My hip-to-waist ratio is nobody's business but mine

Please, women, don't speculate on my hips' suitability for childbearing!

Published July 9, 2008 10:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

How do I handle comments from other women (yes, other women) about my body?

I'm 5'5" and weigh 115. By the age of 55 I'd think that the days of dealing with comments or looks about my body would be over. Au contraire (pardon my French). Now instead of men eyeing my breasts, it's women commenting on my hip-to-waist ratio. I just don't get it and I'm at a loss every time it happens. I would never presume to comment on the hip size of my rounder friends and acquaintances, but somehow women who dwell in the larger sizes feel no compunction about commenting on mine.

Just last week at an aerobics class a woman I know only in passing said something about the size of my waist and hips and then proceeded to tell me that it would be impossible for me to have had children! When I answered in the affirmative, including details about my 10-pound bundle of joy, she exclaimed, "He must be adopted." Yikes. I felt as though my membership in the sisterhood of birth-givers had been rescinded. I was almost reduced to showing her my stretch marks to prove the truth. Instead I demurely chalked up my size to genetics. After all, I have nothing whatever to do with my hip-to-waist ratio except in terms of how much lard I choose to pack on to my frame.

So, how do I respond? So far, I have restrained myself from telling these rude women how I try and try but can't seem to put on any weight and maybe even asking them about how they manage to look so round. But I fear the next time I have to hear another comment about my size, my self-control will expire and I will say something as rude to the commenter as she has said to me. What say ye?


Dear M,

At the risk of speaking too abstractly -- a risk some would say I disregard routinely -- I would like to speak about boundaries.

Boundaries are fluid. We do not control them. They are the voluntarily held constructs of others. When others abandon theirs we are stranded with our own; we are offended or lost: Did you hear what she just said? Under what rules is that permissible?

As children we are taught not to point at the one-armed man, not to ask women if they are pregnant lest they are not pregnant, not to say, "You talk funny, Mister," or "Why are your eyes shaped like that?" We are taught what the boundaries are.

But this happens in a childhood utopia of homogeneity. Then we move to Bosnia, or Australia, or Burbank. We go where the rules are different. Or we stay put and people with different rules move in next door. After a while, we don't even know what the rules are, or were, ever! "Our" boundaries are overlooked; we are poked and prodded in ways we find wholly out of line.

Our sense of self -- where we stop and others begin -- is early and animal and embedded. We take it with us. It is in many ways permanent. In our most primitive development, we are only animal; we are only the thing that eats the other thing, and we are not to be touched in our privates or prodded or discussed. Our privates are not to be discussed.

But as adults we swim in images; a whole new world is before us; it changes yearly with fashion. Only last year, it seems -- though my sense of time is collapsing with age and it was actually more like five or 10 years -- the ass crack was hidden; now it is exposed like a hemline, like a throat, like the tops of breasts whose roundness it resembles. Can we now say, gee, nice ass crack? No. What is visible changes what is speakable, but slowly; what is speakable lags behind what is showable.

Amid this shifting we ask, What is off the table? Is anything off the table? What about our personal sensitivities? What if we are sensitive beyond measure about our toes? Are our toes safe from comment only when they are inside shoes? If we wear sandals is it then permissible to say, Oh, I see your toes! They are painted the color of a car we had when I was 6! And our ankles and wrists and arms and neck, and face, that most delicate and erotic of the revealed zones, that place we both gaze upon and look away from, the one body part we fear because it can rob us of our anonymity, can gaze back at us as we gaze into it and thus is termed by poets a symbol of infinity and depth and compared to the infinite reflections of facing mirrors? What about the face? Will biometrics create a new vocabulary of facial descriptions, or bodily data streamed to us from our chairs, so that we routinely speak of, say, the typical 2 cm. difference, male/female, in distance between sit bones?

How are we to know, in short, in a fluid and mixed society such as ours, what is the absolute boundary strangers must not cross? And does the absence of a single standard mean that you're on your own? Is it your job to inform others, "OK, fellow aerobics class participant, my hip-to-waist ratio is out of bounds; it is something of which we must not speak." Maybe. Maybe that's the way to go. Spell it out: These are my boundaries, stranger. Trespass at your peril. Or if you find it hard to speak of this, perhaps hand out cards: "For your information, this card displays, with line drawings, the zones of my body not discussable."

OK, so I'm kidding a little. I am suggesting that there is a way to think of this outside of the category of rudeness/not rudeness. I am suggesting you live a little bit in the wilderness of no fixed category. Perhaps what you wanted from me was not analysis but solidarity. And I do stand with you against the depredations of those without a sense of what it's OK to talk about! I feel for you, I do. I, a man, am also most sensitive about such things. A careless remark can leave you rattled, the ground beneath you shaken. But I do not see how an army of one can stop the advance of change, even if the implication is that our society is falling apart and people have no manners. So I counsel you to cultivate distance.

Imagine this is a movie scene. Analyze the character: What is her motive? What is yours? What are you protecting, and what is she taking? We do not control what other people consider rude or not rude. Would that one standard prevailed, but that is not the case. Maybe it should be the case but it manifestly is not. So what world are you to live in? The world you think should be? Or the world that manifestly is, that presents itself to us daily, that refuses to be other than it is?

That is the abstract question that at least can lead us to some wisdom, that can enlarge our vision.

I mean, of course, if you and I were sitting on the bench outside the aerobics class I would have to agree, how rude, what an affront! My God, yes, I totally agree: What the hell is that about?

But I counsel you not to dwell on it. Because we are not here long. We only have so much time. There are bigger mysteries to contemplate. We can put ourselves to larger uses. We have that choice. That is one of the few choices we have, to choose where our minds dwell, where our eyes fall.

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