Q: I’m a 33-year-old woman, and I’ve always been thin. I lost about 12 pounds after a tough breakup. I’m working on getting back to a healthier weight. However, people keep making cutting remarks about how thin I look. Yesterday a friend said, “You’re so skinny it’s gross!” I’d noticed that she’d gained quite a bit of weight, but I didn’t say anything … because that would be rude! She made other digs about my weight, and upon hugging me goodbye, she said, “Eww, is that your shoulder bone?!” What’s with this double standard? There’d be hell to pay if I said the slightest thing about anyone’s weight gain.—Tempted To Lash Back
A: It is more taboo than ever to make cracks about a woman’s weight—that is, unless she doesn’t have a whole lot of it. Then it’s open season: “Wow, what happened to you? Forget where the supermarket is?”
However, it probably isn’t “people” but “people who are female” who are thin-shaming you. Welcome to female intrasexual competition—competition between women—which is covert and sneaky (and thus poisonous) in a way that male-on-male competition is not. Men, who evolved to be the warriors and protectors of the species, tend to be openly aggressive. A guy will give another guy a beat-down or publicly dis him: “Yeah, bro, sure you can get a chick to go home with you—if you’ve got five grand for a sex robot.”
Psychologist Tracy Vaillancourt explains that women seem to have evolved to avoid physical confrontations; instead, they engage in “indirect aggression” to “reduce the mate value of a rival,” like by “disparaging the competitor’s appearance … or using derisive body and facial gestures to make the rival feel badly about herself and thus less willing to compete.”
The tricky thing about these indirect attacks is the plausible deniability they confer. Call a woman out for thin-shaming you and she’s likely to duck behind, “I’m just worried about your health!” So instead, simply tell her that remarks about your weight hurt your feelings. Speaking up like this says that you aren’t likely to let any future digs slide, yet you remain on moral high ground—instead of giving back in kind: “Wow, looks like you’ve been exercising a lot. Do you do the backstroke in frosting?”
Q: I’m a married gay man, and I hate my in-laws. They were disgustingly abusive to my husband when he was a child. They’re in failing health now, and it’s important to him to visit them a couple of times a year. How do I get through these mandatory trips?—Dreading It
A: It’s probably tempting to buy his family the sort of classic furniture you think they deserve. Unfortunately, they only ship that model of chair to prisons with a death row.
There is actually opportunity within this biannual awfulness that you two have to go through. In the movies, people show their love through grand gestures: “We’ll always have Paris!” In real life, according to psychologist John Gottman’s research, the strongest, happiest relationships are made up of constant mundane little loving interactions: “You were so sweet to me in Costco.”
Gottman finds that the key determinant in whether a relationship succeeds or fails is the ability to trust one’s partner. This means not just trusting that they won’t cheat, but trusting that they’ll continually make you and your needs a priority, on a moment-by-moment basis. So, though you can’t undo the past, when you’re on one of these visits, you can shift your focus from hating your in-laws to showing your love for your husband. Listen. Tell him, “I know this is really hard for you.” Hug him. Rub his feet. Once you’re out of the inlaw inferno, you might discuss trying to make a habit of this sort of thing—really being present for each other in the numerous “unimportant” moments of life.
This will keep you from being one of those couples frantically trying to plug gaping holes in their relationship with extravagant gestures. Typically, these are ultimately futile—too little, too late—and tend to not come off as planned. For example, if you’re having 150 doves released over you as you renew your vows, you’d better see that they’re all wearing tiny gold lamé diapers.