Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at email@example.com.)
Readers! Ask me your questions on the voicemail of the Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.
Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, everybody! Let’s get to chatting.
Q. I got an insensitive tattoo in a prominent area a long time ago: I am a white person who grew up without any faith and started practicing Buddhism during college. I attended a temple, studied the history, and genuinely followed it for 13 years. During that time I got a large om symbol tattooed on my hand, which admittedly was a fad. While Buddhism is still extremely near to my heart, I kind of let it go after having to move to an area with no temples. And as the conversation about cultural appropriation has developed, I’ve been feeling deep tattoo regret.
I’ve seen a few tattoo artists who have turned me away because any cover-up will likely only turn into a giant blob. I also sought laser removal but was told the color and placement of the tattoo will render treatment ineffective. Recently, an Asian friend of mine asked me to cover the tattoo around her family because it really bothers them. I feel like a total jerk. I’ve gotten several annoyed stares and I’m not sure how to make things right.
Appropriation was just something I was not aware of a decade ago when I got this tattoo. I try to keep it covered with sleeves or gloves, but I need a better long-term solution. What do you think is the best path here?
A: Since there are a lot of people with tattoos they now regret who can’t afford (or aren’t good candidates for) laser removal, there are a number of tattoo-specific concealers and foundations on the market that are waterproof, easy to apply, and relatively inexpensive—and a lot easier to put on every day than gloves. The newfound self-awareness and discomfort you’re experiencing now have spurred you to want to act differently and be more mindful of other people’s experiences, which is a good thing. Moreover, you’re aware that your own personal connection to Buddhism is not the same thing as this particular tattoo, and that covering up the latter doesn’t mean eradicating the former.
Q. 26-year-old virgin: I am a 26-year-old woman who is college-educated and makes a decent salary. I have a somewhat healthy social life, although, I wish I went out more on the weekends. I’m also the friend giving out advice on dating and men, but I’ve never been on a date, nor have I kissed a guy (I don’t count kissing boys when I was a kid). Most importantly, I’ve never had sex.
These facts didn’t bother me when I was in college, but now that I see more women my age and even some of my former high school and college classmates getting married, I feel uneasy. I was admittedly shy around guys I liked and really insecure back then. I was raised by an abusive family who convinced me I was unlovable, so I avoided men out of fear of rejection. I am more confident and secure with myself now. My problem is, I don’t know how to put myself out there. I feel all of the men in my age range are so experienced in dating that they’d be less interested in dating the “26-year-old virgin.”
A: I wish so much that I could put all of the people who write to me about feeling self-conscious about their virginity in their 20s, 30s, and beyond in touch with one another—not necessarily as a dating service, but at least so everyone could feel less alone. There’s a reason the old chestnut “don’t compare your insides to everyone else’s outsides,” while hoary, is true—not every guy in his 20s is a wildly confident, profoundly sexually experienced dating champion. Many guys in their 20s are also virgins. Many guys in their 20s have also never been on a date. Many guys in their 20s who have had sex/been on dates are not necessarily thrown by the prospect of going out with someone who hasn’t.
Your best bet, I think, is to be as honest as is comfortable about where you’re coming from, and to look specifically for the kind of guy who is interested in going out with you, with your particular history. That doesn’t mean you have to open first dates with a laminated sexual résumé—you’re not required to furnish a list of references to a prospective new partner, whether you’ve had a lot of romantic experience or none.
The best way to “put yourself out there” is to, I’m afraid, simply put yourself out there, and that’s going to entail a new sort of risk, whether that’s signing up for online dating, asking men out, going to singles events, or asking friends to set you up with prospective guys. Some guys will be interested; some won’t. You might go on a great date with someone and not hear from him again. You might go on a terrible date with someone who thought you had a great time and wants to go out again. That’s common to almost everyone who dates, so please don’t ascribe any discomfort or boredom or lack of mutual interest to your sexual status—it’s just part of the game. If a guy seems turned off by the fact that you’re a virgin, although it won’t feel good, it’s in fact a very good thing—you’ve just avoided getting involved with someone who wasn’t right for you. Don’t feel that you have to apologize for not having had sex before, and good luck! Dating is weird, and tricky, and sometimes really, really fun.
Q. Update—Dolls: I read your advice and a lot of your readers’ comments. Some of them were really hurtful and some helped me put my feelings in perspective. I had already sorted and given away everything I didn’t want before I left for college across the state. Other than my bed and a rocking chair, everything else—including my dolls—had been packed into 12 boxes and left in a corner of our basement. I wasn’t taking up a lot of room, I was never given a deadline, and I never thought my mother would steal from me or I would not have left my things there. I graduated in May and got my job and new apartment in September.
I am not going to take my mother to court or try to get the dolls back. I did, however, try to talk to my mother again. I told her how much those dolls meant to me and how much it upset me that she gave them away. She dismissed me again. I realized this wasn’t about the dolls—it was about my mother minimizing and interfering with my relationships. Everything is zero sum with her; if I give affection to my grandmother and father, then that is less for her. She’d rather keep up a competition with a dead woman in order to “win,” and in doing so, she lost me. I am not staying with her for Christmas. I have already volunteered to work the holidays and will be spending New Year’s with my father and his new girlfriend. I don’t know what I am going to do in the future, but right now, I need time and space away from my mother. You and your readers helped me in the end. Please thank them for me.
A: I’m so glad you found the feedback helpful, and I’m particularly glad you were able to figure out that there’s more behind your feelings about your mother than just the dolls. It sounds like the history between the two of you is fairly fraught, and it’s going to take some time for you to determine how much space you need from her. Congratulations on making Christmas plans that don’t involve being run through an emotional wringer—I hope you have a great time working and seeing your father, and that your future relationship with your mother will be one full of robustly maintained emotional boundaries.
Q. Do I give it back?: I discovered my boyfriend sleeping with my best friend/roommate. There was plenty of drama; she moved out, and I tried to pick up the pieces of my life. During the move, some of her expensive jewelry went missing. I was out of town at the time and she texted me asking me if I had seen it. I told her I hadn’t, and she insinuated I stole it. I was furious and shared the texts with our group of friends; it devolved into a mess where she got cut out completely. Even my ex-boyfriend came down on my side. This happened a year ago. Then, while getting a new fridge, I discovered some of the missing jewelry and a lot of junk. My cat had batted them off the table and under the fridge.
I feel awful, but I really don’t want to contact her again at all. I lost 15 pounds from stress during that time. I do not want to bring it up again or validate her delusions. I didn’t steal anything from her. What is the right thing to do? Donate it? Treat myself to a spa day? Mail it to a relative of hers from a different state and disguise my handwriting? Leave it in a drawer?
A: The right thing to do is to give her back her jewelry. You don’t have to talk to her, and you don’t have to listen if she doesn’t believe that the cat knocked it behind the fridge, but you’ll feel enormously better about yourself if you don’t carry out the crime she once wrongly accused you of committing. Mail it to her with a brief note about finding it behind the fridge and be done with it. You don’t have to speak to her if she wants to reopen the conversation.
Q. Re: I got an insensitive tattoo in a prominent area a long time ago: I don’t think the letter writer should cover the tattoo. He or she got the tattoo during an important exploration of their spirituality, and while Buddhism did not end up as their spiritual path, they still consider it meaningful. This is not cultural appropriation, and any member of any religion should understand this kind of explanation.
A: There are a number of responses along this line, but it’s important to remember that the letter writer wants to cover the tattoo. Saying, “This isn’t cultural appropriation, and you should feel fine about it” when the letter writer does, in fact, consider this tattoo to have been a faddish sign of cultural appropriation suggests that this idea is somehow coming from the friend who had asked him or her to cover it up. It seems clear to me, from the letter writer’s letter, that while the request has highlighted some of their own feelings about that tattoo, that they had for a long time come to think of the tattoo as faddish and misguided, and to wish they had not gotten it in the first place.
Q. Re: 26-year-old virgin: This could have been me, down to the abusive family—and add 10 years. Now I’m in a stable, very sexually satisfying relationship. I realized I have to make myself happy. I let my family history and my insecurities get the better of me, and I realized that everyone is messed up in their own way. Putting yourself out there is step one. It may also help to talk to your gynecologist; she may have some suggestions on how to make things easier physically. By the time I lost mine, I was so terrified of the physical aspect I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy it. And you don’t have to share your lack of history if you don’t want to.
A: I’m so glad to hear that you’re happy and healthy and doing well. For what it’s worth, while I think the letter writer’s anxieties about trying to seek out sexual/romantic relationships are completely understandable, I think it’s also helpful to remember that “losing” one’s virginity is a fairly arbitrary social construct. There are a lot of different ways to have sex. One doesn’t “lose” something after having sex for the first time any more than one “loses” something after roller-skating for the first time. That’s not to directly compare sex to roller-skating, obviously, but I think it’s better to frame your desire as “I’d like to start having sex” rather than “I’d like to lose my virginity.”
Q. My horrendous college roommate (and bully) is the mother of my child’s new best friend: I recently discovered that my 6-year-old daughter “Hannah” has a new best friend who is the daughter of my college freshman roommate “Lillian.” Lillian was exceedingly unkind to me when we lived together. She made fun of my weight, my lack of friends, my awkwardness. She and her friends would help themselves to my laundry detergent and food. My few attempts to address Lillian’s behavior and how much it upset me ended in tears (and Lillian telling me we were in college now so I should grow up). I still have difficulty talking about Lillian, to my husband or my counselor, because I’m ashamed that as an adult I allowed myself to be treated that way.
Hannah adores Lillian’s daughter Skyler, and until I met Skyler’s mom in person, I was thrilled that my daughter had made a new friend. Since I’ve lost weight and go by my married name, Lillian didn’t recognize me (or has chosen to pretend she doesn’t recognize me). She’s eager to arrange a play date (and possibly a sleepover) over Christmas break, and the very idea makes me want to vomit. I don’t feel comfortable allowing my daughter around Lillian until I’ve assured myself she isn’t still as cruel as she was in college (about 18 years ago). My husband supports whatever makes me feel comfortable, but in the end, I want what’s best for Hannah. How do I bring this up with Lillian—or am I being immature for wanting this assurance at all?
A: You’re not immature for not wanting to spend time with a woman who bullied you for your size and your emotional vulnerability, nor are you immature for feeling anxious at the thought of letting your little girl spend time with her.
First and foremost, I think you should speak more to your husband and counselor about your feelings, despite the obvious judgment you’ve been passing on yourself for “allowing” yourself to be bullied. I know it’s not as simple as to say “just don’t be ashamed of the thing you’re ashamed about,” but you should not fault yourself for Lillian’s behavior. You repeatedly attempted to tell her how her cruelty affected you and were dismissed every time. The fact that she is now pretending not to remember someone she lived with for a year is evidence that she has neither grown nor changed from the bully she was in college.
It would be sad, of course, if you said something to Lillian now and as a result your daughters did not get to spend as much time together. But how much worse would it be if Lillian focused her cruel barbs on your daughter? I think it’s worth speaking to her about it, although I think you should discuss with your husband and therapist first what exactly you’d like to say, and what you think you’ll do if Lillian declines to apologize (which seems likely). I’d suggest something like: “Lillian, when we were roommates in college you bullied me for my weight, my loneliness, and my emotional vulnerability, and it hurt me deeply. I tried to ask you to stop repeatedly, and you didn’t. Obviously I’m concerned at the thought of letting my daughter stay at your house. I don’t want to relitigate the past, but I don’t want you to treat her the way you treated me.”
Q. Crush: When I was 14, I babysat my brothers and our neighbors’ son “Danny.” Danny was going through a very hard time and basically lived with us for about a year, before moving in with his grandmother. I ended up going to college at 16 and moved across state. Danny has stayed close to my brothers and I saw him sometimes over the years. Now I am 30, have a great job, and own a house. Danny, who is now 23, moved to my city and recently came over to help me with some home repairs. Sparks flew: He is cute, charming, and funny. After the repairs were finished, he made me dinner. Then Danny confessed to me that he has always had a crush on me and still does. He wants to take me out. Seven years isn’t that big of an age gap. My dad is 14 years older than my mother. I am very tempted by this, but I am weirded out by the semifamilial dynamics. I also really disliked it back in college when I saw creepy older guys trolling for barely legal girls. I would never want to be like that. Can I get a blessing or back-off here? I don’t trust my own motivations.
A: I answered a similar question (with a few meaningful differences in terms of age) a week or so back, but I’m going to give you different advice. You say you’re anxious at the prospect of seeing yourself like these “creepy older guys,” but Danny is 23, not “barely legal,” and it’s been well over a decade since he lived with your family. In the time since, he’s grown up completely independent of you. The two of you have been reintroduced to each other as adults, and that meeting rekindled a childhood crush of his. Presumably, when he says he’s always had a crush on you, he doesn’t mean he’s been single-mindedly pining and refused to date people his own age, simply that he had a youthful infatuation that’s been reawakened by this second meeting. So there doesn’t seem to me to be an obvious imbalance of power, or that you’re contemplating going out with someone scarcely on the cusp of young adulthood. That doesn’t mean you should go full steam ahead if you feel anxious or uncomfortable, however—it’s important to pay attention to your concerns.
Spend some time thinking about the possible outcomes. What if you two date and it doesn’t work out? Are you more interested in preserving the friendship, or does the risk seem worth it? Could you find a way to maintain a friendly relationship after a breakup, given that your respective families are fairly close? Does Danny seem like a relatively well-adjusted adult with a dating history that includes people who aren’t you? Be honest about what you’re anxious about, but don’t feel like there’s something inherently predatory about your position. Danny lived with your family for a year as a child, then moved on—you didn’t raise him. He’s a 23-year-old adult who asked you out on a date.
Q. Re: My horrendous college roommate (and bully) is the mother of my child’s new best friend: Do not engage Lillian directly. She was a horrible person back then, and her current behavior is strong evidence that nothing has changed. There is no reason in the world to trust her with your child. Seriously. Never leave your child unsupervised with her. The good news is that 6-year-olds change best friends like the rest of us change socks. You don’t need to encourage or discourage anything. (Discouraging will just make Skyler that much more desirable as a playmate.) Just let the friendship run its course. But trust your gut on Lillian.
A: Here’s an alternative option if you don’t want to speak with Lillian directly (which would, frankly, make a lot of sense, given her past responses to your attempts to speak with her). There’s nothing wrong with saying, “Sorry, we’ve got plans over the break” and declining to let your daughter spend the night at her house without going into detail over your past history.