Welcome to Friendzone, Jezebel's column devoted to dealing with the valuable people in your life who you're not humping. Got an issue and looking for guidance? Email email@example.com.
I mentor a bunch of very awesome high school-aged girls. They're smart, geeky, and very fun. Out of the pool of mentors, I'm one of two who are not parent-aged (or at least not old enough to be/act like a mother-figure). I've fallen into the "cool big sister" role, and I love it. Sometimes, the girls will talk about their own bodies in negative way. I'm worried saying, "You're beautiful the way you are!" or "Being awesome is much more important than what size you wear" will sound like a platitude. Everything these girls know about feminism comes from Tumblr (in a positive, but limited way.) I'm worried about preaching and making too big a deal out of a few comments. What's the right response to negative body-talk around girls who look up to you?
I'm still learning about this myself, so I hit up the mischievous scamps who follow me on Twitter and Facebook for some answers (these are also good places to send Friendzone questions if you don't mind the public aspect of it). The following advice combines their most popular suggestions with my own, and I thank them for their help.
In another life, I taught high school through AmeriCorps and got a masters degree in secondary school teaching from Teachers College at Columbia. And (no surprise here) I found that kids responded better when I asked them questions than when I simplytold them something. So I think you ought to start by asking these girls what body-shaming means to them. Listen to their opinions and then share your own. Agree upon a working definition of the term that makes sense to everyone. Talk about what body-shaming does to people. Talk about why we body-shame. The girls' input may surprise you.
Then – and here's the big reveal – declare your mentoring time a body shame-free zone. If it seems appropriate, you could agree upon a goofy consequence for every time anyone says anything body-negative. Maybe Kristy forgets the rule and complains, "I'm so fat today." The consequence is she has to say one positive thing about her appearance. Or maybe the consequence is Kristy has to put a quarter in a jar, the proceeds from which will eventually be used to offset the cost of tickets to a kickass, girl-positive movie. Figure it out as a team, and then stick to the rule. Make sure the rule is light-hearted and fun instead of grim and punitive. I can almost guarantee you're the only person in these girls' lives who will do anything like this related to body image, and I think it's pretty great that you care so much about these kiddos.
My best friend of over five years is currently going through some hard times. Her mother has cancer, her boyfriend is struggling with alcoholism, and she has very little money. I haven't seen her in over a month and every time I ask her if she needs anything, she refuses. I've never been very intuitive and am more likely to ask what a friend needs than to spontaneously bake them cookies or whatever, but I've offered to go to Al-Anon or meditation sessions with her, to bring her food, to hang out, etc. I have severe depression and recently came out of the hospital for it, so I understand isolating to make yourself feel better, but her pushing me away has made me question whether or not I am a good friend. I finally asked her why she won't see me and she said that I can't give her support that she needs right now because I'm still so sick and she feels like she would be burdening me. I'm hurt, angry, and seeking validation big time.
I have a friend who pulls away from me whenever something really difficult is happening in her life. It took me years to realize that she does this because talking about it makes it even more painful than simply dealing with it on her own. Now when she hits a rough patch, I make sure to check in occasionally but trust her to determine what she does or doesn't need in terms of assistance. It isn't really about me; it's about her. Anyway, my point is that I have some sense of where you're at right now.
I know this is hard, but I want you to respect her wishes. Whatever the reason really is, she's putting up a boundary and wants some space. Give it to her. She is far more likely to come back around and start communicating regularly again if you allow her room to breathe. You haven't done anything wrong – in fact, I'd say you've done a lovely job of trying to be there for her. But now it's time to give her the distance she requires.
In the meantime, Miss Lady (I am going to call you Claudia Kishi in my mind), I want you to focus on taking care of yourself. I don't necessarily share her belief that you're somehow too sick to be a good friend – she's incorrect, of course. You are whole and grown up and mature and loving and all those good things. But if you did just get out of the hospital, you DO need to put yourself first. You take care of you, and spend time with friends who are ready, willing, and able to show and receive love. I bet your other friend will come around eventually. You are awesome, Claudia Kishi, and I wish you the best.
I'm very comfortable in my decision to cut my ex friend out of my life (she betrayed me in a pretty terrible way and then got upset that I was hurt and angry over said betrayal), but I don't know how to get all the way over it. I still feel sad and miss her and then I feel crazy for missing someone who did some truly awful shit to me and was solid about making those deliberate and hurtful choices. We still have some friends in common. There are times when cool things happen and I want to reach out because I also remember the awesome person she used to be before she became a manipulative nightmare. And then I remember all the crap she pulled and I know I can't reach out and do not actually want to. It's sort of like when someone dies. You forget sometimes that they're just not there anymore. And I don't know how to get past that.
My dear Dawn, I really appreciate you bringing this up. I wanted to address this in the column this week and got tons of input from both men and women online, but yours really stood out to me because of this: "It's sort of like when someone dies. You forget sometimes that they're just not there anymore." How poignant and true.
Everything you are feeling is normal. It's fun to imagine we can just cut abusive/hurtful people off and never care about them ever again. Some people even act like it's possible. I don't think it is. There's got to always be some trace of feeling for that person, no matter what he or she did. Even if that feeling is anger, it's still a connection to that person. Ideally, we learn to manage it and live with it, and eventually the feeling fades until it's just a faint scar rather than an open wound.
Have you considered entering therapy to talk about this? I know plenty of people who go to therapy after a romantic breakup, so why not after a friendship breakup? This was clearly a major event in your life, and it deserves some attention. You probably run into her now and again, and therapy will help prepare you to gracefully manage these situations.
In the meantime, here are my two cents for awkward interaction: keep your head held high, nod politely if you make eye contact, and don't engage unless absolutely necessary (like the house is on fire or something). If she tries to talk to you, politely excuse yourself or simply say, "I don't feel comfortable talking to you. Please respect my wishes." No need for major drama or greasing up anyone's face and turning anyone's rings around.
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