To The Strangers Who Want To Give Me Free Advice About My Skin Or My Weight Or Whatever: Please Shut The Hell Up

Is it advice or is it concern trolling? Or am I just way defensive?
Publish date:
January 30, 2013
fat, acne, unsolicited advice, concern trolling

Hey, did you all notice I’m breaking out on my chin?

This weekend I was at my preferred makeup superstore, browsing the Mario Badescu section, when a roving skincare sales lady rolled up on me to ask if she could help me find anything.

“Nope, I’m just browsing,” I said, not making eye contact.

“Are you looking for something in particular?” she persisted.

“Not really, just browsing.”

“Something for the acne?” Here she gestured to her own chin, as if providing me a human mirror.

Um, what?

“You should try [brand redacted]. They’re developed by dermatologists.”

Aren’t most high-end skincare lines developed by or in conjunction with dermatologists? I thought. I mean, I can’t say for certain that he had a particular certification but I am pretty sure Mario Badescu was not a pig farmer who also made facial cleansers as a side gig. And was this woman really for real pointedly identifying the breakout on my chin to try to sell me something?

“The acne is hormonal,” I explained, probably with more patience than I was feeling. “Some months it’s worse than others--”

“Oh, this works for hormonal acne, too. I have a cousin who was DISFIGURED -- like seriously DISFIGURED by acne every month.” Here she made a circular gesture over her own face to demonstrate the extent of the disfigurement. “She started using this product and her acne is GONE.”

I come from a long line of bad skin. A particularly extreme (DISFIGURING, even?) form of cystic acne runs in my father’s side of the family, and by some stroke of genetic good fortune I dodged that chromosomal bullet.

Nevertheless, I grew up watching my father have surgeries to remove cysts, many of which left scars that took years to fade, and saw the excruciating physical pain these issues caused him, even sometimes preventing him from going to work. I grew up fearing that once I hit puberty, that would be my fate, too, but instead I just got the aging-proof oily skin that both my parents have, and some large-ass pores.

Also a propensity for mild to moderate breakouts, usually during that heady week of premenstrual bliss when I am most likely to feel self-conscious about them.

That said, I don’t stress too much about my skin, if only because given my basis for comparison, some angriness on my chin each month seems pretty tame considering what I might have faced.

I blew off Helpful Skincare Advice Lady with a curt admonishment (because “disfigured”? REALLY?) but I also made a beeline for the nearest mirror to see if what had looked to me like a mild breakout that morning had suddenly morphed into a monstrous deformity.

It looked a little worse. I spent a full minute debating whether I should bust out my own concealer right there to try to cover it, before realizing I was letting a stranger’s unsolicited advice affect how I felt about myself. And then I got really annoyed.

I have pretty strict personal rules about advice. I’m not fond of giving it, unless explicitly asked. And even then I have to restrain myself from repeating, “Here’s my idea but YOU TOTALLY DON’T NEED TO LISTEN TO ME AT ALL,” because I am so uncomfortable with prescribing behavior to people even when they want me to.

Thus it’s probably not surprising that I bristle so much when other people extend advice to me when I haven’t asked for it. In my 20s, this advice most often took the form of people wanting to tell me about their amazingly successful diets.

This happened! A lot. I guess I must look friendly? And also quite fat and in need of a stranger’s intervention.

While I get that in most cases this unsolicited stranger advice is well-meaning, too often it comes across as, “You may not have noticed that you’re fat and/or acne-riddled, but you totally are and I am here to tell you how to fix it!” I mean, it does start to give you a bit of a complex after awhile, besides being a little infantilizing when random people assume you need their help to take care of yourself.

Given this history, sometimes I even have trouble telling the difference between unsolicited advice offered with good intentions, and straight-up concern trolling.

Concern trolling began as an Internet-specific concept (although now the label gets used in real life situations as well), in which a person attempts to dismantle an argument by citing faux “concerns” over its effects, thus creating a persona that seems to be expressing kindly worry when really there are ulterior motives at work.

For example, a concern troll might comment on an article about the unacceptability of slut-shaming by stating their worries over the self-identified slut’s “self-esteem” or their increased risk of STDs, with a subtext that sluts are, in fact, pretty damn shameful, as well as insecure and possibly disease-ridden. The comment offers a veneer of care over a point that attempts to sow fear or doubt in the mind of the person arguing against slut-shaming.

Basically, it comes down to a person expressing faux concern when really they want to tell you they disapprove of your life choices (or politics or whatever).

Another example, one I am personally familiar with, is popularly found in responses to writing about body acceptance. You’ve probably seen it, too. It goes something like, “I’m fine with people looking however they want BUT WHAT ABOUT YOUR HEALTH? You’re going to die/become disabled/use up all the healthcare/etc.” My usual response to such comments is that my health is none of anyone else’s business -- although it is also totally awesome, and I got the bloodwork results back today to prove it.

It was those bloodwork results that got me thinking about all of this in the first place. Although I firmly believe that health is private and subjective, and is never a moral imperative (NEVER! YES, REALLY NEVER!) that all individuals must (or can) aspire to, I have to admit that when I get good numbers back from the doctor, I do a fistpump of triumph and think to myself, "FUCK ALL Y’ALL PREDICTING MY IMMINENT DIABETIC CLOGGED-ARTERY DEATH FOR YEARS AND YEARS."

If you really cared, you’d listen when I tell you that my health is good -- and even it if wasn’t, or if I chose not to reveal the state of my health, you’d listen when I said it was none of your business. If you really cared, you’d trust me to manage my own well-being. You wouldn’t feel inclined to explain to me why everything I’ve said about it is either wrong or a lie.

Yeah, the fistpumping and the “FUCK YOU” are not real mature. But I have spent over a decade being told my health must be terrible by strangers who claimed to be “concerned” about me, but who were really just desperate to dismiss my experience. I think I’m allowed a little celebration when I am annually reminded that I am right and they are wrong.

So when Helpful Skincare Advice Lady tried to tell me about her acne miracle, I did probably get a little defensive, a little kneejerk. Because I didn’t ask to hear about my “flaws” or “imperfections” or how I can “fix” them. I didn’t ask for help with my breakouts because I’m not all that worried about them, or if I am, then I’m cool with exploring options on my own.

When we’re offering advice or concern to someone we know -- a friend or family member -- and our worries are rooted in a fuller knowledge of the person and their life, I’m not saying we shouldn’t feel like we’re allowed to give our input (assuming, of course, that the person in question hasn’t already asked us not to). Or even someone we don't know well, if the subject happens to come up.

But if we’re faced with a stranger, let’s maybe not assume we know what might be best for them, or even that they want our "help" -- no matter how much we think we have a solution to the problem we are independently perceiving. (I am not totally guilt-free on this account myself.)

But what do you think? Was Helpful Skincare Advice Lady way out of line or just doing her job? Do you regularly offer strangers advice? Do you like it when strangers offer unsolicited advice to you? I’m willing to accept that this seems friendly to some folks, but for me -- it’s just a quick route to ragetown.