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Aunt Pythia’s advice

May 30, 2015

Aunt Pythia is very sorry to be late, and especially since last week she was away on vacation (in the woods! no wifi! many bugs!).

She knows her readers misses her tremendously, and the feeling is mutual. In order to make up for her tardiness, Aunt Pythia has made everyone banana chocolate chip pancakes:


Got a fork and a knife? And milk and coffee and syrup and strawberries too? Good, let’s eat up. And, before you leave,

ask Aunt Pythia any question at all at the bottom of the page!

By the way, if you don’t know what the hell Aunt Pythia is talking about, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I like that Malties cereal in the mornings: I’m sure you have them over there too – little rectangular lattices of about 18x21mm side length. For convenient pouring in my bleary morning state, as I open a fresh box, I transfer the as much of the contents as possible to a large plastic dispenser, from which I pour a serving each morning. The container I use has a rectangular base of about 80x205mm.

What troubles me is this: when I pour the cereal in, it of course tumbles randomly into the container. A boxful never quite fits. Would it make much difference if the lattices were neatly stacked in nice horizontal strata?

If I wasn’t so hung up about this from the moment I wake each day, I’m sure I’d be more receptive to my partner’s early morning advances, too!

Yours in desperation,
Get A Bigger Server, OR Get All Malties Stacked


I keep thinking your sign-off means something, but I can’t figure out what.

Also, I keep thinking there’s some deeper meaning to your question, but I can’t figure that out either. I mean, if you wanted me to estimate how much space you’d save by stacking your cereal carefully in a storage box, at the very least you’d have to tell me how tall each little Maltie is and how tall your storage container is. I suppose I could try to eyeball a solution to the problem using those measurements as variables, but then you’d be overestimating how much work I’m willing to do here.

In fact, without knowing the height of a Maltie, I wouldn’t even know how to neurotically arrange them to save space; lying them in rows, flat on the bottom, would leave space along the edges, and I don’t know how many more you can fit by arranging them on their side without knowing more.

Anyhoo, I think it’s sufficient to say that yes, you can definitely save space by doing this. And at this point, I think you own me a picture of your perfectly arranged storage box. After that, by all means, be receptive to your partner’s advances.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a PhD student in physics, where I am pretty much the only person who wears a dress – between men and a few women that there is at the department. I am telling this to emphasize that I like being girly. But, I realized last weekend that I am not girly enough. I had a get-together with my long-time girlfriends (we all live in different continents now), and was judged on pretty much every piece of my appearance from not-plucking-my-facial-hair-good-enough to why-am-I-not-doing-something-about-my-misshapen-teeth.

Another thing was when we were discussing birth control: they are dead against pills, or IUD, because these things directly control your hormones which then controls your periods and a woman having her period is the most natural thing on Earth. And what if you can’t have children because of that, how would I forgive myself knowing that I could’ve just used condoms and prevented that?

I find these people very beautiful, fun, and actually strong women because they can pose for a picture and not worry about opening their mouths too much not to show their teeth.

Anyhoo, my question is: Knowing that I shouldn’t conform deep inside, how do I actually feel neutral about having all these not-so-beautiful stuff about my body? Or is it just easier to wax every week?

Have An Influence pRoblem

Dear HAIR,

This is a seriously great question. Plus, nice sign-off. I even know what it means.

Here’s the thing about rules. Rules often exist for a purpose. But I like to challenge rules, and to do so I try to backtrack to their original purpose, and then decide whether:

  1. the rule was a good one given the purpose, and
  2. whether the purpose matters to me at all, and
  3. whether it matters more to me than it bothers me to follow the rules.

Let’s use this approach for the stuff you’re dealing with pertaining to the rules around personal grooming and general “girliness” or “womanliness.”


Women are supposed to keep their hair off of everything except their head. That is to say, they get pushback for having hairy armpits, hairy legs, and even hairy private parts. Conversely, they get push-back if they shave their heads. Those are the rules. Oh, and they’re only supposed to have hair on the part of their heads away from the face. Hair on the face is to be shaved or plucked.

What’s the purpose behind this? It’s a tricky one, but I think it basically boils down to looking young. Men, we are told, are attracted to young women, so women have pressure to appear young. Young people’s hair is very fine, and almost invisible, so to appear super young we should appear hairless.

What’s strange about this purpose is that men are actually attracted to women, not girls, so they should be comfortable with at least a certain amount of hair, unless they’ve been talked out of it somehow. It’s clearly at least somewhat a cultural fad, perhaps even created by shaving and grooming companies that want to make more money off of selling products to women.

So, going back to my approach, I feel like the rule that we have to remain hairless-looking (except for some parts of our head) is kind of random and maybe even commercial. It’s a bad rule. Also, the purpose doesn’t matter much to me, because although I like men being attracted to me well enough, I’m okay with self-selected “I like hair” men.

I do have an exception, however, for facial hair, perhaps because it is so closely associated with oldness and therefore unsexiness. To be honest, I don’t feel completely happy with my own chin-hair issues, and I wish I could transcend them. I strive to be that old lady with a beard, wearing purple hats and poking young people on the subway with my umbrella when they misbehave.


Good teeth have historically been a very important signal of nutrition. Read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and you’ll see how incredibly obvious terrible nutrition was in Europe in the mid-1700’s. Very poor women had no teeth, and the saying “a tooth for every child” was very real.

Nowadays, not so much, but we still rate each other’s health and wealth on how many and how straight our teeth are. Oh, and how white they are, which is again a marketing miracle. So the purpose behind giving you shit about your teeth is that people will judge your health and your wealth badly if you don’t.

Is this a good rule? Should you care? I think it depends on how crooked your teeth really are, and how much it matters to the people you’re trying to impress. If you’re an actress, it matters a lot. But if, in your profession, you are somewhere in the average range, give it no further thought. And I’d wager that, in physics, standards are pretty low.


They want you to not take hormones because “having your period is natural” and “you might not be able to conceive afterwards. To be honest neither of those reasons sound convincing, first because first I have never heard of the pill making it harder to conceive, except maybe the copper IUD but it doesn’t sound like you mean that one, and second because historically women have had far fewer periods due to a combination of more pregnancies, longer breastfeeding, and poorer nutrition.

However, I personally have reasons I’d never take hormones, so I will mention them here. I have experience both with pills, which I’ve been on three times in my life, and the Mirena IUD, which I also used for 2 years. In all of these hormonal experiments, I have been more easily depressed, less ambitious, and generally uninterested in everything. Whenever I get off the hormones, I get incredibly energized, horny, and ambitious. I know things affect women differently, so I won’t speak for everyone, but my experiences have convinced me never to do it again.

And of course, the convenience of not having to worry about getting pregnant is pretty great, so you have to weigh things against each other. There is no perfect solution to anything.


One last thing, although you didn’t ask. What’s the purpose of a bunch of women getting together and criticizing each other? Not to say they didn’t also support you, I’m sure they did.

But it’s a general “rule” that women do this, so their must be an associated purpose. I think it has something to do with reinforcing the sense that they aren’t wasting their time plucking their facial hair, getting their teeth straightened, and posing for pictures whilst having their natural periods. And that reinforced sense also feeds into why they give off a sense of being “strong” women.

The truth is, though, that it is kind of a waste of time, often, but it’s a difficult subject to breach in certain company. In any case I wanted to let you know that you’re probably doing it right – you’re enjoying your girliness in your own way and at your own level, but not at the level that your friends expect. In my book, that means you’re enjoying it but not wasting time on it, so well done!

Aunt Pythia

p.s. Update: just saw this related Times Opinion piece.


Dear Auntie P,

So I’ve recently started sleeping and developing emotional bonds with someone. All great, everything clicking the way it should, so much so that we both feel half our age, which would put us back in the heady days of high school – read “we were unprepared for what we both knew was going to happen and did the rumpus unprotected.” To be clear, pregnancy protection is in place but barriers were not.

My question isn’t “how do you go to the other person and say that we’re going to go back to using condoms”, because the answer is to look the other person in the eye and say “I think we need to go back to using condoms”. No, the question is, when my partner probes my thinking on this matter, how do I navigate the undercurrent of not being sure that my partner isn’t possibly a carrier of an STI, and/or saying that they should not feel secure that I amn’t? Going barrier-less functions in the modern world, I’d say, as a fairly high-trust-threshold signal, but is there a better way to answer the question “why should we use condoms” than “because I don’t fully trust you yet, or because you shouldn’t fully trust me yet, or some nonlinear combination of these”?

Complicating factor: hubby has in the past experimented with non-monogamy, though they found it not to their liking; and I’d like at least the option of non-monogamy to be open to both of us going forward. These are matters we’re working out, but aren’t urgently crying for final resolution. Let’s just say that at the moment, we’re occupying each other’s time quite capably.

Trusty Lusty

Dear Trusty,

I’ve read this letter a bunch of times, and I’m still a bit confused.

Let me start with what I think – think – is happening.

  1. You are married.
  2. You are also having an affair.
  3. You are sexually active with both your husband and your lover.
  4. You recently didn’t use a condom with your lover.
  5. You are wondering how to “go back to using condoms” without having an awkward conversation about trust.

If the above is all correct, you have put yourself and your husband at risk of STD’s. I’m not sure your sign-off is entirely warranted.

As for advice, yes I have some: an awkward conversation, pronto. Tell your lover that you would love to go with him to a testing facility to make sure you haven’t exchanged any STD’s. Feel free to mention that an STD could have come from you, and that he’s not the only suspect. If you feel like it would be an easier conversation, suggest that your husband has experimented with non-monogamy in the past and so there’s yet a fourth person, who neither of you know, in the mix.

But in any case, even if you never convince your lover to get tested, go get tested yourself, and be sure to use condoms from now on. Also, get tested again in 6 months.

Aunt Pythia


Dear AP,

What do you think about hacking ethics? In particular, I’m thinking of this article, which details how some students sneaked a peak at their admission results by hacking a website.

I’m tempted to side with the students against the B-schools because, y’know, business schools. But, then I realize that these applicants, if successful, will become business school students. So, have to be against them, too.

At the root of it, though, hacking things is such a great part of nerdy engineering culture and the best way to learn how things really work (maybe?). Feels like hacks should be celebrated when they aren’t being used for nefarious purposes. And what harm comes to the business schools if applicants know the decisions early? Weigh that against the benefit to the applicants of being able to plan their lives, like buying a Duke sweatshirt and renting an apartment in Durham (maybe?).

Crotchety in Seattle

Dear Crotchety,

I am OK with them getting kicked out of B-School because this wasn’t really hacking, this was cheating. They didn’t even figure it out, for god’s sake, they just followed instructions! That’s not hacking. Plus it’s also a sign of dumbness that they thought they could get away with it.

I’m with you that hacking is a fun side of nerdy engineering culture, but I much prefer hacks that have mischievous or even higher goals attached to them for me to defend the hackers. Aaron Schwartz I’ll defend, a disappointed Sloan School student I won’t.

Auntie P


People, people! Aunt Pythia loves you so much. And she knows that you love her. She feels the love. She really really does.

Well, here’s your chance to spread your Aunt Pythia love to the world! Please ask her a question. She will take it seriously and answer it if she can.

Click here for a form or just do it now:

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. Samiam
    May 30, 2015 at 1:27 pm

    Um, I don’t think you read the second question right. What makes you think that she has a husband? The use of the word Hubby? I think that can just be a synonym for lover. I read the letter as clearly and straightforwardly being about someone who was in a relatively new, but very good, relationship in which she had been using condoms until one time she didn’t. She wants to go back to using them without suggesting she thinks one of them has an STI or will cheat.


    • May 31, 2015 at 2:33 am

      I agree, I think that’s the best interpretation. I had to look it up, but some people apparently do use “hubby” to mean “boyfriend who I like to imagine could be a future husband”.



      • May 31, 2015 at 2:57 am

        Maybe, but it seems like an incredibly poor choice of words if so. But yes, it does simplify the answer quite a bit. In any case, it is time for awkwardness.


  2. Otter
    June 6, 2015 at 7:50 am

    I think that Hair describes her friends as “very beautiful, fun, and actually strong women” in contrast to herself. Also that “they can pose for a picture and not worry about opening their mouths” is at least inadequate for the statement … and more likely a clever red-herring. Probably SHE feels badly about her teeth for HERSELF, not for any people she might be trying to impress. If it is for herself (and maybe some domineering type has insisted that physicists don’t need good teeth), and if she can afford the work, she should get her teeth fixed, for herself.

    I was also struck by your testemony, “In all of these hormonal experiments, I have been more easily depressed, less ambitious, and generally uninterested in everything. Whenever I get off the hormones, I get incredibly energized, horny, and ambitious.” I have thought I noticed similar effects in some women whom I (male) have been with.

    Has there been any research? Not bought by pharmacorps?

    Possibly related : Back in the early days of The Pill, some feminists reported, and I overheard several times, “What do you mean NO! You are on the pill aren’t you? You can’t say no!”


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