Tag Archives: Robin Abrahams

Dear Imprudence: Do I Give Up Rights To Bodily Autonomy When I Leave the Dorm Room?

A recent Miss Conduct column featured a letter from a person with a common problem: Unwanted touch.

How do you convey that you’re not a touchy-feely person without coming across as rude or a prude? Ever since starting my freshman year of college, I’ve encountered a startlingly high number of males who think it’s appropriate to massage my shoulder in class, put their hand on my leg when we’re eating lunch together, or pat me on the head when they walk by me. I find this uncomfortable and would like to tell them to stop, but at the same time I know that not everyone has the same physical boundaries. In regard to innocuous things like hugs, is it ever polite or reasonable to say “No, thank you”? T.S. / Chelmsford

A perfectly reasonable question to ask, and one of particular relevance to me because I don’t really like being touched by people I do not know well, or people I know well, honestly, except in set circumstances when I can prepare for it. I know that some FWD readers have sensory issues surrounding touch, for a wide variety of reasons, and I thought this letter would be a good one to highlight for Dear Imprudence before I even read Miss Conduct’s answer.

Of course you can say no to a hug; it’s your body. Keep in mind, though, that those “males” you are in school with are figuring out their physical boundaries and social selves as well. I’m not saying this to tell you to put up with being touched in a way you don’t want, but to point out that college is a big social experiment lab, and the guys don’t really know what they’re doing, either.

So, as long as you’re all working in the same social laboratory, be a good lab partner. Assert your boundaries bluntly and with humor: “It’s hard enough to concentrate in Econ 1 – one more back rub by ‘the invisible hand’ and I’m going to pass out in there, OK?” “Did you seriously just pat my head? Oh no you didn’t.” People will get the idea that T.S. isn’t so much a touchy-feely type and will start leaving you alone. Maybe some folks will think you’re rude or a prude. The others will think you’re a nice, slightly bossy person who doesn’t like to be touched by strangers. Trust me, you could do worse.

Ok, so, the first sentence is strong. Go, Miss Conduct, go. That’s the way to lead things off with a bang. You are absolutely allowed to express your bodily autonomy and to say ‘no, please do not touch me,’ and that doesn’t make you rude or a prude. It just makes you someone who prefers to not be touched, for whatever reason, particularly by random people.

But where Miss Conduct goes from there? It’s a locomotive hurtling down a hill without any brakes on. Are you telling me, Miss Conduct, that college-age ‘guys don’t really know what they’re doing’ when they force unwanted intimate touch on people? Were they tuning out for the ‘keep your hands to yourselves’ lesson in kindgergarten, perhaps? Au contraire, Miss Conduct, they know exactly what they are doing, because the hand on the leg/spontaneous backrub are two moves straight out of any number of men’s advice magazines telling college-aged men how to ‘get chicks.’

You can’t tell me this is a social laboratory. By college, the same social attitudes and norms present in society in general about bodies and who gets to control them are well established. Young men handling their classmates are joining a long and venerable tradition. It’s called ‘rape culture,’ and it absolutely starts with an ‘innocuous’ backrub in some cases.

I like that Miss Conduct came up with some snappy comebacks with the goal of getting people to stop touching you without making A Scene out of it, a common problem in environments like classrooms. But even this advice leaves me with a sour taste, because it puts the burden on T. S. to fight rape culture by being ‘nice,’ if ‘slightly bossy.’ I personally favour a ‘pardon me?’ or a ‘what are you doing?’ or just a snarled ‘don’t touch me’ when I am not interested in being nice to people who are violating my personal space and exerting ownership and control of my body and I do not appreciate being told that I am under an obligation to be nice to people who are touching me without my consent.

It’s bad enough that I feel constantly forced to ‘accept’ things like handshakes and hugs when they make me deeply uncomfortable because to do otherwise is to Make A Scene. A thousand little cuts occur as I allow my boundaries to be violated in the interests of making nice, of facilitating social interactions, of just getting through an interaction so I can move on to the next thing. There’s a very limited circle of people I enjoy hugging and even fewer people I will initiate hugs with, and if some random person started rubbing my back, they would do so at their own peril. I bite and I can move pretty fast when I want to, you get my drift?

How do you respond when people force unwanted touch on you? Do you find yourself compromising your personal boundaries in order to avoid drama in social interactions?

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.

Dear Imprudence: Food Policing, Ordinary Parenting, or Pathology?

Oh, Miss Conduct. How could you?

The Miss Conduct column at the Boston Globe published on 2 May featured the following letter:

I eat a healthy diet and incorporate fruits and vegetables into all meals, especially dinner. I have instilled the same habits in my toddler daughter. We frequently eat dinner at my in-laws’, and no vegetables are served. Would it be rude if I brought my own for me and my daughter to eat? J.C. / Waltham

The response begins:

Yes, it would be rude. Very rude, in fact. Food isn’t just nutritional; it’s social. People with medical or religious dietary restrictions can ask to be accommodated, and vegetarians in carnivore families can bring a side dish (enough to share, of course). If you have bona fide needs, you can make those known and negotiate as appropriate. However, when you are welcomed into other people’s homes to break bread with them, you do not implicitly critique their hospitality and lifestyle by bringing your own preferred foods. The message you would send to your in-laws by bringing along your own vegetables is “My dietary habits are superior to and more enlightened than yours.”

Is it rude or isn’t it? It can, in fact, potentially be rude to bring dinner along to someone else’s house when you are invited to dinner, unless, as Miss Conduct points out, you have dietary restrictions and you make a prior arrangement with the host.

This includes dietary restrictions such as limits on the kinds of food young children can safely eat, however. Young children cannot eat all of the same things that adults can. Bringing food safe for children is not being rude1, this is simply parenting, and making sure that the best interests of the child are looked out for.

It’s also not rude, I would add, if you have young children and you are concerned that the host might not serve food they want to eat2. Which is perhaps the case here; maybe J.C.’s daughter loves veggies, and if that is true, then, yes, it actually would be appropriate to bring along some veggies for her.

Lauredhel also pointed out, when we talked about this letter, that, setting aside concerns about allergies and kid-safe foods, it’s not necessarily rude in all cases to bring food along to dinner at the in-laws. Dinners at the in-laws tend to be more casual, and offering to bring a side dish to such events might be perfectly acceptable. There are also some communities and cultures where guests are expected to bring food and not bringing food would be rude. Of course, writing letters to the paper instead of communicating directly with the in-laws could also be construed as rather rude.

Miss Conduct continues:

The message you would be sending your daughter by bringing along the vegetables is even more disturbing: “Every meal must be perfect. You must always have vegetables. You can’t eat something just because it tastes good or because it’s polite to.” It’s good to teach children healthy eating, but rigid perfectionism will lead to social problems down the line. Is your daughter to be allowed birthday cake? Pizza parties? When she is invited to a friend’s house for dinner, do you plan to call and check on the menu? Part of the whole point of eating a healthy diet is so that we can splurge once in a while, after all.

Reasonably good. Miss Conduct is reinforcing some problematic stuff about ‘healthy’ food, but she’s setting a strong tone when it comes to talking about what is being modeled for the daughter here. It’s worth noting, too, that family pressures can contribute to the development of eating disorders.

But then:

Finally, do a little Web searching on the term “orthorexia.” Some people can get so obsessed with a healthy, “natural” diet that they wind up developing an eating disorder. “Orthorexia” isn’t a clinical diagnosis, but the term, coined by Dr. Steven Bratman, has gained attention and legitimacy over the past decade. I’m not diagnosing you with anything (I’m not a clinical psychologist, and even if I were, I wouldn’t diagnose anyone based on a four-sentence e-mail). But spend a little time thinking about how you would answer two of Bratman’s questions: “Is the virtue you feel about what you eat more important than the pleasure you receive from eating it?” and “Does your diet make it difficult for you to eat anywhere but at home, distancing you from friends and family?”

Wait, what?

I really loathe it when advice columns do this. They just have to throw in a little armchair diagnosis. Robin Abrahams just had to add in a little ‘you know, perhaps you have a mental illness’ at the end, didn’t she?

This letter missed the mark in a lot of ways. Accusing the letterwriter of orthorexia instead of acknowledging the reasons she might have concerns about what’s on the dinner table? So not necessary.

Related reading:

The Fat Nutritionist

  1. After all, I’m never offended when I have friends with young children over for dinner and the mother starts breastfeeding!
  2. However, I would like to note that the good host anticipates the needs of all guests, and when people with young children are invited to dinner, the host should ask the parents if any food options should be provided. Some kids may like coq au vin just fine and be delighted with the menu, while others might prefer the option of some braised plain chicken, for example.

Dear Imprudence: Do Conversational Redirects Actually Work?

I’m a big fan of Miss Conduct over at the Boston Globe, and she got a question recently that comes up a lot in advice columns and spaces like this one:

I am disabled by an incurable disease. On the outside, I appear OK. But on the inside, I am slowly dying. People ask me what I do for work. When I say I am disabled, they seem to require a further explanation. I would like to keep my affliction private, so I would like an appropriate response. J.M. / Essex

Here’s how she responded:

J.M., I am in awe of your courage. But you probably don’t want people to be in awe of your courage, or shamed by your stoicism, or inspired by your grace, do you? You probably just want to be J.M. from Essex, who can bloody well make small talk like everyone else. What else are you doing besides tending your illness as best you can? If you’re well enough that people don’t realize you are sick and well enough to write to me, you are probably engaged in some kind of activity – crafts, reading, going to movies, listening to music, following sports. People aren’t prying into your work or health situation, necessarily; they’re probably only looking for some conversational fodder. So give it to them: “I’m not working right now because I’m dealing with some health problems – that I’m really tired of talking about! But I’ve been listening to books on tape lately and really getting into the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Have you ever read those?” (or whatever is appropriate for your interests). If people keep pushing (most won’t), repeat that you’re not interested in discussing work or health, but how ’bout them Sox? If they still pry, say, “I think I left the oven on” (or some similarly nonsensical excuse) and wander off.

Now, there are some things in this response that make me a little tingly in an irked way, but that’s not actually why I’m writing this post. I’m writing this post because, well, y’all are pretty awesome when it comes to crowdsourcing solutions and ideas, and I’ve got two questions for you:

  1. Have you/do you use conversational redirections like changing the subject, ignoring the question, etc., and if so, has it worked/does it work?
  2. How do you deal with situations like these where people believe that your disability makes you a subject for open quizzing and discussion?

And, a followup, because this is something I always have trouble with: What exactly is ‘small talk’?

Dear Imprudence: Polydactyly and the Single Person

The Dear Prudence column for 4 March included the following letter from a reader:

Dear Prudie,
I’m almost ready to settle down and have kids, but I have a bit of a problem. I was born with an extra toe on each foot and part of an extra finger. Surgery when I was 1 year old removed the excess appendages, however their code is still sitting inside my DNA and will probably be passed to the next generation. So when and how do I talk to my girlfriend about the fact that her future children will probably be born like I was? Should I suggest we both get genetic tests to detect potential abnormalities?

—Outwardly Normal

Prudence’s response was a bit of a mixed bag.

Dear Outwardly,
We all carry glitches in our genome, and it is up to each couple to decide how much they want to explore their genetic heritage before they potentially pass along any of these flaws. You have polydactyly, which means extra fingers or toes. (Polydactyly can also be a symptom of a number of genetic disorders, but these tend to have serious health consequences.) Polydactyly itself is a harmless birth defect, and one that is dominant, so you’re right—your children would have a good chance of inheriting it. But so what? As your own experience shows, all it took was a few snips, and you ended up with the usual five digits on your feet and hands. I know a very attractive young woman born with polydactyly (she also got a surgical fix), and she would volunteer this information in the spirit of, “Here’s an amazing fact about me.” Since this is not a big deal, you shouldn’t make it one. So next time you’re drying your feet off after a shower, or putting on your socks, you can say to your girlfriend, “I’ve never told you this, but guess what, I was born with an extra toe on each foot. Look, here are the scars.” Unless she’s a nut, she’s unlikely to run screaming from the room, and you can then explain you have a minor genetic fluke. Later, when you’re married and actually contemplating children, you can jointly discuss seeing a genetic counselor to decide how deeply into your DNA you want to delve.

—Prudie

I think that her letter reinforced a couple of things which I find a bit problematic; that someone with polydactyly would want a fix to end up with the “usual” arrangement of digits, for example, and that this person should frame the discussion about the issue with “but it’s ok, our child can be made normal!” It’s norming attitudes like these which probably contribute to the letter writer’s sense of shame and secrecy, so it was nice to see Prudence using “here’s an amazing fact about me” to describe polydactyly, but she ultimately fell back into patterns about norming and bodies which suggest that the only acceptable number of digits is five. That one would, of course, want to surgically alter someone who had more than five digits.

Furthermore, she noted that polydactyly itself is “harmless” but made sure to remind the letter writer that it is associated with conditions with “serious health consequences,” because obviously no one would want to have a child with one of those. Her comment about knowing a “very attractive young woman” almost seemed to come with a sense of “and it’s a good thing those extra fingers got hacked off, or her physical appeal would be in doubt!” And, of course, the throwaway comment; “unless she’s a nut,” because clearly anyone who reacts with revulsion to something like polydactyly is mentally ill. Not, say, trained to respond that way as a result of social attitudes.

And, of course, she doesn’t say “if you do have a kid with polydactyly, why not wait and see if the kid wants surgery?” No, the assumption is that a “corrective” surgery should be performed on the child as an infant, before ou has an opportunity to make the choice for ouself.

I do, however, give her credit for discussing genetic counseling in a relatively evenhanded way. She stressed that individual couples should decide whether or not they want to receive genetic testing and that it’s a choice which should be made together. I do wish that she had gone the extra mile there and said that you can receive genetic counseling and decide to have a child with someone no matter what the outcome of the counseling is. And that you can choose not to get counseling and that’s ok too.

What advice would you have given to this letter writer? Do you see other aspects of Prudie’s response which you find problematic or praiseworthy?

Dear Imprudence: Getting It Right

After our inaugural Dear Imprudence column, in which I called out some bad advice, I thought it might be nice to go to the other side of the spectrum, and check out some good advice offered up in an advice column. After all, advice columnists do get it right now and then.

As it turns out, Miss Conduct was here to help. The Miss Conduct column for 22 November featured an entry which was pretty much tailormade for FWD.

Here’s the letter:

Several years ago, my father had a stroke that left him in a motorized wheelchair, with impaired speech and vision. He lives at home and participates in social activities in and out of the home. Twice in the past year my mother has been invited to a function and my father has not been included on the invitation. This is rude and hurtful. My mother thinks she should call and ask if my father was not included as an oversight. But that’s probably not the case, and she’s then just making the inviter squirm. I think she should decline the invitation. What is the right way to respond? J.M. / Framingham

And the response:

You say “making the inviter squirm” as if that’s a bad thing. In my opinion, he or she bloody well ought to be made to squirm a bit. I’m so sorry you and your family have had such experiences.

As to what your mother should do — declining without explanation is, of course, an option, and may be the least emotionally taxing one. But if your mother is up for a bit of genteel social combat, her idea isn’t a bad one. Often, you can best shame people — as well as, paradoxically, give them a graceful way of saving face — by assuming good intent. She could call the inviter and say, “I’m sure you mustn’t have realized, but my husband is capable of attending social events despite his disability.” Then just . . .pause. Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t for a millisecond believe good intent is at work here — even if people are under the mistaken impression that your father can’t socialize, he should still be invited and the decision left to him and your mother as to whether he should attend.

The inviter may then say, “Oh, I didn’t realize,” in which case accepting the lie graciously will establish your mother as a gentlewoman who is not to be messed with. Or he or she might explain that there is an accessibility issue, in which case your mother can decline, saying that she does not attend events that her husband cannot. Any other attempt at explanation can be answered with “I see. We will not be attending.” A married person’s first loyalty is to his or her spouse, and anyone who treats that spouse as less than fully human for whatever reason (disability, race, sexuality) is owed nothing but the coldest courtesy.

All I can say is: PREACH IT, Miss Conduct.

The exclusion of people with disabilities from social spaces is a perennial issue. It sounds horrific to me, but disabled partners really are routinely left off social invitations, and you know what? People should be made to squirm for that. Because it’s totally not ok to just not invite someone’s partner to a social event because the partner is disabled and it’s “inconvenient” or “uncomfortable” or what have you. It’s not an “oversight” when people know that you are in a relationship and your partner is not included in an invitation sent to you.

Now, I don’t know what sort of “functions” this person may have been invited to, but if they were held in spaces which were not accessible…that’s pretty tacky, to issue an invite to the able partner and just leave the disabled partner off. I generally regard people in relationships as people who get invited to things together, even if they don’t necessarily decide to go together, and I can’t imagine holding a function somewhere where someone could not go and then inviting that person’s partner, as though it wouldn’t be a problem. It’s actually…kind of a cold thing to do.

I’m glad that Miss Conduct pointed out that being mannerly does not mean being silent when people are being unpardonably rude.