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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: May I offer a response to the letter from "Petite's Mom in Salem, Va." (Feb. 25), whose daughter "Claire" is the target of rude comments due to her size?

I was born disabled and walk with a limp. All my life, people have demanded the most outrageous information, including the standard, "What's wrong with you?" or, "Do you take medicine for that?" And my favorite, "But ... can you have sex?"

I have found the best defense against rudeness is a sense of humor and compassion. Many people say things without intending to insult, and sometimes they speak before they have a chance to think.

When someone asks me a rude question, I'm likely to respond with one of your gems: "Why do you ask?" -- LINDA IN MATHEWS, VA.

DEAR LINDA: Thank you for the reminder that a softer retort can be as effective as one that's confrontational. Many readers "weighed" in with similar experiences and suggestions for Claire. Read on:

DEAR ABBY: The letter from "Petite's Mom" was resonant of many years of my life. I grew up in the '30s and '40s. I have never weighed more than 110 pounds and, at 5 feet 4 inches tall, have endured similar questions and comments my entire life. Example from a stranger: "You're the skinniest person I have ever seen!"

It used to make me feel inferior. How things have changed. Recently, as I was leaving a restaurant, I overheard a woman say, "I would kill to be that size!" How sweet it is. -- GLAD I LIVED TO SEE THE DAY, ORANGE, CALIF.

DEAR ABBY: Years ago, I told a very small kindergartener, "You sure are small to be in kindergarten." She must have heard it many times before, because she replied, "My mommy says it's not how big you are; it's how much you KNOW." From the mouths of babes. It taught me a lesson, and I have never commented again about a person's size. -- MIMI IN MAUD, OKLA.

DEAR ABBY: I agree it's inappropriate to comment to people about their physical appearance. However, I think you missed the mark in your reply.

People who comment to Claire about her weight are rude, but an impudent response is also inappropriate because it reinforces rude behavior. She could consider saying, "I appreciate your concern for my health, but I have discussed my weight with my doctor, who assures me that I'm a healthy, petite person." This will allow her to give a direct response while showing she can handle herself with dignity.

She should treat others with respect even when it appears that the respect is not mutual, and demonstrate that good things come in small packages! -- DENISE IN LONG BEACH, CALIF.

DEAR ABBY: I married a 5-foot-2, 103-pound woman 52 years ago. She's as healthy as a horse, although she has since put on a few pounds -- she now weighs a whopping 105.

My wife has been in the hospital four times in her life. Three of those were for childbirth. She is two months shy of 80, and still has a figure most women would be proud of at 30. Call me prejudiced, but she is the perfect size for me. -- WILLIAM IN RIO HONDO, TEXAS

What teens need to know about sex, drugs, AIDS and getting along with peers and parents is in "What Every Teen Should Know." To order, send a business-sized, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $6 (U.S. funds) to: Dear Abby -- Teen Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Postage is included in the price.)

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