Miss Conduct

Mommie dreariest

Dealing with a parent who derides her daughter's weight, plus what to say when you forget a face.

By Robin Abrahams
March 20, 2011

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My mother constantly makes snide comments about my sister’s weight behind her back. I’ve repeatedly asked her to stop, but she hasn’t, nor does she acknowledge that what she’s doing is wrong. My sister, who is only 12, doesn’t know about the comments, but I can imagine how distressed she would be if she found out. How can I make my mother understand how hurtful she’s being?

H.H. / Boston

Chances are, you can’t make her realize the harm her words can cause, at least not today, or this month. We can’t control the behavior or awareness of others. However, you can politely refuse to participate in the conversation (“Mom, you know I’d rather not hear about it; let’s talk about our vacation plans instead” or “If we’re going to bad-mouth Sis, let’s talk about something more interesting than her weight”). You can also model intuitive eating and exercise for your sister, and provide her with an alternate perspective on health and attractiveness. Don’t do it in a preachy way – the last thing you want is for your sister’s body to become a battleground between you and your mother. But this is one of the rare instances where being a good example can really make a difference. If you love your own body, feed and care for it well, and refrain from body-snarking about anyone else, your sister will pick up that message.

Maybe your mother will even get with the program. You can always hope. Your sister will still face the same body-hating message from the media, though, and perhaps her peers. So a good sister like you will always be important.
My teenage son has problems with facial recognition. If people are the same race or have similar coloring, then he may get them confused. I worry about him being called racist, but he does this to all people. He does recognize people whom he deals with on a regular basis but not those he’s only dealt with a few times or briefly. Any advice on what to say to people when he can’t remember them?

C.H. / Andover

It sounds as though your son has a condition called “prosopagnosia” (pronounced with the same rhythm as “Sugar Magnolia”), which is the clinical term for face blindness. And wouldn’t you know, Harvard University has one of the major research centers in the world on prosopagnosia. If you go to their website at, you and your son can find all kinds of useful information, including a wallet card that can be given to people who are curious to learn more on a day your son doesn’t feel like going into an Oliver Sacks-like level of detail.

The occasional awkward moments caused by clinical face blindness aren’t fundamentally different from the same moments that we all experience when we can’t place someone. Face blind or no, the mannerly but forgetful handle the situation in the same way – with a laugh, a brief apology or compliment, and a quick return to the topic at hand. (“I’m so sorry, I have an awful time recalling faces! It’s nothing personal. I remember our conversation, and I was supposed to give you these permission forms, wasn’t I?”)

I find it interesting that you say you worry about your son being called a racist rather than worrying about him accidentally hurting someone’s feelings. White people are gut-dissolvingly terrified of being called racist, as though people of color were lurking in all corners waiting to pounce on the most innocent misstep. But that isn’t how it works. If your son treats every person with warm respect, he needn’t fear being accused of racism.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology.

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