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It has happened in many instances in my education that my male advisors or professors get very uncomfortable around me and some refuse to take me as their student. They tell me that in a decent way, but it is not on the basis of competence since I am always at the top of the class and my CV is shining.

I suspect it has to do with the fact that I look physically attractive, although I never act unprofessionally and I am conservative in my behaviour. But many times I have had instances where male mentors were interested in me romantically and it made me feel uncomfortable. I am starting to feel I am losing chances for absurd reasons.

How should I address this problem?

Edit: I am a master's student in Italy and am about to pursue a PhD in STEM. I am conservative in how I dress and this actually comes from the fear of seeming unprofessional or wanting to be noticed for anything else rather than my competence.

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    What exactly do you mean by “mentor me”? Are other students in your class receiving one-on-one mentoring? Is this common? (I’m asking because where I studied this wasn’t common, and tutors wouldn’t generally have the capacity for one-on-one mentoring.) Jun 15 at 10:06
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    Clarification question: are you seeking to do your PhD in Italy only, or open to moving to other countries? There are large cultural differences between countries — but most countries have fewer women in STEM than Italy (in particular Northern Europe). I don't know if the situation would be better or worse in other countries, but I think it might well affect the answer.
    – gerrit
    Jun 15 at 11:40
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    Are there know cases of scandals regarding teacher-student relationships on your campus? (a teacher being accused of favoring a student because they get sexual relationships out of it, for example) If so, mentoring an attractive student might cause some ruckus behind-the-scenes, as the gossip of "Teacher A is banging Student B" spreads, even if nothing ever happened between the two.
    – T. Sar
    Jun 15 at 13:44
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    Whatkind of mentorship are you seeking? Does it have some connection to your MSc. thesis or just some informal mentorship relation? Or are you actually seeking a PhD advisor?
    – Vladimir F
    Jun 15 at 14:09
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    You assume it is because of your look (which might be true) but I think one should question this (medicine for false diagnoses dont work). Self assement is not alway possible, so one indicator: Do you have any male friends (inside/outside academia)?
    – lalala
    Jun 16 at 7:21

10 Answers 10

59

Just keep looking and don't get discouraged

(Most male academics can behave themselves around pretty ladies)

I suppose this shows the kind of spectrum of variation that men have when encountering an attractive woman in a professional setting. Some men exhibit their romantic interest (sometimes to an extent that is unwelcome), and some go to the complete opposite end of the spectrum and act in a very stoney-faced and awkward way to make absolutely sure that no romantic interest is conveyed. Obviously both reactions can be annoying in certain cases, so I sympathise with your plight.

In fairness to the men you are dealing with, I would say that it takes quite a bit of practice and courage as a male to learn to be comfortable around attractive women, without exhibiting too much or too little interest in them, relative to what is appropriate in the situation. Many academic men were "nerds" growing up, and even in adulthood, some are not particularly polished in their interactions with women. There are also external pressures that apply in professional settings, which can punish men who err too much in the former direction, so they compensate by retreating into excessive stand-offishness. Alternatively, for people who are single, some (quite reasonably) see their professional setting as a place where they might be able to find a romantic partner, and it is not unusual to hear of couples who met through attendance at university (even as supervisor and student).

In terms of trying to find an academic "mentor", this is usually done through the supervision process for a research degree. Your post does not specify whether you are an undergraduate or postgraduate student, but most academics are time-poor, and many would be reluctant to mentor an undergraduate (irrespective of any of the issues you raise) simply due to the time cost and low reward. If you are a higher-degree research student then you will need to find a primary supervisor for your research work and a larger supervisory panel, and that may lead off to getting an academic "mentor". I recommend you wait until you are pursuing research work, and then approach some potential supervisors who are interested in the same topics as you are. Supervision relationships can sometimes lead to more general "mentoring" roles, though not always.

Unfortunately I do not have any brilliant solution for the general problem you are encountering — it is a complex cultural issue that is impacted by a number of external pressures and internal shortcomings of human-beings. I suspect that if you continue your search you will find plenty of male supervisors who are confident around attractive women, who are able to interact with you comfortably without romantic interest or its antipode. And of course, you can also look for a female academic as a mentor as an alternative. The kinds of problems you describe should not be the norm, so keep looking and don't be discouraged. If you would like to find a good academic mentor, then it is worth pursuing a research degree (if you are not already doing this) and casting a wide net until you find someone you are comfortable with.

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    It seems as if the advice here is the OP can't do anything except to keep looking -- most male professors will be uncomfortable no matter what. Maybe make that more prominent, or if there's advice here I missed, highlight that? Jun 15 at 13:52
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    What's the answer to the question "How to address this problem?"? Jun 15 at 14:24
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    The answer would be much improved if it would emphasize the actual answer (or lack thereof) and cut short the apology.
    – henning
    Jun 16 at 8:24
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    @OwenReynolds if it's most and not some or many, then the OP has been really unlucky. Respect for (younger) attractive colleagues and sticking within appropriate barriers is a common theme, even if nowhere near as universal as we'd like. Rules that deem your own students off-limits help to pre-empt issues (and may be self-imposed)
    – Chris H
    Jun 16 at 9:41
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    @henning: A good suggestion --- I have edited to put a title on the answer and some additional bolded advice so that the student can locate my advice more easily amongst the general discussion of the issue.
    – Ben
    Jun 16 at 10:52
44

I'm sorry you're in this spot, and through no fault of your own what-so-ever. I wish there was an obvious answer, but here's a few thoughts:

  • Look for a female mentor. This may be hard depending on your field and country, since many academic departments skew male. Even if you find someone who isn't directly related to your area of interest, they may be able to help guide you through how they managed academia successfully.
  • Find a women's group in your field, or at your university. My department has all sorts of groups like this, and there are some in my area not tied to the university as well, e.g. women in programming
  • Take advantage of the COVID era and deliberately arrange a mentor remotely, relying heavily on email and your existing work.
  • You don't mention your country or region, but if circumstances permit, you might try to look for a department in a country with different social standards regarding this. I'll avoid mentioning details, but I've worked in two very different parts of the world, and one of them was unequivocally far more accepting of inappropriate behavior toward women than the other, though neither was by any means perfect.
  • Lean into it. I hate even giving this as an answer, but as other posters have said, we're not going to be able to solve misogyny, sexism, inequality, and awkward/inappropriate male professors all in a SE post. It's grossly unfair if the way others behave toward you due to physical appearance hinders your career. So, the only practical option for you, right this moment, may be to do the best you can with what you're dealt. If a professor is "merely" being awkward (as opposed to being grossly inappropriate), can you just roll with it and continue working with them? It should get easier as time goes on, as they learn that you're a normal person and successful candidate in your field.
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    One more advice to add to this measured response: seek out groups with a higher number of women students (even if the mentor is male). That's usually a sign for someone who knows how to mentor women and with whom women are comfortable working. Jun 15 at 2:20
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    @Sursula It's a thing, esp. decades ago. There were male professors (the only kind back then) who were interested and good at finding and encouraging women who would clearly be great in their male-dominated field. Jun 15 at 4:32
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    @Sursula as OPs very question shows, women have different mentoring needs than men, because they face different challenges.
    – henning
    Jun 15 at 7:22
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    @Sursula I completely agree that it should not make a difference at all. But clearly, for OP it does, and it is supposed to help OP, not a person living in a good environment. Jun 15 at 9:01
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    @Sursula perhaps you interpret my words as saying they need more or less mentoring. I take no stance on that matter. What I mean is, for example, that women need mentoring on navigating sexism in academic hiring or in access to educational resources, that they need career advice that is conscious of the fact that unlike most men, they can't take for granted that their partners provide most care work in the family etc. Men, largely, don't. I'd be surprised if we disagreed about this.
    – henning
    Jun 15 at 12:18
30

One of the underrated issues is the fear of accusations.

If the male advisor would be accused of sexual misconduct by a female student, especially one that's not unattractive, everyone would believe her and his career would be over. It is really difficult to never meet with your advisor one on one in places without audiovisual monitoring. And even if advisor manages to do that, he will not have an irrefutable proof of not meeting in such circumstances if accused. His career can be over whether he is actually guilty or not. Males are removed from jobs without a court finding them guilty thanks to #metoo movement while females are not (most famous example — Johnny Depp and Amber Heard)

If you want to alleviate this fear, you really have only two options:

  1. Only ask male professors that know you for some years and find you trustworthy or
  2. Try looking for female advisor

I'm sorry we have to live in a world where male professor mentoring female student has legitimate reasons to fear losing his reputation and position, and I'm sorry you hurt from it. Sadly, that's how it looks like. Outside academia is not really better.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Jun 16 at 15:45
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Let me note something that the other answers seem to have ignored. You describe the things that have been your experience in the past, up to now. But you are moving to a new situation and you have some power to arrange the parameters of that, since you have a stellar academic reputation. Don't, for example, assume that you can't change institutions, or even countries.

Not every male academic is either so insecure nor so predatory as to make them unsuitable. Some of us can actually deal with students properly. Not every academic is male, of course. Since you are on the cusp of changing institutions (I suspect), you can look for places that are more welcoming, either with an advisor (male) who doesn't give off weird vibes or with a woman.

Another option that might have potential is to set up co-advisors so that weirdness is less likely to get triggered.

I don't know if it is possible in Italy, as it is in US, to join a program and only choose an advisor later. In that case, you have an opportunity to look around and make some judgements as well as get advice, possibly from other women among students or faculty. It is even possible, perhaps, to have a mentor who is not your advisor. The mentor can give you advice and to keep aware of things so that you wind up with better experiences. I had such a person, who was in a different specialty than I was. I didn't have any of the same issues that you did, but he was both helpful and a powerful role-model who helped shape me.

But, the main advice is to cast a wide net for a program in which you can feel comfortable and do good work.

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    I think that due to the sensitivity of the issue, and that the answer is written by a male who uses a female nom de guerre, it would be better if this more clearly indicated it was written by a man. Jun 15 at 13:44
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    Actually, I chose my username here to be purposely ambiguous to see if there was sexist reaction to some posts. "Buffy" isn't "female", but "puppy". I don't understand why you think there is a "male" viewpoint here, rather than a human one.
    – Buffy
    Jun 15 at 14:40
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    (sigh) The name "Buffy" in English is clearly most connoted with women. E.g., BehindTheName.com: "Gender: Feminine... Diminutive of Elizabeth, from a child's pronunciation of the final syllable. It is now associated with the main character from the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)." Jun 15 at 14:47
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    You seem to be putting a lot of effort, this week, into setting rules for me. Thank you for the effort, but I don't think I've misled anyone. Not even yourself. And a careful reading of my answer indicates my gender already. Please. If you want to make new rules, try meta.
    – Buffy
    Jun 15 at 14:54
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    @DaveLRenfro Seriously, what's the point of finding out whether a poster is a man or a woman? Either they have a point or they haven't. I immediately understood Buffy to be a man when they joined. But, isn't it much more important whether it makes sense what they write? I will even concede to a person I have massive issues with (certainly not Buffy, he's very polite) if they make a point that convinces me. Please do separate topic and argument from any random features of a person. If you feel an argument carries an agenda, then attack that, not the person. Jun 15 at 19:26
7

As you may imagine, there's no silver bullet for your situation.

My best suggestion is to use the advice of trusted friends and colleagues, as well as sites such as Rate my Professor to establish a list of advisors with whom it may be worth contacting for mentoring your research. Your network can also be expanded by doing conferences, volunteering to help organize symposiums or forums, etc. By making efforts to maintain and expand your network of colleagues and contacts, you increase the chances that you may successfully find a suitable place for you (although unfortunately nothing in life is guaranteed).

It's important to look at the bigger picture, since there are students who are not dealing with your specific problem of physical appearance, and yet often find themselves shunned/disregarded by mentors and supervisors for many other reasons. In other words, finding a decent mentor can often be hard in general, due to various factors (including the one that is affecting you right now).

Despite your situation, all I can say is:

  1. maintain a positive attitude and your sense of humor at all times if possible (despite the way things look right now!), and maintain your productive work ethic, do not allow the current situation to psychologically drag you down;

  2. explore your network of colleagues in order to outline a list of potential mentors who would be likely to give you a fair treatment, and start contacting them whenever possible;

  3. keep/maintain updated backup records in your computer of all communications with colleagues and mentors (just in case someone tries to be a bit more forward than they should);

  4. Check if your university (or nearby universities) has affiliate groups or teams devoted to improving inclusivity in your field, and see if there is a way for you to get involved, or benefit from their advice;

  5. Maintain a portfolio of work done in your free time, which is available for other people to check on the internet. If you feel that opportunities are dwindling within your immediate surroundings, then it pays to have a professional website and a professional email account that can project your work to as many people as possible, and help you to make more connections.

  6. Contact accomplished female scholars in your field by email or in conferences, they might be able to help you out in some manner.

I wish I had better advice, but this is all that occurs to me right now, and I'm sure others will add their voice as well.

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  • Related to tip 2: If OP knows other women in the program, they might be able to help.
    – Mehta
    Jun 14 at 23:34
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    Many good ideas, but don't use websites like "RateMyProfessor" to form any kinds of judgement. Jun 15 at 5:11
1

A small auxiliary, perhaps practical, answer.

The context for my comments is that I've been in academic math in the U.S., at research-oriented places, for almost 50 years... though in earlier years I did not think in terms of the explicit or implicit biases in the milieu. And, yes, such nasty craziness is all too common.

My point would be that some "older" mathematicians may have "moved beyond" the adolescent idea that people of a suitable sort are targets for "hitting on". In particular, they may view 20-something kids as more like their own children (in a very positive emotional, protective sense), rather than as sexual objects. But, yes, "sometimes age brings wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone"...

Similarly, but differently, surely some younger faculty have a different social viewpoint, in which not all co-workers are potential targets... A failure of this I've seen is that quite a few of the grad students are still in such an adolescent frame of mind that their outlook is pretty unreasonable in this regard. I would have hoped that ambient progress would have had some impact on this issue, but it may well be that even greater push-back is necessary to counter rather crude instincts. I have no idea.

Anyway, in summary, look for "grown ups", perhaps likely to be a bit older, with some visible experience in "human relationships"... though the latter does not guarantee sense. Lack of experience may make sense unlikely, though.

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  • Seems like sane advice but many exciting fields of research often have a whizz-kid lead researcher. Then there's the natural desire to have a small age gap between PhD and supervisor so perspectives on the subject be similar and communication easier. In my time general opinion was that a good (i.e. interested, available for consultation and supportive) supervisor was at leat 60% of one's PhD. It must be equally so today with even more PhD students per supervisor around. Yet I feel that, since the few acting improperly are insensitive to the disapproval of colleagues, direct action is needed.
    – Trunk
    Jun 18 at 17:30
  • @Trunk, yes, direct action is needed, but/and in my observation, the vast majority of faculty "do not want to get involved" ... It is hard to mobilize people. Believe me, I've tried, on and off, for some decades now, about various issues within academe... Jun 18 at 19:30
-4

Something which makes no sense but I have noticed is that in mostly male technical majors, female students who fit in tend to look like tomboys. They'll generally not wear make-up, perfume or nail polish since they were never interested in that stuff and never learned. Sneakers or flats, jeans and a T-shirt, no-nonsense haircuts, a backpack, no purse... .

Women's dress codes are just a maze. A female department secretary can be made-up and slightly sexy; professionally many women are supposed to work hard on their appearance. Female professors (in mostly male fields) have a completely different set of rules for students to take them seriously. But for no reason female students in technical fields don't feel right if they seem to care about their appearance. I can remember female students who wore old tight T-shirts and no bra. That was fine -- they seemed like serious techies who don't have time for girly stuff like dressing nicely. But the few female students who confirmed to upscale womens' style just didn't feel quite right, like maybe this field wasn't really for them.

It's completely unfair. Any man can go into Electrical Engineering and it seems normal, but if a women wants to be there something must have put her off female professions -- maybe her parents wanted a boy, or she's a stubborn non-conformist who thinks make-up is part of a plot.

So maybe look around at other women in your field and see if you stand out as far as grooming and wardrobe habits.

As far as the rest, very, very few professors will actually hit on grad students. Cheating on your wife, sure, that happens. But with one of your students is unethical. I've known more male professors who were simply a bit uncomfortable with female students who gave out the wrong vibe. I've also had no problem with stunningly beautiful female students, even being alone with them, as long as they had either black nail polish, or possibly cut their own hair, or liked wearing spandex biking shorts and a vintage sweater -- anything that wasn't "professional woman making an effort to look good". I don't think general attractiveness is an issue.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Jun 16 at 15:46
  • The answer seems all over the place and buries the actual advice somewhere in the middle.
    – qwr
    Jun 18 at 1:47
-9

@Nadine first let me say I am sorry that you are experiencing such sexism and inappropriate behaviour from superiors at your university.

I would try contacting the equal opportunities officer of your institution — at least in my country, they exist — and talk to them about your problems. As trained professionals in creating an equal and inclusive studying environment for all, they might be able to help you navigate this situation and get you the academical guidance you need an deserve.

Looking at the answers of this question it is generally rather not appropriate / ethical for supervisors to have a relationship with a student, especially if they are the ones initiating it (given the power gap) and making you — the person they should be teaching — uncomfortable in the process. What they are doing is treating you differently because of your gender (and your appearance, too from what it sounds like), creating a toxic work and study environment for you (and probable other women, too). This is not OK, and in many countries not legal (although things like that are notoriously hard to prove and often do not result in consequences for the offenders).

Moreover, if they refuse to mentor you, they are not doing their job — especially if you have the grades and skills. They are supposed to mentor students, not male students.

So even though this might not be the easiest way, I would try to collect as much evidence as possible that you are not treated equally to your male (or less attractive) fellow students. Talk with other (male and female) students, ask if they ever had to face similar problems, and if not, ask them to write a statement that they haven't, or if they would be willing to support you and accompany you when making a complaint. With all this info go to the above mentioned equal opportunities officer and talk about strategies to confront the supervisors in question about their behaviour. Although this might be the hard and uncomfortable way to go, if those treated unfairly don't speak up, things will not change, or only change very slowly. And those treating others unfairly will not be held accountable.

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    (-1) OP is not asking for advice about how to deal with this with regards to a specific individual with a history of problematic behavior, but rather about how to move forward in her career despite these things happening. Although it may (or may not) be the right thing to do, reacting to every instance of possible sexism by immediately gathering evidence and filing a report is unlikely to be helpful to OP's career Jun 15 at 4:36
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    @Sursula The fact that you refer to something that might or might not be sexism as "an instance of sexism" is telling.
    – forest
    Jun 15 at 8:20
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    @Sursula the fundamentalist approach yields fundamentalist results. Total war is a poor strategy if you have something worth losing, IMHO. You do not at all mention the risks involved in following this course of action: It is entirely possible to become a persona non grata in academia, and that would make having a career in it very hard indeed. Jun 15 at 10:04
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    @Sursula it is basically a declaration of war on the possible advisors. How is that not a fundamentalistic approach to a problem with getting good advisors? A problem that is, as of yet, defined as a feeling. A feeling that for the OP certainly is a problem, but it does lack objective measurables. But let's agree to disagree then: If you cannot see any potential bad outcomes from your approach, disregard my comments altogether. But then you know where a down-vote came from. Jun 15 at 12:12
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    (1) According to the OP, it isn't clear if any professor ever told her his reasons to refuse her candidature. If there is no written proof of a sexist behaviour, how would you suggest confrontation? (2) Should an "equal opportunities officer" force a professor to accept her? Do you think this is would create a good relationship between them? (3) No, professors are not "not doing their job" by refusing a candidate, in many countries (Italy included) they have the freedom to select whoever they want. (4) "not a single woman has disagreed" is not an argument!
    – Pseg
    Jun 15 at 13:50
-10

It's hard to deny that this type of "activity" is a nuisance and a shame if it leads to a capable person being denied a fair run at academic research in a progressive field.

We all know that the presence (or even strong semblance, e.g. an engagement ring) of a fiancé will put a stop to this phenomenon very quickly. But we also know that you can't rush true love.

All you can do here is take sensible precautions when choosing a department in which you will take your PhD, have a frank discussion with the putative supervisor on the matter and plough on in faith and hope. If matters tend to go the wrong way, you have to reconsider.

Please do NOT pretend-love some guy in the department just to make the work easier: that would be creating an even bigger wrong.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Jun 16 at 15:47
-12

OP is aware of his attractiveness to males (in principle it could apply also if OP was a male, I honestly think the gender tag is misplaced).

Let's stretch the situation, drawing the two end members:

  1. Male advisors and professors are intimidated by beauty;
  2. Male advisors and professors are aroused by beauty;

Regarding 2, there is not much to do, your beauty will only trigger their looking for a romantic liaison at the very onset of your working relationship with them. They would look for a romantic liaison even if you would not be so beautiful, because they would find you intellectual stimulant, at a later point of your working relationship. So your beauty is a good way to filter them out. You do not need to hide it.

Regarding 1., I feel that the relation that builds up when you meet these persons is not so linear as you present it: you are aware of your beauty, you are somehow trying to hide it (I do not mean you are wearing a burka, I am just trying to depict a "conservative dress") ... and that unconscious message you have in yourself is passing to the professor, who is a human being and apart from your CV is evaluating you as a person and the feeling he (or she) would got is that you are uncomfortable with a part of you. To say it bold&plain, every man has a dick, not every man wants to use his dick with you. They would recognize you are beauty, it would be just one of the many physical attributes, you are smart enough to realize when someone will try to hit on you, get over your beauty, do not hide and do not show it, focus on your brain.

I am not very helpful, I know, I am all against the body positivity messages (fat people are beauty and can do anything!) as well as to offensive messages (fat people are ugly and can do nothing!) and I am very lucky that I manage to say the balanced (you are fat, or thin, or normal-build, it does not matter, you can do what you can do, which is extreme rare to coincide with what you want to do).

Disclaimer: mid-50s, western country, accepted myself, ready to accept positive discrimination against me and against my (2) sons, to fix the crap me, my "boomer" peers left, without forgetting that past choice are not set in stone, they are perpetuated with every-day decisions...

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – eykanal
    Jun 18 at 16:12

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