight, but make a point of harassing people about it. Saying ‘I’m fine’ or changing the subject to make it clear that it’s not an appropriate topic of discussion never seems to penetrate. Likewise with comments about disability. It’s really amazing how you suddenly become public property as soon as anything about your body differs from the socially-dictated norm.

I started reading Miss Conduct’s response, and mostly nodded right along until the point that I’ve bolded for your convenience:

You are being overly sensitive – to your friend’s feelings. Her comments are out of line, and it would be a favor to yourself, her, and the relationship to let her know. She may be one of those lovingly overbearing, chicken-soup-bringing types who clucks over all her wee friends, most of whom may well find it as annoying as you do. Who wants to be told they look sick all the time? Even sick people don’t want that.

You needn’t make a big fuss over the matter with your friend; the less emotional you are, the less the chance her feelings will be hurt. The next time she asks you if you’re well, take a nourishing sip of broth to bolster your courage and say: ‘You know, you’ve made similar comments to me in the past about my weight. I’m actually fine – this is my natural weight and has been for a long time. And I promise you that if I ever am sick and there is something you can do, I will tell you. In the meantime, your questions make me feel awfully self-conscious.’ Your friend may feel awfully self-conscious herself if she realizes that she’s been doing this for years, in which case you can have a good laugh about it. And keep in mind that if this is a habit of hers, based in who-knows-what deep-seated psychological dynamic, she may backslide once or twice, so be patient.

Wait, what?! Miss Conduct, as we know, seems to have a bit of a thing for armchair diagnosis. Which is really a pity, because I think that most of the time she gives very solid advice. She’s the advice columnist I am most likely to agree with, and I think that, like Miss Manners, she’s good about cutting through crap, getting to the heart of the issue, and pointing out that ‘good manners’ doesn’t mean politely tolerating inappropriately personal poking and prodding. But this whole randomly tossing some psychiatrisation into every column thing has really got to stop.

It is, in fact, possible to give sound advice without diagnosing people with things on the basis of a few lines in a letter asking for advice. Anonymous didn’t ask for an armchair diagnosis, but specifically for assistance on dealing with a problem. I don’t see how that comment was relevant, helpful, or appropriate—much like the friend’s concern trolling, actually.

I’d also note that I think Miss Conduct is being too generous in the script for the friend. Anonymous is not required to disclose whether this is ou ‘natural’ weight, nor is ou required to make disclosures about ou medical status and health. Nor does Anonymous need to promise to keep the friend updated on private matters or to provide the person with an opportunity to be a do-gooder in the event that ou gets sick. It’s sufficient to say ‘You know, you’ve made similar comments to me in the past about my weight. They are inappropriate. Please stop.’

Here at FWD/Forward, we read a lot of advice columns, but it’s impossible to catch them all. If you spot something you’d like to see featured in Dear Imprudence, feel free to drop me a tip! meloukhia at disabledfeminists dot com.

5 Comments

  1. Miss Conduct, in addition to writing, also practices as a clinical psychologist, though I absolutely agree with you that it’s not at all appropriate for anyone, especially therapeutic professionals, to diagnose anyone on the basis of a third-party report in a letter.

  2. I was in fact more annoyed at the “this is my natural weight / If I’m sick I’ll tell you” crap than at the armchair diagnosis of a “deep-seated psychological dynamic”. That one, to me, is simply unscientific. The bit about natural weight, keeping the friend updated if ou ever gets sick, etc. was really letting the door open to unwarranted concerns about Anonymous’ body. Although, if this happened to me, I would personally indeed say something like “I’m fine, but if you ever need to worry, I’ll tell you” as to not make the friend apathetic about my wellbeing.

  3. I am a bit bothered by this. She didn’t say “this person must be bipolar” or armchair diagnose the letter-writer in any way. Simply using the words “psychological dynamic” does not invalidate her point. Since this is clearly an issue relevant to emotional and mental processes (acknowledging, judging, and expressing concern for another person) it is by definition psychological. That one sentence does not overstep Miss Conduct’s appropriate interaction with the letter-writer. I do, however, agree about not needing to distinguish “my natural weight.”

  4. In a similar vein (on someone commenting on another person’s appearance, health, etc. and not being obliged to discuss it with them), I just saw this advice column, which gives a pretty good answer, I think. http://tomatonation.com/vine/the-vine-june-30-2010/ (It’s the last letter on the page)

  5. Agreed, Melinda – psychological =/ pathological. I think she’s just saying that there’s no way of knowing the friend’s motives and/or reasoning behind making the comments, which is . . . true.