I can never visit my parents, and can hardly ever even talk to them on the phone, without their bringing up my weight. I am a 29-year-old woman, active and fairly athletic, generally healthy, and successful at my job. I am in a relationship I find satisfying. It is quite true that I struggle with my weight – it is at a level that my nurse practitioner considers “slightly obese,” which is something I know from peeking in my file once when she left the room. I do try to lose weight from time to time, probably not quite as hard as I should. But one thing I am sure of is that nagging or, especially, advice and interference from my parents just make it worse. When I visited them at Christmas they offered to pay for me to go to some fat farm where a cousin of mine “turned her life around.” I told them no, and asked them to stop bringing up the issue of my weight. When I visited them at Easter, they offered to buy me a new car if I lost 50 pounds (incidentally, even my doctor thinks 30 or 40 would be optimum). That time I had to take a Valium to calm down. I was so hurt and upset, for many reasons. The worst part is thinking about how much they must worry about this. They are on fixed incomes and would never consider buying themselves a new car. I also hate to think about how, when they see me, all they seem to see is my weight, not my kind heart or my sense of humor or the brains and effort that got me my Ph.D. last year.
How do I make them stop? I should tell you that I can’t threaten not to see or talk to them if they don’t lay off. They know it would not be a credible threat. I could never be that mean to them—my brother and I are all they’ve got, and he lives in Japan. Besides, I would miss them. Except in this one area, they are nice people and good parents, and they really do want what they think is best for me.
—Slightly Obese in San Luis Obispo
Dear Humorous, Kind, Brainy Correspondent,
Maybe it’s this writing for a lit mag thing, but the first answer that pops into my head for many interpersonal problems is: Why not write a letter? From the email you sent me, and from the fact of your Ph.D., I imagine that you could write your parents an excellent one, spelling out how much you love them but telling them in no uncertain terms that your weight is not something you are willing to discuss with them any further at any time. Tell them that doing so is hurtful and counterproductive. Tell them what you told me – that they make it seem as if your weight is all they see, not your many other qualities. Think about possible rejoinders your folks might make, and preempt them: remind your parents that you are happy, healthy, physically active, economically secure, and socially successful, and have excellent medical care.
But you may have reason to believe that a letter is not the best way to go here. Some people discount letters; other people go to the opposite extreme, see any request or demand made in writing as a form of escalation, and get upset or oppositional. If you think that sending a letter is the wrong way to go in this situation, you could draft a set of talking points instead. Keep them handy – in written form, or at least in your head – for the next time your parents mention your weight. Or, better I think, be the one to take the initiative during the next call or visit.
It’s sweet the way you stick up for your parents even while asking for help with them. And perhaps they are great parents in all other areas; but they have gone too far in this one. Assuming that they still have their faculties intact and can control themselves, their bribery and expressions of “concern” have to stop. Let’s hope that a calm (if you can manage it!), well-rehearsed, and forceful expression of your position will do the trick this time around.
What if it doesn’t, though? I understand why you would still be unwilling to stop calling or visiting entirely, or even threatening to do so. I would feel the same way. But I cannot come up with any weapons at your disposal other than contact with them. If you can think of any — consistent with your being a kind person, of course – that’s great. Use them. If not, I suggest playing some more limited version of the contact card. You could stop far short of actually breaking with them – but, the next time they bring up your weight after all you have told them, you can hang up on them, or leave the premises, as appropriate. I suppose you can give them one more bite if you must, but let them know that the minute they act up again you will be gone from whatever is happening at the time: off the phone, out the door, calling a cab to the airport, etc., as the situation dictates. Then, of course, you must make good on your threat.
I am hoping that your parents will straighten up without all this carrot-and-stick stuff. It’s unpleasant. And it can be hard to enforce, since close relatives are often masters at violating the spirit of promises. Your folks may never again try to bribe you, or even use the term “weight” in your presence – but that might not keep them from ostentatiously refusing their usual mini-mousse at P.F. Chang’s the next time you visit, right before asking you what you’d like for dessert; or telling you how lovely and slender that fat-farm-graduate cousin of yours looked in her wedding gown, and then clapping their hands over their mouths; or asking you to stand in the back row in the next holiday photo; or that old standby of passive-aggressive relatives everywhere: buying you clothes you can’t possibly squeeze into and insisting that you try them on.
Two other possibilities: is one of your parents less obsessed, or more agreeable, than the other? Can you enlist the aid of the less bothersome parent, or otherwise divide and conquer? (And what about your brother, or some other relative or close friend who already knows what your folks have been up to? Would it help if they added their voices? In your place, I think I would want to keep things more private and low-key, but you may feel differently.)
No matter what happens, I hope you manage to arrive at a state where you become, if not immune, at least less susceptible to your parents’ attitudes and behavior. Of course, it’s unfair that you should have to be the one to change, and doing so might be impossible, in any case — nobody can get under people’s skin better, and stay under there longer, than their parents. But give it a try. It would be the happiest, most reliable solution. Is your parents’ weight-obsession the sort of thing you can laugh about with your brother? I hope that he, your romantic partner, or your friends are sensible and loyal, and will help you keep in mind that it’s your parents who have the problem here.
My fiancé is a tenure-track professor in the social sciences who has published many articles and a well-received book in his field. He is also a hottie, and I am crazy in love with him. I am a (woman) poet with a string of writing-related day jobs, including two very respectable if grossly underpaid adjunct positions, both in the writing of poetry. I have won a couple of contests and consider myself a good emerging poet and an excellent critic. I tell you all this because my fiancé, after listening in on a few workshops from the kitchen of our apartment, where I thought he was grading papers by his tea kettle, has decided to try his hand at writing poetry, and wants my opinion.
It turns out that he has been composing poems in secret for the past couple months. The other night he surprised me with what he calls a “sampler of his poetic works” – an odd title, since I believe it also his complete poetic works. He made several copies and had them spiral-bound at his office. They are – trust me – just terrible. Rarely have I seen such a natural lack of talent, as well as almost total ignorance. To be fair, I suppose that his ignorance might mask some small glimmer of aptitude: maybe if he actually set out to study or at least read poetry for a while before writing it, he might not be so bad. But I doubt even that.
So now he is waiting, impatient but apparently quite confident, for my “verdict.” What am I supposed to do? I don’t want to hurt his feelings or strain our relationship. But I also don’t want to lie to him or set him up for hard truths down the road. And frankly, it also pisses the hell out of me that he thinks he can just sit down and compose a volume of verse with no study, training, or even first drafts. I don’t want to encourage that kind of conceit!
Did I mention that several of the poems are love poems, presumably addressed to me? Reading them was a truly epic turn-off — I could only get past the breast-related similes by reminding myself how bad I would probably be at longitudinal studies and data analytics and whatever the hell else it is that he does, especially if I just sat down and tried my hand at them after sitting under his open classroom window on a few lazy afternoons.
—Reluctant in Raleigh
If only your fiancé were a better poet, or a humbler one. As it is, the only thing worse than dashing his hopes would be not dashing them: What if he starts reading his poems aloud at faculty parties? What if he takes to introducing you as “my fiancée, who’s also a poet”?
The man must be told the truth — or at least a gentle version of it, something to the effect that, while it is always great to express one’s emotions, writing serious or even respectable poetry for an audience outside one’s own circle takes years of study and practice. (I would not add that, in his case, even study and practice probably won’t help much, since his early poems exhibit such a stunning lack of potential.)
I were you, I would try my damnedest to get out of having to impart even this gentler truth directly. Do you have any colleagues, former teachers, workshop facilitators, etc., who would agree to help you out here? Could you bear to have anyone you actually know read about how your breasts are fuller than the luscious honeydew, and sweeter than the Hostess Snowball when it is pink? If so, call one of these people right away! Then tell your fiancé that you looked over his MS and were very touched by the emotions he expressed and the memories he evoked, but that for this very reason you couldn’t possibly give an impartial evaluation, so you would like to send the poems to a disinterested reader. Tell him that poets are like doctors who never operate on their own loved ones. If he is as ignorant as you say about poetry, and knows nothing of Hughes and Plath, Kenyon and Hall, and all those other poet couples, he may buy this.
If he absolutely insists on your own critique, I don’t see any choice but to give it. Tell the truth but, if possible, do so without any talk of overall verdicts. If there’s an iota of merit or potential in any of the poems, you could start there. If some poems are less awful than others, you could refer to them as “stronger.” (I am sure you have spoken in this vein many times in your classes.) But make sure your fiancé knows that he has a long way to go, and may not get there. Refer, breezily, to caesurae, enjambment, antimetabole, and all sorts of tropes. Say things like: “In your next draft of this poem, do X, and then maybe you’ll start to make progress in the draft after that.” Or: “Another year or so, and you might have this collection ready to be workshopped.” Or: “Let me give you a list of poets and craft essays to read, and here’s a book of poetic forms.” Or: “Perhaps you could audit a course in the college?”
If he actually hears what your or your colleague try to tell him, but keeps writing poetry anyway, more power to him. Although you will still be living with a bad (or, if you prefer, a non-) poet, at least you will be living with a dedicated one who has started to respect the craft. But I predict that he’ll lose interest once he realizes that writing poetry is hard, skilled work, and that the poetry he has written so far is not likely to impress anybody he wants to impress.
I am more worried about whether his blighted hopes and bruised ego will, as you fear, put a strain on your relationship. But you have no choice except to steer him, however gently, in more-or-less the right direction, and then hope for the best. If his love for you is as crazy as yours for him, and if your hotness assessments are similar, this should be all the domestic poetry you need.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.