The Ethics of Intervention

The group of mottly New Brunswickers had no coxswain.

That will teach you to laugh at our hats, European bitches! 

Brits sure love to row, I think to myself, flashing back to the televised Heritage Minute in which a group of Canadians win the World Championship in 1867. Oh how the badly dressed fishermen sniggered as their heavy boat slid by the fancy pants team from Oxford. Now it’s my turn to show those weedy coxswain-knockers what’s what. After hunching over musty medical books at the Wellcome Library all week, I cannot wait to work my back. I settle onto a machine at the busy Tottenham Court Road gym—ah, the seat is still warm—turn the tension up to 10, pop in my earbuds, and push through my legs and torso before pulling the bar to mid chest while leaning back slightly. Check that form, baby! My feeling of euphoria does not last long, coming to an abrupt halt when a young woman awkwardly straddles the machine beside me. She is skeletal, her painfully knobby knees and shin bones protruding though a layer of thin skin. This fragile figure appears to be near death, with hollow eyes and an empty expression. She must be suffering from anorexia, I decide. I glance away but she has seen me looking, and continues to study my actions, raising her tension and trying to keep pace with my stroke. I am not sure what to do. I have no idea what she is thinking or what it feels like to live her body. Still, I am afraid that she will collapse from over-exertion if this land rowing competition continues. Should I try to help her? 

In the end, I do nothing. 

I have never participated in a formal intervention. I mean the kind that happens on TV talk shows, when drug addicts are ambushed by friends and family, forced into rehab under the threat of withdrawn funds and emotional support. As far as I can tell, during such events people are made to confess their lack of self-control and then “agree” to receive some kind of medical care. The best and in many ways most accurate dramatized version of an intervention was on The Sopranos, when Christopher wakes up to find the family gathered in his living room and shouts ‘”What the fuck?” ( After the drug-addled Christopher calls his mother a whore, the boys literally put the boots to him, landing him in the hospital with a skull fracture. What I love about this scene—besides the genius of its writing, staging, and acting—is the direct admission of the violence involved in the act of intervening. This event is undeniably aggressive, positioning the sick or addicted person as a non-individual who has forfeited at least some of his or her civil rights by demonstrably making bad decisions instead of pursuing a socially acceptable good life. Just consider who is regularly at the receiving end of arguably less aggressive and probably well-intentioned lifestyle advice: pregnant women, new mothers, women lifting weights at the gym. I’m sure you can think of others. My point is that “offering help” is not a neutral act stemming only from the goodness of one’s heart. It is embedded in often unconscious assumptions about gendered identity, personal agency, and sites of authority. That is why I hesitate to intervene.

Loathsome Skylar holds the talking pillow.

Loathsome Skylar holds the talking pillow.

I have been thinking about intervention and our contemporary culture of caregiving for a few reasons. Firstly, I have been watching more episodes of the series Breaking Bad, which is taking a long time for me to get through because I am too feakin’ busy to watch much TV. But I digress… I have come to feel great sympathy for Walt, a man who is made to express himself in regulated ways by performing the role of sick person or caring father on demand. He is forced to hold the “talking pillow” in his group ambush scene, something I now do on a regular basis in my own home. “I’ve got the pillow and I have an announcement to make!” I shout in the mornings, acting like a human alarm clock after Mr Crabby Pants has hit the snooze button for the tenth time. You cannot imagine the praise and gratitude that I receive for my considerate pillow snatching. Anyway, the second reason that I have been pondering the ethical dimensions of intervention is that Fitbabe recently approached a painfully thin woman, extending both her card and the opportunity to talk anytime. I won’t provide more detail for fear of invading anyone’s privacy. I can say that I admired Fitbabe’s solution to the dilemma of intervention, for she spoke with respect and offered sincere help without suggesting a list of rules to go along with it. Empathetic listening skills are indeed valuable, and Fitbabe has them in spades. Me not so much. 

What’s more, Fitbabe is a trained professional with experience in helping people with eating disorders and body dysmorphia. I lack this knowledge. However, should any of you have questions about seventeenth-century French medical practice, please give me a call. Basically, I think that intervention is acceptable when the person offering help actually has the ability to do so, and also recognizes the agency of the person in need. I have a great deal of personal experience with living with mentally ill people, for instance, having spent the first few decades of my life negotiating a wide range of difficult, stressful, and frankly dangerous situations. So I am rather well informed and potentially able to intervene in those issues, especially if I really care about the people involved. Still, even then I would interrogate my motives. I wonder if any of my readers have grappled with the ethics of offering advice, and would share their stories?

Nothing done to acquire this product could ever be wrong.

Nothing done to acquire this product could ever be wrong.

“If someone were to intervene in your life,” I asked my LSP (at that point he was wide awake), “what issue would be addressed?” “Probably my gambling,” he said, heading out the door to the casino. “But that’s insane,” I responded, “you make rather than lose money!” Of course, my approval of his poker playing is based on his manly enjoyment of it, not his recent promise that each time he wins over $1,000 I am allowed to purchase a new kitchen applicance costing between $200-$300. “Hot damn!” I cried. Then again, my LSP also has a degree in chemistry, so in my opinion he could be making profit in certain other more reliable ways. As for my future intervention party, it will be focused on my tendency toward obsessive “workaholism,” especially during the last few weeks when I have been sitting in front of my computer non-stop to meet my January 31 book deadline. I am unable to cease and desist from writing, thinking, or talking about this project. Hey guess what? Next week I will feature snippets from my finished manuscript, including the photographs of me taken by DAD, which show me looking weak, vulnerable, and pathetic. I will offer them as feminist alternatives at odds with the usual figure girl glamour shots. That will be a whole new kind of intervention, so get ready my friends.intervention banner

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About feministfiguregirl

I am a 51-year-old professor named Lianne McTavish who receives as much satisfaction from working out at the gym as from publishing my academic research. About eight years ago, I decided to combine my two primary identities (scholar/gym rat) to create "Feminist Figure Girl," a fictional character who both analyzes and participates in bodybuilding. I competed in my first figure show in June of 2011, and then wrote a book inspired by the process, published by SUNY Press in February 2015. In this blog I will write about and consider my ongoing research on the body, while regularly making fun of myself. I recommend that you start reading my first post from August 2010 (available on the home page), instead of backwards from the most recent one, in order to get the full FFG effect.

2 thoughts on “The Ethics of Intervention

  1. Great post FFG….interesting take on the subject..and yes, I need to start watching Breaking Bad! Looking forward to next weeks post as well! Has anyone told you that you are a great writer in a while?? lol

  2. A few years ago, my partner and I were waiting for the elevator in our apartment building downtown Minneapolis. We suspected many of the other residents were strippers due to appearance and the proximity to a few “gentlemen’s clubs”. The door opens and there is one of suspected “dancers” standing over a pile of her fresh vomit. She was inebriated, mumbled out, “Sorry,” then stumbled out of the elevator. We just left. I’ve been sober now for 14 years. I know I’ve been a stumbling mess and most certainly did something equally repellent at some time in my using days. No on ever tried an intervention with me. I regret I didn’t at least make sure she made it to whatever apartment she was aiming for. But, I think the best thing I could have done for that girl was call the police and let them put her in detox. Until you get scared and can actually see how much your life has become a complete out-of-control mess, you’re probably not going to quit.

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