Tag Archives: Emily Yoffe

Dear Imprudence: Speaking of Holiday Tensions…

Dear Imprudence’s recent reader livechat featured a question that made me go ‘oooh, ouch, been there,’ from a reader writing on behalf of a daughter hounded by family members, specifically her grandmother, about her weight.

Q. Grandmother’s Obsession With Weight: My daughter is a recent grad of a top 3 in the country school. She’s kind, pretty, has friends and is employed, going back to grad school. She’s a former college athlete but since school, has put on a huge amount of weight. While it’s a less than ideal situation, she’s seeking help for it. The issue is Grandmother. She’s old-school, from a certain area of the country that values looks and femininity trumps all, especially weight. She’s not at all slim herself, her kids have had eating disorders and her husband has been grossly obese for as long as I’ve known them. She’s terrible to my daughter and what she doesn’t say outright, she implies. My husband’s attempted many times to talk to her, but to no avail. We try to avoid seeing them, but during the holidays, it’ll be difficult. She always has the last word. Is there a polite way to shut her down? Sincerely, not a Belle.

I note two things about this article:

One, the grandmother is definitely behaving inappropriately and I think it’s good that the letter writer is asking for advice on how to handle the situation. I suspect the letter resonated with a lot of readers because this tends to be a time of year when these kinds of things start coming up a lot and having a little library of sharp reports to draw upon can be useful for navigating unpleasant social situations.

Two, the letter writer has got some fat hatred to deal with. Despite being disparaging about how the grandmother views weight, suggesting that grandmother’s ideas aren’t shared, the letter writer makes sure to mention that grandfather is ‘grossly obese,’ and that gaining weight after stopping high energy college athletics is ‘a less than ideal situation1.’ The letter writer notes that the grandmother is ‘not at all slim,’ evidence that she, of course, would have no room to talk, and the letter leads right there with that damning one-two punch that gets thrown at fat people: well, you’re fat, but at least you’re ‘pretty’ and ‘kind.’ And ‘have friends’ despite the fact that you’re fat! Gosh, it’s almost like fat people are human beings.

Here’s what Prudence said in response:

A: Your daughter is an adult so she’s the one who needs to handle this situation. You can have a talk with your daughter and say that you dread hearing her grandmother’s nasty remarks and you want her to be ready to parry them. “Thank you” is an all-purpose non sequitur. Your daughter can also be more direct: “It’s good to see you Grandma. You’ve expressed your feelings about my weight many times, so I know how you feel. I’d like to enjoy the holiday, so I’d appreciate it if we don’t discuss this anymore.” If grandmother won’t stop, your daughter just needs to say, “Good to talk to you. Excuse me, I’m going to see Uncle Ed.”

Prudence covered the first topic with some pretty solid advice. But she didn’t touch the second. Was it a good move?

I think there’s a solid argument to be made for covering the question ostensibly being asked in the letter and focusing on the issue of making the daughter feel more comfortable at family gatherings while choosing to elide the letter writer’s own embedded bigotry, with the goal of not alienating the letter writer and making sure the advice gets where it needs to go. On the other hand, though, what is the daughter internalising at home around the letter writer, and how are comments made by the letter writer contributing to the distress she experiences as a result of family pressure about her weight?

But I’m not sure the logic here is that complex; I honestly suspect those snide comments slid right past Prudence when she was drafting her response, because they’re a reflection of attitudes that are so common, so widespread, so ubiquitous, that they don’t even attract attention unless you’re specifically looking for them. They just pop right past.

Yes, that’s me, looking for something to get offended about. No, really, I think that these kind of dogwhistles and codewords are evidence of the uphill struggle we have when it comes to fighting social attitudes. This is a situation where the letter writer could have used some advice too, and didn’t get it.

  1. Newsflash: What happens when you stop engaging in athletics? You tend to put on some weight as your body adjusts.

Dear Imprudence: Inappropriate Discipline

Content note: This Dear Imprudence discusses the use of hitting to ‘discipline’ children.

Dear Prudie’s Monday livechat featured a doozy of a question:

Q. Discipline: My wife and I have been married for eight years, and we have three wonderful children, two girls and a boy. While we agree on most everything, the one thing that really causes trouble is our son, specifically how to discipline him. He is 6 years old and has mild CP and also very high functioning autism. Now my wife thinks that because of his “special needs” he should not only treated differently, but also disciplined differently. I say that consistency is the key and that the Bible says to “spare the rod, and spoil the child.” Who’s right?

Let me make this answer simple, Prudence:

Neither of you is right, Discipline. There is absolutely no reason to hit children, ever.

There you go! That was easy. Sadly, it’s not what Emily Yoffe said.

A: I hope your son’s special needs will be a special gift to your entire family and help you rethink your approach to discipline. I absolutely agree on the need for consistency, especially with a child dealing with autism. But all your children should have consistent, compassionate care, not consistent smacks to the backside. (And the Bible says lots of things I’m sure you don’t take literally.) Lack of corporal punishment does not mean you allow your children to run wild; it means showing them there are better ways to get people to behave. Please talk to the professionals helping you with your son about the most effective ways to discipline him. I’ve recommended the work of Haim Ginott before, but please read one of his books. Even if you don’t use all of his methods, he will help you see the world through the eyes of your children.

Let’s break this down, starting with the first sentence, which made me gag violently. I could really do without classifying disabled children as ‘special,’ period, and especially not as ‘special gifts.’ Disabled children are not ‘gifts.’ They are human beings. It doesn’t surprise me to see Prudence using this kind of language. After all, it’s very widespread and commonly believed, but it irks me nonetheless. She’s widely read, she has a big platform, and she has the power to influence her readers and make them rethink the way they approach disability, simply by not engaging in disability tropes and pushing back on commonly believed narratives. Especially in this case, where it seems pretty clear to me that the use of quotes in the original letter is intended in a snide, spiteful way.

Prudence’s next section, condemning the use of corporal punishment, is pretty solid. I’m well aware that my blunt approach would probably be less than ideal if the goal is actually to convince people to stop hitting their children and calling it ‘discipline,’ it just happens to be one of the things in the world that makes me incendiarily angry and I really don’t know how to push back on it in any way other than incoherent rage. I did like that she specifically used the word ‘compassionate’ in her commentary.

Finally, a recommendation of a book by a (to my knowledge) nondisabled child psychologist. I know Ginott’s books are very popular, but I find it interesting that Prudence would say the letter writer can ‘see the world through the eyes of your children’ by reading a book written by an adult who doesn’t share lived experiences with one of Discipline’s children. Why not recommend works by people with autism and cerebral palsy? And why rely on adults to tell you how children think, feel, and view the world where there are plenty of children around you can interact with directly?

Commenting note: FWD unilaterally condemns the use of corporal punishment on humans of all ages. Any comments defending it/suggesting it is ok in ‘certain circumstances’ will not be approved, so do us a favour and don’t submit them.

Dear Imprudence: Take Your R-Word Somewhere Else

Emily Yoffe has really been striking out in the advice sweepstakes lately, but she redeemed herself in this week’s livechat, when a reader wrote in to say:

Q. Dealing With the R-Word: How can I respond to people who use the word “retard” or “retarded” as derogatory term in my presence? I have two beautiful children (one has autism), but have never used the R-word even before I became a mother. While I realize a vast majority of the time, people who use this term are not referring to people with intellectual disabilities, it still hurts to hear the word since it’s generally used to mean stupid. I have been hearing this word a lot lately—sometimes from younger people, other times from people my age (mid-’30s) or older who throw this word around. When I am in my own home, I just tell the person, “We do not use that word in this house.” When I am at another person’s home, I don’t know what to say, so I keep quiet (even though it doesn’t feel right) or leave. And what about when I’m in a neutral place? By the way, my son is almost always with me and everyone I associate with knows he has autism, but that doesn’t stop people from using the R-word. Please tell me how I can respond when I hear this word used in everyday conversation.

Here’s what Yoffe responded with:

A: You need to say something in as neutral a way as possible. If the word is being used to describe someone with an intellectual disability, you need to say something like, “I’m sure you didn’t mean to be insulting. But retarded is an outmoded word that many people find offensive.” Then offer what you prefer as a better term. If it’s being used as a general insult, you should also speak up and explain that word is so hurtful that you’d prefer not to hear it.

On the nose, Prudie. It’s important for the letter writer to not just speak up when it’s used to talk about a human being, but also just generally, to explain that it’s hurtful and has negative associations. I imagine the letter writer is going to get some pushback on that, but a few seeds will be planted, as well, and people might start thinking twice about how they use words like the R-word. A lot of people use exclusionary language out of ignorance and may be unaware that they are hurting people around them, and providing a quick heads up on the matter in a way designed to make confrontation difficult (by making the other person look bad if ou gets confrontational about a perfectly reasonable request) can go a long way to eliminating hateful uses of words like this one.

And, of course, pushback appeared within the livechat itself:

Q. The R-Word: I feel for this woman, but when I buy mulch that retards weeds, do I need to apologize for that? Should we just remove that word from the dictionary?

A: Talking about retarding the growth of weeds is a great way to preserve a useful word.

This is a really common response to discussions about language. The interrogator decides the subject is ‘too sensitive’ and thus deliberately misreads the discussion and the request to stop using a particular word to drag in an unrelated use of a word, sometimes a word that sounds similar, but actually has an entirely different root and origins (although that is not the case with the R-word and ‘retard’ in the sense of ‘flame-retardant’). To me, it reads like an attempt to use the ‘bad word’ as many times as possible in a sanctioned way: ‘But I just want to have a discussion!’

This reaction also raises a fundamental point about our common humanity. When I first started learning about and engaging with exclusionary language (because none of us are born knowing these things, let alone in a language that’s not our first), I was sometimes puzzled about why particular words were being identified as harmful, but the immediacy of the situation struck me. Here was a person, another human being, right in front of me, saying ‘please don’t use this word around me, it hurts me.’ What possible rational response could there be, other than to stop using that word around that person even if I privately disagreed, or to say, ‘I’m sorry this word makes you feel uncomfortable, but I use it to self identify in a reclamatory way, not generally to refer to people or as a pejorative.’

Dear Imprudence: Just Be an Adult Already!

Here’s some nostalgia for ya, gentle readers!

My dad, who was completely AB for the record, lived alone in the home I now own, and for a good portion of my life had many of his needs taken care of by members of his immediate family. My Grammy did most of his laundry, unless my aunt happened to be there doing laundry on Dad’s laundry day. My aunt, who was a book keeper for the family business, handled Dad’s bank account; she paid his bills for him back in the days prior to auto bill pay and signed most of his checks (most of my birthday cards suspiciously looked as if they may have been signed by her as well, to this day I can not tell their writing apart in some instances). It isn’t that my Dad couldn’t take care of himself or wasn’t an adult, but that they just simply did it for him after my parents divorced and he was living alone. Of course, Dad did things in return for Grammy, like grocery shopping and yard work after she wasn’t able to do it for herself…but that is another story for another day. Some people talk about ‘love languages’, and this is one spoken by this side of my family.

I don’t know that my aunt resented having that responsibility. I don’t know if any of Dad’s other siblings, all married with kids, resented this arrangement. I don’t really care, because it was something that was worked out between them, whether spoken or unspoken. There was, more than likely, a lot of traditional and gendered reasons why this arrangement took place. It also maybe had a bit to do with my grandmother being widowed, my Dad being her only child that was single and living alone, and who had the time to spend with her, taking her to Senior Breakfasts and stopping in for coffee in the morning after his night shift. It worked for them.

Perhaps this is why, when I read this letter sent to Emily Yoffe, AKA Dear Prudence, at Slate Magazine which was passed on to me by s.e. smith, I am inclined to find the myself rolling my eyes at the letter writer (emphasis mine):

Q. Reston, Va.: I have a 30-ish sibling with a health issue that has prevented him from working for the past four years. My parents support himhis own townhouse, car, new clothes, food, medicine, etc. They do everything for him (laundry, groceries, errands, etc.) Although his illness is real, he also spends a lot of time on his social life (out on the weekends, going to bars, etc.) and dates. In contrast, my wife and I (who live 10 minutes away) are trying very hard to stay afloat in this economy with small children, a house we paid for on our own, cars we paid for on our own, etc. We don’t receive much help (even babysitting). I can’t help but feel as though I am penalized for being functional, and I feel a great deal of animosity toward my family. Now, my parents are starting to ask me to help out my “poor” brother more, when my own family is already stretched incredibly thin for time/money. If it were up to me, I’d tell my brother to start acting like an adult and do more for himself. My parents would be horrified and upset. Any advice for getting through this tactfully?

Yes, yes. My brother has more than me! And he didn’t have to work for it! It’s not fair! (Sorry, I had a flashback to… well… my whole childhood.) I would love to be him, with all the damned free time and cool stuff and the devotion of my parents!

Too bad that the special perks come with strings. In my Dad’s case it was solitude and possibly depression, which I won’t pretend didn’t show in his demeanor. In the case of Reston, Va.’s brother, it comes with unspecified (thankfully he had the tact to leave this personal info out) medical conditions. We really don’t know the extent of them. We don’t know how much mobility this person has, how it impacts his daily life, if the reason he can’t work is due to pain, or what the disability is. This is mostly because it isn’t our damned business, but the point is that the grass isn’t always greener. Sometimes it is just sod.

Our good friend Reston, Va.’s brother isn’t being a Good Cripple, either. While his parents are doting on him for whatever their personal reasons are, he has the nerve to want to have a social life. He even goes to bars! We all know that bar ALWAYS means loud, rowdy club where every person is inebriated from imbibing in copious amounts of cereal malt beverages until wee hours of the morning, and never a quiet place where people can sit, talk, perhaps enjoy quiet music and a couple of cocktails or just a sandwich and the [insert sports team] game. There is quite a huge difference.

Reston, Va. wants to define the terms of what adult behavior is, and the hard truth is that “adult” doesn’t mean the same thing for every person. Having 2.3 children, a house, and a car while punching a time clock every day isn’t the universal litmus test. I read this letter as more of a cry that Mummy and Daddy aren’t babysitting more often so that he can go out once and a while or aren’t helping him with expenses than anything else.

Needless to say, I was not impressed with Prudie’s answer (again, emphasis mine):

A: If your brother is capable of hanging out at bars and going out on dates, I’m wondering why he’s not capable of doing his own laundry and getting his own groceries. It sounds as if despite his real problems, your parents are only exacerbating his dependency. They’re probably worried about when they’re no longer around and are trying to line you up to fill in for them.

You need to have a talk with your parents about the present and the future. Explain that despite his illness, it would be beneficial for the entire family if your brother took more responsibility for himself. You can say you love your brother, but you don’t have the financial or emotional resources to take care of him, and you in fact think more energy needs to go into helping him be a productive member of society. If they don’t want to hear your message, that’s their business. But you need to make sure they hear yours that you can’t take him on.

I am irritated to no end the way that Prudie here equates the ability to do laundry and grocery shop with being a “productive member of society”. Also, the way that it is obvious that one activity is the same as another, and that obviously if the brother is able to do one, since she can so capably glean from the letter exactly what the brother’s limitations are, he must be able to do all the others. Clearly, being disabled means that we must sit at home, in the dark, crying about how miserable we are if we are to ask anyone for any kind of help.

Prudie might be shocked to hear that PWDs are not all forcibly sterilized anymore (though it still happens) and that many of us manage to *gasp* have sex lives. Some of us manage to accidentally enjoy ourselves with full, meaningful social calendars.

But that doesn’t negate our need for accessibility, assistance, and actual empathy. Which she lacks. But based on the letter I see her, she won’t be lonely.

I fully support this letter writer setting boundaries for what he is willing to take on with regards to the care of his brother, especially since, honestly, it seems that he is more worried about what he is not getting that is equal to or greater than his brother’s benefits. I wouldn’t want to be cared for by someone who didn’t want to be part of my life or who would begrudge me having something that gave me moments of happiness. I don’t want people like that close to me. It is why people are afraid to have Facebook pages or interact publicly: the policing of what PWDs should be allowed to do is so rampant that they even lose benefits because they aren’t disabled enough in public. Boundaries are important on both sides, though, to protect everyone, and Reston, Va. is under no obligation to hurt himself or his family financially to care for his brother.

Yoffe was so off base in her response, though, that she was holding a puck when the first pitch went out.

Also worth noting is that has seemed to leave the brother out of this conversation altogether. Everyone seems to want to talk about him and his needs, how helping him will affect them, but I see no mention of talking to him about what he actually needs or wants. It is completely possible that Reston, Va.’s brother would prefer to get his own groceries or that he doesn’t need his socks folded, it is just that no one has bothered to ask.

Turned out that during all those years my Dad was able to balance a checkbook after all. He let my aunt do it because it made her feel like she was taking care of him because he was alone, since my Dad’s family is fairly close-knit. They did things like that for each other, not because the other couldn’t do them, but because they cared for each other, and that is how some people show it.

Dear Imprudence: Who Appointed You the Parking Police?

This week’s livechat with Prudence featured a question that seems to crop up endlessly, like, pretty much whenever a person with a disabled parking placard pulls up to a parking space and gets out of ou car:

Q. Parking Lot Etiquette: I live in an apartment that overlooks the building’s handicapped parking spots. I have noticed one young woman, who has a blue permit, using one of the three spots every day, as if it is her own. The problem is, when she gets out of her car, she has no visible handicap. I would also add that other residents have to pay for their own spot, and she drives a late model Audi, so I don’t think she’s too poor to pay herself. I suppose she may have some handicap that isn’t visible, but is that what the spaces near the door are really intended for? I notified the manager, who I don’t think is going to do anything, and will probably leave it at that. But am I crazy for letting this bother me? Signed, Auto Fixated.

Oh  my stars, y’all! She’s, like, totally not disabled! ’cause she drives an Audi!

Prudence delivered the goods:

A: There have been interesting studies that show society actually functions better when certain people are willing to take on the role of unofficial police. Shaming the able-bodied who take handicapped parking spaces is a favorite outlet for these enforcers. However, the danger for such people is that they end up being unpleasant busybodies or worse. I have heard from many seemingly able-bodied people who have mild MS, say, but are constantly getting reamed out by “do-gooders” when they take a handicapped parking space. The woman you’re seeing has a permit, and you don’t know what might actually be wrong with her. She doesn’t appear to be preventing anyone who needs the space from filling it. So get over your fixation and find something that really needs fixing.

So, here’s the dealio, parking police: stop it.

No, really, that’s about all I have to say. A person with a disabled placard or plates owes no obligation to you. Is not required to specify and explain, in detail, the nature of ou disabilities. Period. Placards get assigned to people who need them1, and plenty of people who don’t have, ah, ‘visible handicaps’ do in fact need to take advantage of disabled parking spots. It’s nice that Prudence provided an example of a disability that might be nonevident, but still require the use of disabled parking, but, honestly? She didn’t need to. Because the takeaway lesson is that where people with disabilities park, and their disabilities, is not your business.

Yes, even if they are driving nice cars.

Additionally, if you do not need disabled parking because you are not disabled? Please stop using our damn parking already. Yes, even if it’s just for a minute. Yes, even if you were totally planning to move if someone needed it.

  1. And thanks to weird policies, some people who need them can’t get them.

Dear Imprudence: Ew, My Daughter Has Facial Hair!

A reader wrote in to Emily Yoffe at Dear Prudence this week with the following:

My 7-year-old daughter is smart, pretty, and fun. Her father is of Hispanic descent, and he’s gorgeous, but he has a lot of thick, black body hair—including a “unibrow,” which he’s plucked since he was a teenager. Our daughter has inherited his thick, dark hair and my fair skin, and I’m shocked to see that her coarse eyebrows are starting to grow together—downy hairs are appearing across the bridge of her nose. She is beautiful, but her eyebrows bother me. Her 10-year-old cousin has a shockingly thick unibrow, and she came home in tears because her classmates teased her. She took a razor to her face and ended up cutting herself badly. I don’t want any of this to happen to my daughter, but I’m disgusted with myself for having such a reaction to a few stray hairs. Showing my daughter pictures of Frida Kahlo and talking to her about inner beauty will be worse than a lie, since I’m obviously bothered by her eyebrows! I’ve been tempted to look into electrolysis down the road, but what kind of maternal instinct is that?

—Shallow Mom

Given that we live in a culture that views body hair on women as one of the most atrocious aesthetic offenses ever, it’s not terribly surprising that Mom has internalised harmful attitudes about body hair, and I commend her for recognising the social pressures influencing the way she’s viewing her daughter’s eyebrows. She also raises a really important point; as much as we talk about body positivity and acceptance, young girls with bodies that don’t meet society’s standards are still abused for it, and sometimes they injure (or kill themselves) in pursuit of beauty. Mom clearly feels conflicted here. She obviously wants to protect her daughter, while also addressing the oppressive beauty standards that surround her daughter’s body and the way she feels about her daughter’s looks. This is a tough  letter to answer.

So, how did Yoffe respond?

Dear Shallow,
Of course it’s superficial to worry over a few hairs. But humans are very superficial; in this country alone, we spend billions trying to either remove hair or grow it. Given the hirsute dynasties from which my daughter is descended, when I first held my darling in my arms and gazed on her mass of black hair, I whispered to her, “Don’t worry, baby girl, I will take care of you when the time comes to get some of your hair removed.” When I allowed her to get her eyebrows waxed the first time (she had been begging), it was a bonding experience to hold her hand while the deed was done. But she was a teenager by then, and, as you say, your daughter is only 7 years old. Right now the incipient unibrow is visible only to the close observer, or as T.S. Eliot wrote, “But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!” But the trajectory of her cousin is a warning. If your child has an easily fixed cosmetic problem, it’s best to avoid her wanting to take a razor to her face. Fortunately, today a little girl with a brow like Bert the Muppet can have it transformed almost instantly into something more like Brooke Shields. This article describes the growing trend for getting young girls with moustaches and heavy brows zapped with a cosmetic laser. I suggest for now that you stop counting hairs and relax. As the brow fills in, or she starts complaining that other kids comment on it, you can say that she has eyebrows just like Daddy. Explain that he takes some of his out with a tweezer, but you’re going to do something better for her that will mean the extra hair is gone for a long time or maybe forever. It’s OK, Mom, that you want a clear path for your daughter’s inner beauty to shine.

—Prudie

‘I really feel ya! My daughter has gross body hair too! Good thing we have lasers now, isn’t it!’

You know, I read that article at the Times too, and what I got out of it was not ‘hooray!’ but rather ‘wow, this is really awful, that social pressures about beauty and acceptable bodies are leading girls to get cosmetic procedures to modify themselves at younger and younger ages.’ The whole ‘Skin Deep’ series is a deeply disturbing look at the way our society views women and girls.

Why is Daughter’s hair a ‘problem,’ Prudie? Why is your entire response framed as ‘don’t worry, there’s an easy fix for this’? Why is there absolutely nothing in it about adult women who choose to wear their body hair as is? About letting Daughter make her own choices about her body hair? Why is it assumed that of course Daughter will want to wax her eyebrows when she’s older? Isn’t that basically setting her up to hate her body? Won’t she be getting enough of those messages from the people outside her home? Her mom obviously wants to be supportive of her, and clearly wants to counter some of these attitudes.

You know, I have a mustache. It’s pretty fine, so you probably wouldn’t notice it unless you were in one on one conversation with me. I like my mustache, and I pretty much always have. In fact, sometimes I wish it were thicker. Sure, I got shit for it when I was younger, but I just quoted Rita Mae Brown: ‘I like my mustache! It makes me look distinguished.’ I probably came home upset a few times, and my dad didn’t say ‘you know, I shave my face, but I can do something better for you and get it lasered off.’ He said ‘fuck ’em.’

Now, I’m not saying Mom has to take that particular approach, but it would be awfully nice if Prudence hadn’t jumped right to body hatred; why not talk about Frida Kahlo, who made amazing art and wrote great things about her relationship with her body? Why not present other models of women accepting their body hair, and why not talk about how social attitudes lead to a stigma about thick eyebrows on women? Yes, a young girl who is being tormented for having thick eyebrows probably will want to remove them, and I certainly don’t blame her for that, but when the conversation at home starts with ‘we can fix it!’ and a reinforcement of harmful beauty standards, how is that good for her? My father was able to have a conversation with me at age seven about the social attitudes surrounding definitions of beauty,  after all, and he made it clear he’d support me either way.

These are complicated things to navigate. There are lots of adult women who do not like their body hair, for a wide variety of reasons, and who choose to remove it, also for a wide variety of reasons. This letter troubles me because I feel like Prudence is completely discounting the idea that maybe Daughter should be raised with an open mind so that she can make decisions about her own body. Fighting oppressive beauty standards happens on a lot of fronts, and one of them should be in conversations with young women and girls.

Submissions for advice columns you’d like to see deconstructed (or celebrated) are always welcome: meloukhia at disabledfeminists dot com

Dear Imprudence: It’s Just A Little Bigotry! Calm Down!

On to the other letter in last week’s Dear Prudence with a response that made me, to be blunt, extremely angry. A letter writer submitted this:

Dear Prudence,
I am a proud gay man and for the last several years have worked in a high-ranking position for a company where my homosexuality has never been an issue. Recently, while a group of us were having lunch, the topic of two straight female celebrities kissing on an awards show came up. Everyone agreed that the kiss was a stunt, but one co-worker, with whom I’ve always been close, called it “trash.” She ranted about how it was indecent and that children were watching. It made me very uncomfortable that she displayed a hateful side I’d never seen before. She later apologized, saying that her comments were in no way directed to me. I accepted her apology, but I’m still very bothered by it because there was a tone of disgust toward gay people. I’ve changed around her and no longer talk to her about my personal life. She’s noticed and keeps asking me whether I’m still upset about that conversation. I say no, even though I am. I have great memories of the fun times we shared as friends, and I don’t want to bring this up because it could have an impact on our professional relationship. How do I tell her how I feel and finally put this behind me?

—Out

How does Prudence respond? Shall we predict? Possibly she will reinforce that, no, this man is not obliged to be Bigoted Coworker’s Friend anymore, and that, yes, he should perhaps bring the issue up with her, since he was obviously upset by it? Since he’s comfortable being out in the workplace and his workplace seems supportive, maybe it’s worth talking to a supervisor or a member of the human resources staff about the company’s antidiscrimination policies?

Her response was highly relevant to my interests, because while the letter writer was writing about an instance of homophobia, these kinds of interactions play out in workplaces all over the world with other dynamics involved, like race, age, disability, and gender.

And, surely, Prudie couldn’t deliver two instances of deplorable advice in the same week, right? Oh, no.

Dear Out,
When Joseph Biden declared his candidacy for the presidency, he evaluated his opponent, Barack Obama, by calling him “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” It was the kind of compliment that required an apology for its racism, yet presidential nominee Obama selected Biden to be his running mate. Which means you should let go of an ill-considered remark by someone you know to be a decent, nonhomophobic person. It’s possible your colleague’s ire was more about the slobbery, in-your-face nature of the kiss than a commentary on homosexuality. Surely, how she treats you is more indicative of her true feelings than her reaction to celebrities being deliberately provocative. It’s a mark of how comfortable she is with you that she could express her unfiltered opinion (which she won’t do again). When she saw you were upset and realized she may have been out of line, she apologized. It’s churlish and even mean-spirited on your part to accept her apology, yet behave in an obviously cool fashion. There’s nothing to be gained by re-airing the whole episode. I think you should tell her that she’s right—you’ve been letting the lunch incident eat at you, but you’re over it now, and you look forward to resuming your close relationship.

—Prudie

I am horrified and angered by this response. No, Prudence, this man is not obligated to resume their close relationship just because the woman is comfortable letting fly her bigotry in his presence. He was fairly explicit about the fact that the ‘rant’ was centered on homosexuality and how gross and icky it is. This is not an ‘ill considered remark’ from a ‘nonhomophobic person.’ It’s an unfiltered opinion, all right. And what, exactly, do Barack Obama and Joe Biden have to do with Out’s coworker?

One of the changes that we have seen, culturally, is that it is less socially acceptable, in many circles of society, to air these views, but they still skulk below the surface. When they do come out, it’s not an indicator of ‘comfort.’ It’s a reminder that there are no safe spaces, and that behind every person who words things carefully to avoid being outed as a bigot may possibly lie, well, a bigot. It’s a reminder that when people ‘forget’ who you are, they will feel comfortable assuming that you are not the Other and that, therefore, it’s ok to air their true feelings around you. Out’s coworker showed her true colours, and Out is being told to basically just let it go.

How many times have I heard people spew ableist rhetoric and then say that they weren’t talking about me? Or air their transphobia around me, thinking that I am a ‘safe’ person to air it around because they believe that I’m a cisgendered woman? If someone told me that I should just let those things slide, I’d be livid, as I hope Out was when he read this response to his letter.

People. We are not obligated to be nice to people who think that we are disgusting, awful, or should die. We don’t need to play makeup with people when they air their bigotry in front of us. The belief that we need to is precisely that which allows really destructive social attitudes to persist.

Dealing with these attitudes in the workplace is challenging, but the appropriate response is most certainly not to ignore them or pretend that they didn’t happen.

Dear Imprudence: My Boss Sexually Harassed Me, Should I Cover It Up?

This week’s edition of Dear Prudence had several entries that got me extremely riled up, but the one I’m choosing to feature is one from a young intern who got, well, some pretty awful advice.

The intern wrote:

Dear Prudence,

I landed a dream internship in the entertainment industry and on my first day on the job got to be part of a fabulous evening-long project that culminated in a victory party at a bar. Due to pressure from my supervisors, who were buying the drinks, and poor decision-making, I wound up too drunk to drive home. One of the bosses took me home with him, and when we got there he repeatedly tried to kiss me. This confused me, because I had been certain that he was gay. When I rejected him, saying, “I don’t understand,” he told me that he found me incredibly beautiful and sexy. Twenty minutes later, I was throwing up in his living room while he tried to play nurse and let me sleep it off on his couch. The next day he begged me not to quit, although he didn’t apologize for putting the moves on me. I intend to stay at this internship, because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Do I write the incident off as a crazy, drunken night and nothing more, or confront him about it? Harassment on my first day, though committed under inebriation, is a pretty heavy issue to just sweep under the rug. What should I do?

—Harassed and Hungover

Here’s how Prudie responded:

Dear Harassed,
Get the full DVD set of Entourage and discover that yours could be considered a tame first day on the job in the entertainment industry. Certainly your supervisors should never have encouraged an intern (or any employee) to get drunk. But if you are old enough to have an internship, you should be old enough to know your own limit. Now you do, so that was a valuable evening. There is no Most-Powerful-Man-in-the-World exemption for hitting on an intern (even if the intern flashes some thong); and there’s no Hollywood one, either (especially if the intern is inebriated). Your boss gave you a revolting welcome to the industry, but at least he backed off and got all Florence Nightingale after you ralphed in his living room. Although I’d love to be there, as would any reality-show producer, when you clarify your surprise and horror at his unwanted advances by explaining, “I was certain you were gay, so I couldn’t believe you were trying to kiss me!” there are some things that are best left unsaid. His begging you not to quit indicates that he knows he behaved terribly. Now that you’ve both showered, sobered up, and returned to your desks, you need to show your boss that you have the good judgment to forget about your unfortunate start, and instead spend the rest of the summer showing that you are great at your work.

—Prudie

So, let me get this straight (haha). The intern wrote identifying what happened to her as sexual harassment. Prudie proceeded to blame the victim, basically say that she should have expected this given the industry, and then tell her to forget about it.

Prudie’s advice is bad on a lot of levels. First of all, telling someone to ‘forget about’ harassment is just a terrible thing to do. It’s not enough that he ‘feels he behaved terribly.’ If this intern is comfortable reporting and wants to go through with the process of filing a claim, she should consider doing so. Because she is obviously upset about what happened, she obviously feels violated, and she is obviously feeling uncertain about what to do, but knows what she wants to do something.

To add some victim blaming about how the intern ‘should be old enough’ was just gratuitous and so not necessary. When you are starting a new job and you are trying to fit in, you are not existing in a vacuum. You are struggling with certain pressures and attitudes and it’s not as simple as ‘just say you don’t want anything to drink.’ ‘You learned your lesson, Little Lady,’ is basically what Prudie says here, and no. Being sexually harassed is not ‘learning a lesson.’ You do not need to experience what could have turned into a sexual assault to ‘learn a lesson.’

So, on an individual level, terrible advice. Really, really terrible.  But it’s also bad on a structural level.

Here’s the thing. The entertainment industry is sexist. We know this. Amanda Hess over at The Sexist recently wrote about hiring inequalities on The Daily Show and made a really critical series of points about how sexism intersects with the show’s hiring practices. Her points are applicable to the entertainment industry in general; she talked about the way that ignorance, ingrained prejudices, and societal forces all play a role in the perpetuation of sexism in entertainment. The point here is that sexism is institutionalised in the industry, which means that rather than being an individual problem, as Prudence makes it out to be in her response, it is a structural one.

We cannot fight sexism in the entertainment industry by telling people to ‘forget about’ sexual harassment. Or by reinforcing the attitude that ‘well, it’s the entertainment industry, what do you expect?’ Women in entertainment are devalued, constantly reminded that they are worthless, and frequently told that they just need to ‘deal with’ dehumanising behaviour, including rape, sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination. Prudence very neatly reinforced all of these beliefs in her column without a second thought, apparently; presumably she does edit her columns after writing them and apparently still thought it was appropriate to submit this for publication.

The way we dismantle institutions is not by propping them up. Better advice would have included a reiteration that, yes, this is sexual harassment, a reminder that, no, this was not the intern’s fault, and a link to some resources on handling and reporting sexual harassment in the workplace. She could even have included a note that working in a notoriously sexist industry can be an uphill battle sometimes, and wished the intern good luck with her career.

Dear Imprudence: Can I Stick My Aging Parent In A Nursing Home Yet?

I always love when I can do a ‘doing it right’ edition of Dear Imprudence, and this week we’ve got a doozy from the live chat with Prudence:

Everywhere, USA: My older siblings financially support and care for my sick elderly parent. My parent is admittedly happy as they do not want to live out their days in a nursing home. I live five hours away and get home only two or three times a year and do not earn enough of an income to help. While I appreciate my siblings’ efforts, I disagree with the diet my parent is fed, which is not healthy and caters to my parent’s every wish and whim. I also think that a nursing home is better equipped to care for my parent. This has created a divide in our once-close family. What can I do to narrow this divide?

Emily Yoffe: You can pitch in or shut up. If you’re a five-hour car ride away, you can come on long weekends and prepare the kind of healthy food you think your parent should be eating. Since you contribute nothing financially and rarely visit, and the other siblings have taken on the burden of caring for your ailing parent, and making him or her happy—as you acknowledge—be grateful they have relieved you of this burden. Stop complaining, start acknowledging the sacrifices your siblings are making, and do more so that when it’s all over, your siblings don’t forever resent you.

Let’s see. Everywhere lives five hours away from Aging Parent, doesn’t contribute financially, and doesn’t provide any other support. We don’t know what the circumstances are behind this; it sounds like Everywhere may work at a not so great job that pays poorly and doesn’t provide a lot of time off for coordinating trips home, so it’s good that Everywhere’s siblings are capable of providing care, since Everywhere cannot. This person ‘appreciates’ the ‘efforts’ of the siblings who are acting as care providers to prevent Aging Parent from being instutionalised, but disapproves…of what they are feeding Aging Parent. Because Aging Parent is being fed the food ou likes.

Solution? Stick Parent in a nursing home, of course! Because clearly community-based care from family members is inferior and wrong. Obviously Aging Parent has no established friendships or relationships in the community that might be disrupted by being forced into an institution. And it’s clear that ‘force’ would be involved here because it’s pretty strongly indicated that Parent is very happy to be at home, with family members. I wonder who will be paying for that nursing home, since Everywhere claims to not be earning enough income to help; nursing homes are rather expensive.

This sounds like a divide Everywhere has created, and that’s why I was glad that Prudie came back swinging. Although I could have done without Prudie’s referring to Aging Parent as a ‘burden’ and caring for a family member as a ‘sacrifice,’ the rest of this advice is right on point. Everywhere does indeed need to either start getting involved in caregiving, or zip it.

It doesn’t sound like Aging Parent is disabled, but this type of dynamic occurs both with people with disabilities and older adults. Family members chomping at the bit to pack them off to an institution so that they will stop being a bother. This a narrative that’s also supported and reinforced by the society we live in; look at this letter, where the person tries to claim that a nursing home is ‘better equipped’ to provide care than Aging Parent’s own family. I’m really glad that Prudie pushed back hard on this, because my jaw actually dropped when I was reading the question.

Dear Imprudence: I Can Totally Police My Friends, Right?

Prudie’s livechat with readers last week featured a whole cornucopia of bad advice, including some substantial slut shaming and diagnosis of a reader via the Internet, but one thing jumped out at me:

Santa Cruz, Calif.: My friend was diagnosed with a chronic illness about 15 years ago. She takes care of herself and has learned to live with her condition. She remained active and always appeared healthy. Two years ago, she discovered that she has food allergies that are the cause of her health problems. She was disappointed that she would have to live on an extremely restricted diet but hopeful that her body might recover once the allergens were out of her system.

Since she started the new diet, the results have been dramatic. She looks sick. She is underweight, pale, and always tired. She also has gastrointestinal problems which she never complained about before the diet. And she still suffers from the original condition. If I ask how her diet is going, she says she feels great and she’s happy she is no longer poisoning her body. Should I let her know what I’m observing? I don’t want to pry, but should I ask more about what kind of medical care she is getting?

Emily Yoffe: It’s possible your friend is not seeing a quack, but I would bet she is. I’d also bet she is paying a lot of money to the doctor who diagnosed her “allergies.” I wouldn’t be surprised if this doctor sold supplements or special diet food to keep her “healthy.” It is strange that people will ignore the signs that a treatment is making them worse because they want so much to believe. You could try to do some research on the doctor and the diagnosis. I’m sure you can turn up evidence that questions the supposed food allergies. But even in the absence of that, you should express your concern in a way that doesn’t make her defensive. Tell your friend that you’re simply worried that until she went on this diet, she looked and seemed robust, but now she is pale, tired, and ill, and you think it’s time she got a second opinion about the course of treatment she’s on. Then if she won’t listen, you can be reassured you’ve done what you could.

Right, so, here’s the thing. Even when it’s your ‘friend’ it’s still policing. And, yes, telling people that they are making their allergies up is also policing. ‘Expressing your concern’ is policing. Whether someone’s a friend, coworker, or complete stranger, it is up to that person to approach you to ask for help, not to you to tell ou what to do.

And, you know, I have some friends whom I am pretty sure are receiving questionable medical care and possibly being taken advantage of. But it is not my business. If those friends approach me and ask me for my opinion, I will be honest, but until then? Not. My. Business. It is not my business to tell my friends how they should approach their medical care. Period. Just like it’s not Santa Cruz’ business to police this friend.

Another reader followed up, pointing out:

Joe (Chicago): Re: Restricted diet. If the person’s friend had a chronic illness like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, and then it turns out that she was ultimately diagnosed with celiac disease, her story wouldn’t be unusual. It’s often quite hard to figure out how to cope with a gluten-free diet, especially if you previously ate a lot of wheat-containing foods. The subsequent crappy diet (meaning not enough calories or carbohydrates) can often lead to weight loss, which itself can make people look like they’re sick.

Emily Yoffe: Good point. But it has become all the rage to declare everyone has a wheat allergy when they don’t. But anyone who is going on a “healthful” diet and ends up sicker needs to seek another medical opinion.

And again, Prudie went the ‘fake allergies’ route.

The thing about the fake allergies myth is that it kills people. This widespread belief that most people are just ‘making it up’ means that people do things like thinking it’s ‘not important’ if a few nuts end up in a dessert destined for someone who specifically said that ou was allergic to nuts. It’s just made up, right? Or, worst case scenario, maybe that person’s skin will break out a little, right?

What this person asked for was a free pass to police her ‘friend.’ And that’s exactly what she and readers got from Prudence, along with a healthy side of ‘oh, allergies are just made up anyway to be trendy or something.’