The advice column letter-writer who complains about SO’s weight: an unreliable narrator

I happen to believe it’s sane, not shallow, for you to balk at marriage (!) with someone you apparently don’t like as much as you used to.

I generally respect Carolyn Hax and the advice she gives. And in the end, I think she arrived at the right result, but the path she took to get there was questionable.

Here’s the original letter (judgy stuff about weight ahead, if you haven’t guessed):

My girlfriend of two years could stand to lose about 20 pounds, which would result in increased energy (as it is now she spends a lot of time sitting around playing iPhone games), more confidence (she says she doesn’t like the way her clothes fit her) and more attraction between us (I’m reluctant to admit it, but her added weight is a bit of a turnoff).

I suspect she’d have more energy and more confidence because I did when I lost about 60 pounds over the course of a few years. I’m guesstimating here, but I think she could’ve stood to lose about 10 pounds when we started but instead she’s added 10.

I’m not sure how to approach this because I don’t want to sound shallow, but I’m also concerned for her health, and we’re kind of at that stage of figuring out what’s next for us (i.e., marriage). But I’m not sure I want to be married to someone who puts on 10 pounds every two years and then sits around on her iPhone complaining her clothes make her look fat. Your thoughts?

The letter-writers to advice columns are real people, and in real life, everyone is an unreliable narrator. Carolyn Hax knows this. In general, she’s probably better than I am about keeping this in mind and questioning the picture the letter-writer gives her. But I think, on this topic, I’ve educated myself enough that I’m better at properly questioning the letter-writer’s story.

Hax doesn’t just take as gospel that the girlfriend in question basically does nothing but play games on her phone and complain about how her clothes fit–she seems to even go beyond what the letter-writer wrote and reduce the girlfriend’s daily activities to nothing but those two behaviors. I’m skeptical here because the LW (Letter-Writer) says he lost 60 lbs recently, he is interpreting his girlfriend’s experience by leaning heavily on his own experience, and he seems to be closely tracking his girlfriend’s weight. Everyone’s familiar with the phenomenon of someone who’s discovered something that helps them in their life, and now EVERYONE has to try it, right? (Perhaps the most frequently-used example is the alcoholic who is convinced that everyone around them has drinking problems.) I think in this case, there’s also “this is my new idea/cause/explanation for everything”. (Don’t get me wrong, we all have those; one of mine is ALLOPARENTS. My problem is not with the existence of hobbyhorses, as long as we stay aware of our biases; it’s with the particular one that he’s chosen.) If she’s complaining every day about how her clothes fit, sure, that’s a problem. Could his girlfriend have merely complained a few times about specific pieces of clothing, and he’s seized on that as proof that she’s unhappy because of her “excess weight”, because EVERYONE has to try the thing he’s done? I think it’s likely.

I think there is legitimately some snobbishness directed towards people who play games as their primary hobby, both in society in general and by Carolyn Hax in this column. “Rotting on a couch”? There’s some emotive language for you. It’s a video game habit, not a heroin addiction. Yeah, it’s probably not mentally healthy to do literally nothing but play games in your free time, and that would probably make for a boring romantic partner (even if they made an exception to the literally nothing for sex), but at the same time, I have trouble believing that she does literally nothing else, and indeed, the LW did not say that; he only said she spent “a lot of time” doing that. (How much is “a lot”? Is it “more than I personally would like”?) (Full disclosure: my husband’s primary hobby is video games, mostly MMORPGs. I also sometimes play video games, but I wouldn’t say they’re my primary hobby. That is actually not the thing I do that most makes me feel like an anti-intellectual slumming time-waster. The habit that most makes me feel that way, off the top of my head? Reading advice columns.)

Also, note this framing: “which would result in increased energy (as it is now she spends a lot of time sitting around playing iPhone games)”. He seems to be assuming that if she had increased energy, she would not want to spend as much time playing iPhone games–that she is only doing that because she lacks the energy to do something else that she would prefer to be doing. This seems like a questionable assumption to me.

If I’m right that LW’s problem is that EVERYONE has to try the thing he’s done, and that he can’t resist judging other people who he feels need to lose weight because it’s A Cause for him, I think that Carolyn Hax is wrong in thinking that his issue isn’t reallyhis girlfriend’s weight, and that he wouldn’t really care about her weight if she “met you at the door dressed to dance and led you by the wrist to a weeknight salsa-fest”. I think he’s inevitably going to be judgmental of anyone he thinks is overweight and is not at least trying to lose weight. So he’d be doing them both a favor if he breaks up with her.

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One Response to The advice column letter-writer who complains about SO’s weight: an unreliable narrator

  1. KellyK says:

    Totally. He’s in that honeymoon phase where weight loss is the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

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