I’ve been reading your blogs for about a year now, and I really value your opinion as a person and as a mother. I don’t know if you would be willing to address this issue (as it is pretty heavy, and not really like anything I’ve read from you before), but I recently was in a situation that made me uncomfortable, and I was wondering if I could get your thoughts about it. If not, that’s ok, I just thought I would ask what you would do (or would like someone else to do if they were your kids) in this situation.
So I work as a supervisor at a bakery in a particularly snooty upper class town that is frequented by (often unsupervised) middle school and high school kids. Last week two young girls (around 12 or 13) came in, ordered some food, and sat down while I was mopping and cleaning the dining room. I wasn’t purposely eavesdropping, but I overheard them discussing how one of them was planning to force herself to purge the food she was eating, and seemed to be pressuring the other girl to do the same. I really wanted to do something about this, but didn’t know what to do. I told my manager, but she said that since we didn’t know the girls or their families, that there wasn’t anything we could do. I though that maybe if they went into the bathroom, I would follow them and clean the bathroom while they were in there so they wouldn’t do anything on the premises, but they left without going in. I’ve been feeling incredibly guilty for not speaking up, yet don’t know what I should/could have said or done.
Since they were unsupervised, I’m sure that even if I had said something they wouldn’t have any reason to listen to me, and it’s not like I could ask them for their parents’ contact info.
Yes, I think the real question here isn’t so much “Should you have done something?” but rather “What exactly is it you could have done?” If you had gone into the bathroom to prevent them from throwing up in there, do any of us think they would have said, “Darn it, we couldn’t throw up at the bakery—we’re going to have to give up this whole eating disorder idea”? If you’d gone over to them and said “I couldn’t help but overhear, and you shouldn’t do that because it’s bad for you,” do any of us think they would have said, “This advice from a stranger has changed our lives! We had no idea it would be bad for us! Whew, that was a close call! No more eating disorders for us!”
If these were girls you knew, like girls in your church or children of your friends, we would have an intense and sticky dilemma on our hands: whether and who and how to approach. But as your manager pointed out, you didn’t know them or their families at all. There isn’t a dilemma here, because this was not a situation where you had the choice to intervene. You may have that choice in another situation in the future, and someone else may have that choice with these two girls, but this particular encounter didn’t contain that choice. It was like….a bus that went past you without stopping: you would have been willing to either get on the bus or not, depending on what was the right thing to do—but the bus didn’t stop.
It was an upsetting encounter, and it would have left me feeling uncomfortable and unhappy too. My guess is that the feeling you’re perceiving as guilt (which would be the appropriate emotion if you’d led them into the eating disorder or had refused to help them when you had the opportunity) is more like spinning: your brain is trying to fix something unfixable. And if you’re like me, you’re also feeling a sort of universal despair about eating disorders and teenagers and our society, not to mention the difficulty of trying to fix ANYTHING in ANYONE else’s life. I could perhaps soothe you by saying it’s a good sign that they were talking about it within earshot of adults and that they didn’t go into the bathroom afterward—but that wouldn’t take away the reality that even if these two particular girls were just showing off, there are many others who are doing it and hiding it.