Reader Question: A Moral/Ethical Dilemma

Amy writes:

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.

11 thoughts on “Reader Question: A Moral/Ethical Dilemma

  1. juliloquy

    Right on. One thing I would add is that if Amy is the praying type, she could pray for the girls. I am a Quaker, and our lingo for prayer is to “hold in the light,” which is maybe more palatable for secular folks. Either way, I believe that sending someone good thoughts can only help.

  2. Becky

    First off, I want to say that I agree completely. It sucks, and I would feel torn up about it too, but there wasn’t anything productive you could have done (follow them down the street until they get home and then talk to their parents? That’s totally not creepy at all, right? ;-)).

    Swistle, I wanted to let you know that the last couple times I’ve clicked on the link from facebook that goes to the “Networked blogs” site it doesn’t appear to be working. I have to type in your address manually and come here to read. Not a big deal and I’m totally willing to do it because I love your writing, but thought you might want to know.

      1. Becky

        Update: I’ve clicked through on the last couple posts, and those are working, so I don’t know what the deal was, but it appears to be fixed. Probably user error on my part.

  3. Lauren

    The only thing I can think of that I might possibly say is, “Oh honey, don’t mess up your body, you’re so beautiful the way you are!” Then I would sweep away and leave them to talk about nosy 30-somethings (you know, OLD people) who butt in where they are not wanted. And maybe it would add a tiny bit of weight to the other side of the scale.

    Although I’m probably not brave enough to even do that. Maybe all you were supposed to get out of that situation was the resolve to be a positive influence on any young people who ARE part of your life.

  4. Kristin H

    I’m with Lauren on the breezy pass-by comment, but I might try something like “Oh my, have you ever seen the teeth of chronic bingers? All that acid. Yuck.” And then I’d go hide in the back. I’m sure I never would have come up with something on the spot. I think Swistle’s analogy of the no-choice bus was a good one.

  5. twisterfish

    True — whatever you say will not stop them from doing it if they are intent on doing it. BUT… for that girl who isn’t on board and needs convincing, a small comment like a previous poster mentioned might be enough to stop her from giving in. Maybe that’s all that reluctant girl needed — someone to tell her why not to do it. Peer pressure is hell, but if she could say “well that lady said it can ruin my life, so no way” to her “friend”, maybe that is enough to get her to not give in. A comment of some sort might plant a seed of knowledge or maybe a seed of resistance in the unwilling girl. Worth a try.

  6. Heidi

    I was thinking along the same lines as twisterfish above. If both girls were willing participants, there probably isn’t anything you could do or say in that situation to change their actions. But if one girl is trying to persuade another to join in, to me that is a little more reason to try to intervene – to offer some support for the girl who is not on board yet and maybe give her a reason to stick to her guns. Peer pressure makes me angry.

  7. Alice

    Oh, what a wretched situation. I agree with Swistle’s take – doing something in the moment is virtually impossible, so the ‘should you have done something’ question is pretty well answered. As someone who freezes when faced with high-stakes, unfamiliar situations, I don’t even know if I would have had the presence of mind to think about keeping them out of the bathroom! I do like thinking through hypotheticals, though, and I like some of the other suggestions above – making a passing comment about tooth enamel, or about something else could be good, since it lets the girls know that their conversation isn’t normal, and isn’t something ‘everyone’ does.

    Of course, I’m a rather fat lady, and so I’d need to factor that into my comments as well (a supportive comment from a person who literally embodies what they’re afraid of may not be received as ‘supportive’ so much as ‘foreboding’). I’d probably go the passive route, and put up body-affirming decals on the bathroom mirrors, or community bulletin board, etc. Affirmations are cheesey, but they can help, and make the message go out to all the people who aren’t talking about their body shame, but who are still struggling with some of the same problems.

  8. Amy

    I’d just like to say that I have has several such situations in my life, and what I’ve found is that it’s often the universe (excuse my hooey) introducing a situation to you so that you know what to do the next time. Maybe next time, when you CAN make a difference, you’ll already know what to say. Or maybe your friend or daughter will go through something like this and you’ll have this experience to offer. The fact that it stuck with you has meaning, I think.

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