Carolyn Hax: When body image conflicts with family peace

Carolyn Hax
Columnist August 2, 2013

Dear Carolyn:

My husband and I are family therapists and are the people others come to for advice — but we are stumped.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

We bought a houseboat so we could build family ties and memories with our adult children and grandchildren. Sounds great, right? Maybe not so much.

My husband’s 45-year-old stepdaughter, “Sherri,” is a bodybuilder, and her major source of identity is her body image. She shows up each time on our boat wearing a string bikini so skimpy that the fabric barely (pun intended) covers essentials. She is generously endowed. She also melts herself on her hubby’s lap throughout the weekend and makes a vulgar display of affection in front of us and her teenage kids.

We did not express our revulsion at the time because her kids were there, eyes glued to their parents’ activity.


(Nick Galifianakis/The Washington Post)

Dreading a repeat, my husband called Sherri, told her we loved her and looked forward to her upcoming visit and requested she wear a cover-up over her bikini because we were uncomfortable with so much body exposure.

An hour later, Sherri’s husband phoned to say my husband had no right to tell his 45-year-old daughter how to dress, and they would not be coming (leaving us with hundreds of dollars of perishable food we had bought for them).

How do we address appropriate attire on our boat? Do we have the right to a “no bikini” dress code? What would be a reasonable reaction from us in this “flaunt it all” society we live in?

Not a Fashion Policewoman

No, you don’t have a right to “tell his . . . daughter how to dress,” but you do have a right to ask someone to cover up in your presence and in your home when you’re uncomfortable. So the “how do we address . . .” answer is just as you handled it: The closest one to Sherri (your husband) uses kind words to express discomfort (vs. pass judgment) privately (vs. in front of her kids).

The alternative answer was to decide you’d rather be uncomfortable than risk offense. Also valid.

The corollary to both is that you have to live with the consequences of your choice. While a mature person would have apologized for being the source of any discomfort, felt stung, agreed nevertheless to wear a cover-up, hung up and then done any ranting about you in confidence to her spouse, a mature person also doesn’t mistake drink coasters for weekend-with-family-wear and openly make out when sharing close quarters with said family.

So if you made a mistake, it was in failing to anticipate that Sherri wasn’t equipped to write this off as a skin-deep (pun intended) difference of sartorial opinion. Everything in your brief (p.i.) description of her says she was going to see this as a challenge to her apparently fragile sense of self. Not that you should or could have preempted this reaction, just accounted for it in choosing your approach.

Don’t compound that error now by blaming “this ‘flaunt it all’ society.” Your question isn’t about cultural norms or nautical dress codes — it’s about remaining close with someone when you’re not comfortable with the price she expects you to pay for that. The answer: Decide on your boundary and nurture the relationship within it — to the extent Sherri now permits.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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