I’m a big fan of the Washington Post advice columnist, Carolyn Hax. She’s been writing her column for 22 years and doing a weekly, live chat as well. She even went through the major life transition of divorcing her first husband—who was, and still is, the cartoonist for her column—and rather quickly marrying one of their mutual friends and getting pregnant (I don’t recall the exact order). I was online the day around fifteen years ago that she opened the chat to questions and comments about her life transition, and she was a boss! Still is.
So I love Carolyn and read her daily. I don’t think I’ve ever written a blog post based on one of her columns before, and today seemed like a good day for that first.
Carolyn's July 24, 2019 column features a letter from a woman who is writing that she overheard a man she has just started dating—and whom she liked very much—describe her to another man based on her physical attributes.
It’s kind of a perfect #metoo-era letter. And I have no quarrel with Carolyn’s response. She makes several important points, including (1) people aren’t defined by the actions taken in single moments of their lives, (2) sometimes women mind such descriptions, sometimes they laugh them off, and both responses are okay, and (3) we’re all of us—women, men who use such terms ignorantly, jokingly, denigratingly, and men who don’t use those terms at all—people, warts and all. Or perhaps I should say, we all have our warts.
I’m going to shine my little flashlight on one part of the letter that I felt was pretty important and could use just a bit more emphasis. For those who haven’t read it, the letter writer (who describes herself as an early-maturing, large breasted woman) describes how she overheard the man she’s dating, whom she calls Rob, describing her to another man and “he used a vulgar euphemism for my breasts.” When Rob saw her right after that moment, she said he looked “guilty and I could see he was trying to figure out if I’d overheard.” She then says “I pretended everything was okay while I figured out what to do.”
This line really struck me, and for a bunch of different reasons. The first is, I saw myself in it. Oh my goodness did I see myself! And not just my much-younger self. My over-50-years-old, last-time-I-had-a-boyfriend self. But definitely my younger self too.
When I think back on my formative years, I was taught to approach dating like a job interview.
The approach to job interviewing that seemed to be popular in the 1980s—and I think we’ve improved on this significantly since then—was this: do your best to look like the best fit. Don’t ask questions that might tip the interviewer off that you have your own preferences. When you get the offer—in writing—that’s the time to ask your questions and risk letting them know what you prefer or don’t. And the approach to dating my mother taught me was very similar: “be pretty, be nice, go out with whomever asks because he may have a friend you like better; you don’t have to marry him!”
Maybe most women reading this didn’t have this same experience that I did. I rather hope not, anyway. Because it created in me, insidiously, the belief that I needed to ensure the comfort of any man before my own. And not just the man in a dating situation: but anyone (man or woman) in power.
In the line “I pretended everything was okay while I figured out what to do,” this letter writer reveals that—however she came to it—she bought into the same reality I just described.
My question to her is this: why? Why did you believe it was more important to pretend that everything was all right than to express how you felt? How DID you feel? And what did you hope to accomplish by not telling this man how you felt, this man whom you hope to make a lover and therefore bring into your most intimate trust?
I think we can infer from her choice of the words “vulgar euphemism” that she felt disrespected. Perhaps disappointed, too, as she wrote early in her letter that she liked him quite a bit. No doubt she hoped that he would not only like her, but at least respect her, which must precede any genuine, trusting attachment. She may have felt even more than this.
Carolyn writes “I wish you had said something to Rob on the spot. His response would probably have told you a lot.” If you’re a regular reader of Carolyn, you already know that she would have. She’s a boss. But what’s the cost of NOT being a boss: not being who you are in the moment that you are, because that’s all that being “a boss” is? Well, I’ll tell you—because I’ve lived it—the price of indulging that fear is very high. But when fear paralyzes us in the moment we’re faced with the need to stand up for ourselves? We pay it. We have no choice. And the price is dear.
I’ve already mentioned it is a great idea to tell someone you hope to have an intimate relationship with how you are feeling. In the moment—particularly in the face of such justification, but even not. Because you don’t have to have a good reason to feel the way you feel. What you do need to do is own it. And own it when the stakes are small.
What bad thing could possibly have happened? Would she rather learn that she cares more about his feelings than he cares about hers after they’ve been together six months? And do you think she might throw it in his face during an argument at that time, and would that really be fair?
So I’d like to address the letter writer directly:
Anything negative that could happen between you and Rob was going to happen anyway, because people are who they are until THEY decide they want to become someone different. It DIDN’T feel right to you. And you DIDN’T want to laugh it off. And that’s okay. You are not wrong or defective because you are someone other than a women who laughs off such things. You are YOU. And if someone isn’t comfortable with the strength and realness that is YOU, don’t water yourself down for them, unless you plan to live a watered-down version of yourself ever after. And please, for the love of the universe, don’t do that.
“His response would probably have told you a lot.” Certainly it might’ve. But that’s not why you should’ve been straight with him. You need to be who you are with whomever you want to form any kind of authentic relationship. Including—and most especially—yourself.
Photo by Tiago Lino from Pexels.