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Carolyn Hax: Apology due for remark about niece

Carolyn Hax is away. In her absence, we are offering readers’ favorites from her archive.

Dear Carolyn: My 13-year-old niece is tiny and has a big nose. We live in a community where a lot of teenage girls have cosmetic surgery at 16. I suggested to my brother in private that his daughter may be a candidate for this procedure. (My 19-year-old stepdaughter and my wife have had nose jobs.) My brother was deeply offended and angry over my remark. We are not talking. Was I over the line in making this suggestion in a private setting?

A: 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.

People tend to not 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?” – makes me want to bite down on a stick.

I won’t defend your brother for not speaking to you, but I also wouldn’t expect him to bounce right back if you merely toss off an “I’m sorry.” Your apology has to show him that you get it now and that your values need an overhaul. So make it good and try some scrutiny – of yourself and of the moral dry rot in your community.