I’ve made Hax, the Washington Post’s relationship advice columnist, an Ethics Hero before. This time it’s for something more than her usual spot-on instincts about right and wrong, and more about her method of expressing them. You know I am not fond of weasel words, equivocation and gentle rhetoric when emphatic prose is called for, and Hax, though she is more prudent than I, laps her competition when it comes to firing off both barrels when it is called for.
In this response, she was responding to a man whose brother stopped speaking to him after he gently suggested to him that his niece had a huge honker for her face and it might be time to visit the local plastic surgeon. The advice-seeker lives “in a community where a lot of teenage girls have cosmetic surgery at 16,” he explained, and both his wife and daughter had their noses made button-like. “Was I over the line in making this suggestion in a private setting?” he asked Hax.
Her unrestrained, wise and glorious response:
Of course you were, and you know you were. You just called your niece so ugly she needs to be fixed, to her own father — and you presumed he needed you to say so. Insulting and self-important.
You sent a letter to me, too, so clearly you’re not some naif shaped solely by the values of your little button-nosed pond; you swim to some extent in the ocean of our culture. And while cosmetic surgery might be so common in our ocean by now that its bolder recipients laugh about it openly, it’s hardly the simple snip-and-go you make it out to be. There are legitimate matters of safety, body- and self-image, cultural identity and aesthetic value, just for starters, that are far from pat or settled — and that’s just in the collective view of society. Apply these matters to the life, confidence and physique of a barely pubescent girl, and you were into outrageous-overstepping territory pretty much when you opened your mouth.
All of the above makes your excuse — that many of the fish in your pond are surgically altered in youth — sound completely disingenuous, so you can add insulted intelligence to your brother’s list of valid grievances against you.
I’m saying all of this as someone who has no emotional ties to anyone involved and who fully supports the right of any adult to take control of his or her appearance, your wife and stepdaughter and the rest of Stepford included.
When I mentally put people and faces I love into this equation, though, I want to roar. People tend not to grow fully into their bodies until well after age 16. A nose that looks disproportionately large on a teenager can be Modigliani-stunning on a 26-year-old whose face has caught up. And even when it doesn’t, the thought of some uncle privately advising a dad about his beloved child of any age, “Uh . . . that whole face thing isn’t goin’ so well, is it,” I need to bite down on a stick.
“In private,” by the way, just tells me you were fully aware this was touchy stuff.
So take the above as a rough estimate of the repairs you’re facing with your brother. I won’t defend his not speaking to you — all this should be coming from him, not me — but I also wouldn’t expect him to bounce right back if you merely toss off an “I’m sorry.”
This apology has to show your brother that you get it now, that you should have before, that your values need an overhaul and that you don’t expect him to trust you until you prove you’re worthy of that. In other words, apologize, make it good and try some scrutiny — of yourself and of the moral dry rot in your community — while you wait.