Fat hatred abounds in advice columns

6th December 2007

Fat hatred abounds in advice columns

It seems fat-hating advice columnists are on a rampage this week. First Dan Savage, now Ask Margo.

If you, like me, had no clue who Ask Margo is, here’s a primer: Margo Howard is the daughter of Eppie Lederer, who wrote an advice column as Ann Landers for more than 40 years. Howard spent eight years writing the Dear Prudence column for the online magazine Slate. She now answers readers’ questions about life and love using her own name, Dear Margo, which appears on Yahoo news.

Today’s Ask Margo column is titled “When the Truth Hurts,” and the letter writer asks:

DEAR MARGO: I have a friend at work with whom I am relatively close. She regularly talks about how she can’t wait to get married and how her house will look and the kids she will have. The problem is that she is extremely overweight and does not take any care with her appearance. She comes to work with clothes that appear not to have been washed recently, no makeup, and sometimes her long hair is still wet. I am surprised she is still employed, but she is out of the public eye and does a good job.

Do I talk to her about her appearance and hygiene, or do I just keep my words to myself?

Appropriate answer, short and quick: “Keep your nosy mouth shut and your critical opinions to yourself unless asked.”

But since everyone knows those poor fat women are just delusional and in dire need of someone to constructively point out just how very fat they are, Margo recommends otherwise:

DEAR CON: This is one of the challenges of friendship: when to risk hurting someone so that she, or he, can confront what may be a blind spot in order to make a necessary change.

In the situation you describe, where the friendship is deeper than office cordiality, I would be inclined to have the difficult discussion — because without it, this girl has no hope of getting closer to the life she aspires to.

As gently and supportively as possible, tell her she is doing nothing to advance her goals and, in fact, is sending signals that say “I don’t care.” Suggest that she would have a better shot at gaining a loving partner if she were to deal with her weight and her presentational self, and look as though she wanted to be her best self. (You might wind up as her coach.)

If she is resistant to your suggestions, at least you’ll know you did what you could to be a helpful friend.

Helpful friend? Gee, I’ve had enemies who’ve done much the same sort of thing. If one of my so-called friends ever said such a thing to me, I’d be tempted to punch her in the face. (Ask Margo is not liable for any violence that occurs as the result of her ill-informed and very bad advice).

Oh, woe to the fat girl, who “has no hope” of achieving what surely every woman aspires to. If only she loses weight, pretties herself up and fixes her hair, then, of course, she too can have the female American dream of the perfect nuclear family.

The only weight CON’s friend ought to drop is her dead-weight, superficially smug and overbearing so-called “concerned friend.” And a true “loving partner” will love CON’s friend for who she is, not who she could be once she loses weight and puts on a mask of make-up.

At least there’s one advice columnist who seems to be genuinely trying. Check out Robin Abraham’s – a.k.a. the Boston Globe’s Miss Conduct – ingenuous call for how to address the issue of fat people who use public mass transit.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, December 6th, 2007 at 12:19 pm and is filed under Fat Bias, Feminist Topics, Pop Culture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

There are currently 37 responses to “Fat hatred abounds in advice columns”

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  1. 1 On December 6th, 2007, Kate Harding said:

    Helpful friend? Gee, I’ve had enemies who’ve done much the same sort of thing.


  2. 2 On December 6th, 2007, Michelle said:

    I love how toxic and unresolving these columnists’ solutions are.

    Out to terrorize the fat people like we don’t already know we are fat.

  3. 3 On December 6th, 2007, vesta44 said:

    Can we say Dear Margo is no Ann Landers? I read her column regularly, and her advice usually leaves a lot to be desired. She seems to be in favor of being a nosy busybody in your friends’ lives, because “it’s for their own good”. Give me a break, with friends like that, who needs enemies?

  4. 4 On December 6th, 2007, Shade said:

    I show up to teach classes with wet hair. I wear no make-up. And I am WAY fat.

    Of course, I’m also happily married and own a comfortable home in a great town. I’m respected at work by colleagues and students alike. I have friends that like me for who I am and a family that loves me.

    But, hey, I need to get cracking on conforming to the norm or nobody will love me.

    Margo can bite me.

  5. 5 On December 6th, 2007, Miss Conduct said:

    Hey, thanks for the link. I’m not sure what you mean by “ingenuous” however.

  6. 6 On December 6th, 2007, Cherielabombe said:

    Can you imagine having this judgemental busybody who is ‘surprised she is still employed’ being your ‘coach’???!? FFS!

  7. 7 On December 6th, 2007, Colleen said:

    There’s some saying about how the only people who will shit on your dreams are the people whose dreams never came true. The type of friend who would tell me to change everything about myself before even THINKING about attaining my dreams … is not a friend.

    I never had the “perfect wedding” fantasy growing up because I didn’t think I had the right to dream about such a thing. I never thought anyone would ever fall in love with me because I was fat. I realize now how fucking crazy that is.

  8. 8 On December 6th, 2007, Rachel said:

    Hey, thanks for the link. I’m not sure what you mean by “ingenuous” however.

    Hi Robin – I meant “ingenuous” in that your call seems sincere. I really appreciate that you’re trying to look for an answer to the problem, while keeping the dignity and rights of fat people in mind.

  9. 9 On December 6th, 2007, Tari said:

    Great post!

    “Attention fatties: in case you don’t already know, you can’t do anything with your lives and you will never be happy so long as you are fat. Better hope a ‘friend’ will play the Thin Fairy, and help your sorry ass shape up and get a makeover!”

    Lord knows no woman ever got married who wasn’t thin, perfectly coiffed, and well-dressed every day.

  10. 10 On December 6th, 2007, Dancinghawk said:

    I about fell out when I read this this morning, and if she had actually had a blog format, instead of an advice column, I may have sent her my opinion, particularly about a comment that you didn’t include above:

    (A question that’s long interested me is whether or not unattractive people know they are unattractive. From many conversations, I have come to the conclusion that they do. Let me know what you think.) End Quote.

    Now granted, Ms. Margo has come to the conclusion that ‘unattractive people’ do, in fact, know that they are unattractive. (Debate about what exactly constitutes ‘attractive’ or ‘unattractive’ in the first place not even broached here.)

    Ah, yeah. You know, because if years of being barked at every day going to school, being sexually harrassed and saying nothing for years because they were only joking around with the outcast girl, and still as an adult having total strangers ask me whether I haven’t considered serious and dangerous cranio-facial reconstructive surgury (this is probably a good point to note that I have a congenital facial deformity) — if all of that wasn’t enough to bring to my awareness that I don’t quite match the current Western standard of beauty, having a ‘concerned coworker’ point it out to me would really help. Years of watching Hollywood-unattractive people being desexualized and made the butt of jokes probably hasn’t had an effect either. And having a random stranger hand me a note in high school outlining step-by-step personal hygiene? Yeah, that gave me information I had never come across. Let’s ignore the fact that often people who are consistently ostricized experience periods of depression, because that would have no effect whatsoever on appearence, either.

    It took me years to get comfortable with who I am. I also don’t wear makeup unless I feel like it, and somehow still manage to present a professional appearance. If someone told me I had ‘no hope at achieving my dreams’ until I lost weight and went under the knife at risk to my life, I would laugh in their face.

    These things don’t usually make me this mad, but that ‘do unattractive people know it?’ comment Really. Pissed. Me. Off. (I guess it was a little triggering.)

  11. 11 On December 6th, 2007, RSRott said:

    “I am surprised she is still employed, but she is out of the public eye and does a good job.”

    Yes, that’s right ladies! The ONLY relevant criteria for you to have a job is if you LOOK GOOD (meaning, thin & wearing make-up). Never mind your quality of work! If you can’t look good, people will be surprised you are employed.

    I don’t know what’s pissing me off more here, the fat hatred or the woman hatred (from a woman!!). It’s just too depressing.

    Oh, and depending on one’s definition specifically of “extremely overweight” and how nitpicky they are about a person’s clothes, this rant could have been written about me. I arrive at work with my long hair wet every day and NEVER wear make-up. I simply refuse to believe that my work should be judged by anything other than the actual work itsself.

  12. 12 On December 6th, 2007, Rachel said:

    Dancinghawk – I only left out that snippet for brevity’s sake. I’m glad you pointed it out, though. I’m so relieved to know that Margo realizes us ugly and fat people know who we are. I just wish that the people who are ugly on the inside – like Margo – would have the same revelation.

    I also don’t wear make-up, or if I do, only a light non-animal-tested-on foundation to even out my skin tone. I take pride in my awesome hairstyle and nice wardrobe, but years ago I didn’t have the money for a good stylist or to buy nice, fashionable clothes (I often shopped at thrift stores). Whew, it’s a good thing my employer recognized that I was a hard worker because otherwise, I didn’t deserve to be employed!

  13. 13 On December 6th, 2007, Dancinghawk said:

    Yeah — I figured that you had a reason for leaving it out, it was just the part that made me the angriest. ;)

  14. 14 On December 6th, 2007, Dancinghawk said:

    Bit more — you know, I think it’s the tone that comment carries: that guiless, innocent, downright priveledged tone to the words: Gee wiz, do unattractive people -know- they’re ugly? How can we make our world a better place and more beautiful by bringing this to their attention? We’re doing them and the world a great boon by making sure they can’t get through life without constant reminders! There’s my act of charity for the day — telling someone they’re fat and ugly and ought to change!

    I’m not generally this bitter, I promise. :) The cynicism, however — that, I’m afraid is pretty much an ingrained personality trait.

  15. 15 On December 6th, 2007, Mary said:

    One thing that wasn’t included in the snippet above of the column–the writer mentioned that the woman’s clothes looked like they hadn’t seen a drycleaner or washing machine in weeks. It wasn’t that she was unfashionable, or not wearing makeup, or overweight, or had unstyled hair–it was the whole combination of things, including her wearing dirty clothes to work. And like it or not, some offices are high profile places with high profile (and yes, perhaps sometimes shallow) clients. Who knows? Maybe the writer could be surprised that her office friend still works there because it’s a chic advertising agency where image is of the utmost importance? I’m just saying…

    It never hurts to have an open mind, especially if that’s what you ask of others regarding yourself.

  16. 16 On December 6th, 2007, Colleen said:

    RE: “A question that’s long interested me is whether or not unattractive people know they are unattractive.”

    I’d argue that most women feel that they’re unattractive in some way. You could ask even the most traditionally attractive woman what she hates about herself and she’d give you a ten page list.

    And this Margo woman isn’t helping matters any.

  17. 17 On December 6th, 2007, Rachel said:

    Actually, that snippet was included.

    Mary – Perhaps, yet the letter-writer also acknowledges that the woman is out of public view. And, of course, this is all relative to the apparently biased views of the letter-writer. If the woman’s appearance posed a significant problem at work, chances are, an employer would address it, not some nosy busybody who professes to be a friend.

  18. 18 On December 6th, 2007, lilacsigil said:

    *takes off glasses and swishes hair out of bun*

    OMG I’m beautiful! And I never realised!

  19. 19 On December 6th, 2007, Mary said:

    Oh, sorry! I must have misread. But how odd. I’m an overweight person, myself, and I took this letter to Margo as asking how best to approach a delicate topic. So what if the reader wasn’t PC? She may be a blundering idiot, but that doesn’t make her sizeist. It makes her a person who wants to help. Otherwise, she would have gone to lunch with the other ladies in the office and made jokes about the woman she was writing in about.

    It seems to me that the message on this blog to people who aren’t overweight is “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

    To get so worked up over a story in an advice column (an edited letter that tells one point of view) and assume that the writer is a fatist busybody who wants to make someone feel bad is ridiculous, and seems quite the opposite to me. I’m not saying that she asked with sensitivity or that Margo’s reply wasn’t somehow lacking, but if people get crucified for trying to help or understand or see the point of view of the overweight person, then eventually, people are going to stop trying and the whole process will be back at the starting gates.

  20. 20 On December 6th, 2007, Rachel said:

    Mary – I understand your empathy. I do think the letter-writer had the best intentions of her friend at heart. I don’t think she meant for her friend to feel bad, either. But I do think she’s generally insensitive and sizeist, even if unconsiously so, and so is Margo.

    The thing is, the woman wasn’t trying to see things from the fat woman’s perspective. She wanted to impose her narrow views and advice on her. Fat women receive this kind of “constructive” criticism often, and I think we really need to educate others that it’s neither welcome nor constructive.

  21. 21 On December 6th, 2007, Mary said:

    Rachel, Ah! Fair enough! It’s true that it’s hard to step out of the zone and picture the world through someone else’s eyes…. I’ve just proven, in fact, that I suffer from that problem, too ;)

    Well bravo, then, and carry on! (I’m enjoying the site.)

  22. 22 On December 6th, 2007, Miss Conduct said:

    Oh, well thank you! I’m interested in seeing how it all plays out.

    Speaking as an advice columnist, I think Margo was uncharacteristically “off” in that line about “Do unattractive people know they are”? I usually like her but that seemed really out there. And Dan Savage … he knocks it out of the park 9 times out of 10, and then really blows it, as far as I’m concerned. Which makes him an entertaining read (probably more so than someone I’d always agree with) but I’d never trust him with a situation in which I felt vulnerable. You can tell a lot of his readers feel that way, too–note how many “You’re going to yell at me for this” or “I try to be like you say, but …” comments he gets in his questions.

  23. 23 On December 6th, 2007, Laurie said:

    Well, thank goodness I read this because I had no idea that wet hair was so unattractive. And wait, wasn’t this kind friend going to speak to her about her hygiene? Since the woman has obviously showered and washed her hair, I guess it isn’t all about hygiene? It is just the fat she needs a good talking to about. ‘Cos we all know that there are no married, happy fat people with families. Nope. Never happens.

  24. 24 On December 7th, 2007, Jill said:

    I’m concerned about the dirty clothes thing. Many years ago when I was working retail, a boss took me into a private room and respectfully and straightforwardly told me that the company was getting complaints from customers and from my coworkers because I smelled bad, something I had no idea about. When I started wearing clothes only once before washing them, the problem went away. I grew up in a neglectful family and didn’t learn a lot of things most people consider normal, and this, while painful, was incredibly valuable to me.

    I still don’t wear makeup, and I often go out with wet hair, and I’m fat, and I think the advice in the column was appalling. My talk with my boss many years ago was helpful because she was _not_ a busybody; there was a real problem that was interfering with my work and that I didn’t know about. Also, she was the boss, and addressing this was actually part of her job, which would not be true in the case of the advice column.

    Oh, and speaking of painful, I went to a therapist to get help for periodic collapses into despair and have been finding out just how not-normal my upbringing was. So yes, I am getting help.

  25. 25 On December 8th, 2007, Rachel said:

    FYI, I just got a reply from Ask Margo. Frankly, I’m a bit shocked that she would reply; Ask Amy has YET to reply to any of my comments on her advice. Here’s Margo’s reply:

    I’m sorry for first “Margo” was a disappointment. I was not so much dealing with the weight problem as the whole presentation. I have already heard from many overwight women — one called herself obese — who have marvelous husbands … but they all said they take pains with their hair, clothes, etc., and also have “attitude,” in the good way. I happened to think the woman who was being written about was simply a slob.

    What do you all think?

  26. 26 On December 8th, 2007, Meowser said:

    Like Jill, the only thing I can really think of that Miss Nosypants named that might actually be a possible roadblock to finding a mate is running around with dirty clothes all the time. That’s not to say you need to get dolled up and wear mascara to 7-11 when you run in there for a newspaper, or any of that other women’s magazine BS, but it’s possible that if you wear always wear stuff that’s stained, ripped, odorific, etc., it could be a turnoff to someone who’s otherwise pretty cool. (Or not, of course, depending on the guy; some don’t care.) And of all the things she named, that’s the easiest thing to fix, even on a thrift-store budget (hell, I’ve found some of my favorite hats for $1 or less at yard sales). It could also be a marker for depression, if it’s a chronic issue.

    But mostly, what jumps out at me is, “Did this woman ask you, La Nosypants, to give her feedback on what might be a possible turnoff to men? Does she emit offending odors into the office air? It sure doesn’t look that way to me from what you wrote.” And for Margo to say that “she has no chance” of meeting anyone unless she slims down and finds a Professor Higgins to coach her on being a lady is just a giant sack of Bandini. Wet hair and fat ass, oh, the horrah! How does any woman ever manage to get laid or find a partner, not being perfect enough?

  27. 27 On December 8th, 2007, Meowser said:

    Sorry, Rachel, our posts crossed. Good to see that she maybe had second thoughts about the weight issue, but the fact remains that unless this woman asked for feedback, or unless the way she smells is truly a distraction to coworkers (she’s not meeting the public in her job), Miss Nosypants needs to (as Margo’s mom was fond of saying) MYOB.

  28. 28 On December 8th, 2007, Charlotte said:

    Screw conformity…I like being my fat self.

  29. 29 On December 9th, 2007, Darcy Pennell said:

    I like Margo Howard, I’ve been reading her column since she was at Slate. (and she’s a thousand times better than her replacement there.) I think her advice is limited by a somewhat conventional worldview, but she is basically open minded. For instance she recently ran a letter from a polyamorist, and her response never got past “that’s weird.” But then she got critical feedback on that letter and she posted a sincere correction.

    That conventional point of view seems like the source of the assumption that anyone who is fat, doesn’t wear makeup, wears rumpled clothes or doesn’t use a hairdryer must be a loser slob who will never find romance. Of course the part about weight is the most problematic because unlike the other factors, it can’t be changed. The “Miss Nosypants” letter writer didn’t say whether she thinks the woman’s clothes are unwashed because they smell, have food stains or etc., or if they’re just a bit rumpled and she’s assuming the worst. I’m inclined to think the latter, since we’re dealing with someone who thinks not wearing makeup is a sign of a hopeless loser. I have never worn makeup and have had no trouble finding romance. And (gasp) I don’t even use a hairdryer!

    On the other hand, I don’t agree with Howard’s assumptions but I give credit to her for responding to you politely and with class. She could have sent an army of trolls after you. (hypothetically speaking, of course!)

    ps: Hi, Rachel, I found your blog because of the Dan Savage kerfuffle and I’m really enjoying reading your back entries. Thanks for providing this thoughtful and thought-provoking space.

  30. 30 On December 9th, 2007, Mary said:

    (The usual Mary) Hi other Mary!

    I sort of doubt that someone who showers daily puts on soiled clothes afterward. Perhaps she just can’t iron without putting more wrinkles in, like yours truly. I’m a social worker and can wear clothes that don’t need to be ironed, but most corporate workers would have an issue. So the clothes thing in terms of work appropriateness – legit.

    But that is NOT what either Margo or the asker were talking about. They were focused on her “unattractiveness” and the asker was wanting to tell her that she will never get married and have children if she is “unattractive.” Meaning, mostly, fat. Because if the writer were really focused on clothes, makeup and hair she wouldn’t have mentioned weight, would she?

  31. 31 On December 9th, 2007, Callista said:

    I don’t know… the clothing and hair are easily fixed; and women give each other fashion advice all the time. The fatness? Yeah, that’s overstepping it. But other advice–like finding permanent press clothing that you don’t need to iron; or washing your hair at night; or make-up tips… that stuff isn’t offensive.

    The reason I say that is that I got some of that kind of advice from other girls myself; and it helped without hurting. On the other hand, the “lose weight” advice… well, let’s just say I wasn’t very encouraged when that came up. I had a lot more help from a fat friend who showed me how to find clothes that fit.

  32. 32 On February 29th, 2008, Heather said:

    While I see your point on the weight issue, it seems extraordinarily clear to me that the main concern here is NOT the weight but the general disregard for hygiene. My best friend’s sister is quite overweight yet is a complete knock-out – she has a fantastic fashion sense and an uncanny knack for make-up. (Not that she NEEDS make-up-she’s just one of those women that have a passion for it and treats it somewhat like art.) She is much better looking than almost every “skinny” girl I know.

    I imagine that if the woman in question became better at presenting herself, the woman that wrote in would not even consider woman #1 to be “extremely overweight” – not to mention this woman would have a much easier time achieving her goal.

    To attack Margo for her response seems a bit self-aggrandizing on your part. “Slob” does not mean “fat”. The two are NOT mutually interchangeable and I think if my friend’s sister were to read this, she would be quite offended.

  33. 33 On February 29th, 2008, Rachel said:

    “Slob” does not mean “fat”.

    Exactly. Which is why I took Margo to task for her conflation of the woman’s “weight and presentational self.”

  34. 34 On April 22nd, 2008, Kim Buelow said:

    The issue here that she is tackling is not really the weight but the unprofessional part of her appearance. I am overweight but when I go to work I am put together and I expect others to be put together too. So what is wrong with what Margo said?

  35. 35 On April 22nd, 2008, Rachel said:

    Kim – If the issue were solely about her appearance, why the need for the letter writer to mention her weight at all? Why did Margo feel the need to lecture about the woman’s weight? Why did Margo assume the woman would never land a man until she lost weight? It’s because we conflate overweight with not taking care of oneself. This is wrong and needs to stop.

  36. 36 On May 1st, 2008, The Nature of Prejudice and Discrimination (And Why Comparisons Between Forms of Discrimination Can Make Sense) « Queendom said:

    [...] comparisons between different forms of discrimination recently at Shapely Prose, Fatly Yours and The F-Word and some of the arguments seem to be based on the notion that sizeism is just not bad enough in [...]

  37. 37 On September 3rd, 2010, Feel Good Friday » said:

    [...] seen among the sundry list of gripes and complaints seen by advice columnists and few columnists get it right with their responses.  The Washington Post’s Carolyn Hax has always been a moderate voice of [...]

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