Everywhere in society we are constantly being told we should have strict exercise regimens in order to look and feel good. I rarely do any exercise at all apart from walking to places and occasional bike rides, and sometimes people make me feel bad about that. They’re like, “Once you grow up you’re going to put a lot of weight on!” But is exercise really necessary? Do I really have to join a gym to be healthy? —Lucy

I am in favor of exercise. I think it is swell. It lifts your mood, it helps you work out aggression, it puts you more in touch with your body. I believe all of these are good things, especially for ladies, who typically are not taught how to nurture their aggression and/or bodies. Nothing I am going to say to you is going to be like, “no, never exercise, get yourself a beanbag chair and watch Doctor Who episodes until you are dead.” Clearly, you also enjoy some exercise! Since you walk! And bike! Which is MORE THAN WHAT LOTS OF PEOPLE DO.

HOWEVER: there are two approaches to exercise. One: you exercise in order to feel good, move around, and maybe be a bit healthier. This is good; it helps you have a friendly relationship with your body. Approach two, however, blows. Because approach two is exercising in order to be skinny and pretty. Which doesn’t work, and which actually makes your body into your enemy. If you exercise to be skinny and pretty, you’ll always be disappointed, and you’ll always be punishing your body—punishing, in some vital sense, YOU—for existing.

For one thing, being skinny is not being healthy; skinny people can be sickly, and big people can be the picture of health. For another, your body shape has a lot to do with genetics, and as such, there are things about it you can’t change. My family, for example, has hips that are legendary in structure; Shakira-like, they are incapable of lying. Even when I was extremely skinny (and extremely unhealthy), I still had hips. Because my body type, inherited from my family, insists that I will have them forever; I will never be a tall, lithe model-type. There is no such thing as exercising so hard that your genetic code magically changes. So I buy myself some jeans and skirts that point out my super-awesome sexy hips, and I rejoice. The hips will be there forever, so I’ve decided that I like them.

And, three, when it comes to girls, there is literally no such thing as being “skinny enough” to escape the pressure to lose more weight. If you’re exercising to punish your body into being the “right” shape, well, you’re never going to have that “right” shape, so you’ll always be unhappy.

Exercise is great, to the extent that it makes you feel good and helps you stay active. But that can only happen if you’re doing the exercise YOU, PERSONALLY like to do. Like walking, for example. Or biking. Bikes terrify me; I do yoga. My partner goes to the gym for hours, because he likes that. Do what works for you. This is all about being friendly with your own personal body. Which is just another way of being friendly with yourself. —Sady

My family’s lack of money has fostered in me a lifelong depression over not having the life I wish I could have. I’m happiest when surrounded by wealth and glamour; so I realize that money CAN buy me happiness. I am a material boy at heart! Now I feel like the world is going to end because my mom told me to stop spending the money I EARN from my part-time job because we may have to leave my oppressive father and start again on our own. I feel like we are going into a state of poverty because my immigrant mother gets paid so little. How do I stop spending money on what is unnecessary? What exactly is unnecessary? Why is life so expensive? —Freddy

Freddy, my material soul brother, I feel for you! As a former and perpetual material girl myself, I know how awful it is to feel like the life you want is so, so, so far from the life you have and the life that is possible. I remember one time, when I was a kid, my dad took me to the library to borrow videotapes, and on the way back we passed by this bike shop where I spotted the world’s most amazing bike, and I just lost it. I got down on the ground and started beating my fists on the pavement. I said to my dad that I wouldn’t leave until he bought me a bike. My poor father was a graduate student at NYU, trying to make his scholarship money and his part-time job delivering Chinese food really stretch to cover our living costs AND still have enough at the end of each month to send money back to our relatives in China. I think on that day when I refused to get up from the ground, he had about 20 dollars to his name. He promised me that he would save enough money by Christmas to get me a bicycle, but his promise only made me weep more violently, because December was still months away. In the end, I had to get up off the ground and go home and eat instant noodles and go to bed feeling sorry for myself. A week later, the family we shared an apartment with came home with the exact bicycle I saw in the window of the bike shop in Brooklyn, only it was wrapped up in the bow and it was mine.

I wish I could tell you that throughout my life, beautiful, lucky things like that continued to happen to me and that beautiful, lucky things will happen to you too, but to be honest, I don’t know if that’s possible. It ain’t easy to go from broke to flush. My family scrimped and saved for years. The things I wanted to do so badly—go back-to-school shopping for new clothes, go out to eat in nice restaurants every weekend, take vacations and stay at luxurious five-star hotels, buy whatever we wanted at the supermarket—were just not possible. Six months after my brother was born, my parents made the incredibly difficult decision to send him to Shanghai to live with my grandparents for two years, because we were so broke that we couldn’t afford childcare, nor could we afford for one of my parents to stop working full-time to take care of my brother. No parent should ever have to make that decision, and no child should ever have to bear the burden of financial responsibility for their parents, but the sad truth is that until employers start paying their employees a living wage, this kind of stuff is going to remain a reality.

As far as what is necessary and what isn’t—in some sense, everything is necessary if you feel like it is! And you should never feel guilty about wanting to be surrounded by exquisite things. However, if you are working with an extremely limited budget, then your basic expenses will include—at the very least—housing and food costs, anything you would need for school, and anything you and your mother need to stay healthy (medical expenses, prescriptions, etc.). Your parents are responsible for covering these expenses—they are responsible for sheltering, feeding, and clothing you, as well as getting you through school. But right now, it sounds like your mom might need some help in paying for some of that stuff.

I don’t know what your mom’s language skills are, but I would really encourage her to apply for government assistance. Maybe you can help her navigate the application forms if there are language barriers. Food stamps are a good way to save money on food costs each month; each state has its own application process and rules. I don’t know if you and your mom will be looking for a new place to live, but also consider applying for housing assistance. You can search for privately owned subsidized housing, which are basically apartments offered at reduced rents to low-income tenants, here; or apply for Section 8 assistance at your local public housing agency—that is basically a voucher program where, if your family qualifies based on income, you will receive government assistance to cover part of or all of your rent. This stuff is hard, and the paperwork is sometimes frustrating and confusing, but it can be tremendously helpful for you and your mom if you’re struggling financially.

You can live a pretty fabulous life, meanwhile, on a budget. Thrifting is a great way to get things on the cheap. My friend’s sister recently found an amazing Armani prep-school-style blazer at Stuff Etc for a couple of dollars. I’ve found prom dresses for 60 cents on Half-Off Tuesdays at the Salvation Army. Don’t be afraid to get creative. You can turn a pair of kicks you’ve owned for eternity into a new pair of shoes if you pick up a bottle of spray paint at the hardware store, or with some RIT dye. See if there’s a local Freecycle group in your town or in one close to you. Freecycle is a listserv where people post things that they no longer need or want and are giving away for free. I’ve gotten a stack of Playboy magazines from the ’70s from Freecycle, and have seen people giving away things like a brand-new 10-speed bike or a crate of vintage milk bottles from the ’60s, which I promptly picked up and used as vases for flowers. Check out the free section on Craigslist as well (and use good sense and caution when communicating and/or meeting up with strangers).

If you want to read a book or watch a movie, check them out from your local library for free.

Also, don’t be afraid to explore your town on foot (or bike if you have one). Some of my best finds came from random yard sales and garage sales that I happened to come across or happened to see a flier for. See if there are any estate sales in your town.

And finally, as cheesy as it sounds, keep dreaming. Remind yourself that even though you can’t afford to buy luxurious things, you can still dream luxuriously. I once found a crystal doorknob on the ground on my way home from school. I took it home, washed it, and kept it on my bedside table for years, pretending it was a diamond. I knew it wasn’t actually a diamond, but it made me feel princely to have it. My mom found a set of gorgeous teacups with an English rose design at a garage sale for two dollars and for years I would drink everything out of them, even tap water, because it made me feel like I was having high tea with the Queen. Find small ways to treat yourself, and that will help to lessen the blow of not having the actual money to treat yourself. And above all, stay strong, and if you can get through high school, and get through college or whatever kind of training will help you secure the kind of job you want, it won’t be long until you can live the way you want to live, or at least close to that. —Jenny

I am always really embarrassed when I am tagged in Facebook pictures; I always think I look horrible, and it causes lots of angst. How can I be more comfortable with my Facebook image? —Anonymous

Do you know how some people, when faced with a recording of their own voice, cringe and think, THAT’S what I sound like?! You and I are unlucky enough to feel that way about our appearances in photos, especially ones that end up posted on Facebook. Social media has made our private insecurities about pictures of ourselves very public, which sucks when you think about it—those jerks with their voice hang-ups don’t have their voices broadcasted online 24/7 for their loved ones/crushes/new pals to see, do they?

In all honesty, though, this public airing of our insecurities is good for us, because it forces us to woman up about our self-consciousness. We can’t untag everything, you know? So I ask you this: why not TAKE CONTROL over which photos people can see? Make your photos private until you feel comfortable enough not to, and in the meantime, make your profile shot some adorable pic of you in a school play where you killed it, or snugging with your most beloved best friend, or on a day when your hair looked particularly legendary. I recently realized that the good thing about Facebook pictures is that I can engineer them until I feel comfortable with what I share with others—so can you. Use that.

Also, keep in mind that people posting pictures on Facebook are often LOOKIN’ OUT FOR #1, aka putting up the pictures in which they look great and others might be making a wonky face, and ALSO that every single everyone on this planet has some self-perceived bad photos of them put up at some point or another. It’s just the way of the world, or at least of the internet.

Most important: it’s easy to scrutinize ourselves way more closely than other people do. I GUARANTEE you that you’re way more concerned with that snapshot of you scowling at the pep rally than anyone else is. No one thinks you look as bad as you do—they probably don’t even think you look bad; just that you look normal. Just because you take a picture that you don’t think is OMGPERFECT every once in a while doesn’t make you any less beautiful. We all have those photos. Models, who are professionally photogenic, have those photos. It doesn’t mean we’re hideola; just that we’re people who are capable of accidentally being caught awkwardly mid-laugh in a group picture sometimes. And you know what? It just proves that you were having a great time with people you adore, which is more attractive than just about anything else I can think of, including an overly contrived photo of one’s duckface and cleavage in a mirror. Be glad that you’ll have these photos to one day look back on and be like, “That was the best time.” I promise you that that doesn’t usually come to mind when looking at old pursed-lip selfies. X ARS

Last week, my best friend’s mom died of ovarian cancer. When she told me, I made sure that she knew that I’m here for her, in any capacity. I told her that she could tell me anything she wanted, or nothing at all if she didn’t want to. Since then, we have talked every day, but she never talks about her mother’s death. I’m fine with that—I don’t expect her to pour her heart out or anything if she doesn’t want to. When we hang out, she seems…normal, if not more light than before. I don’t know if I should be concerned that she seems to be adjusting well, or if I should be glad. She’s one of those people who think they have to be strong for everyone all the time, but she usually at least tells me how she feels. So…am I doing enough? Am I doing too much? I don’t want to smother her—I just want her to know that I love her and am here to help in any way that I can. Please help. —L.

Hi, L. I’ve never dealt with a friend losing a parent, but I know how I would have wanted my friends to react when I lost one. When my mom died, I tried as hard as I could to make life normal. I went back to school almost immediately, I kept doing Rookie stuff, I talked to the same people, and I never changed my routine. I think this is a common coping method, trying to bring yourself back to some level of normalcy in order to not think about your situation as much (denial may also be a part of it, but obviously everyone’s different). Since your friend doesn’t seem to have changed (though I’m sure she has in some way), she might just be trying to keep steady with the only things in her life that aren’t changing. Losing a parent changes a lot, and I know that I wanted to hold on to any stability I could get my hands on. Good friendships are stable. So, by just being there for her and being her friend, you’re probably doing the best thing for her.

On the other hand, I couldn’t (can’t) help thinking about what happened all the time, and when I never even got a word about it from my friends, I felt neglected. I really did want to talk about it sometimes, but I felt uncomfortable starting the conversation. So maybe you could gently let your friend know that she can talk to you about her mother, so she won’t have to start the conversation or feel too smothered. A simple “You haven’t mentioned your mom since this happened, and I want you to know that you can always talk to me about it if you want” would have meant the world to me, no matter how hard I tried to make life normal again.

I can tell that you love your friend very much. If she knows how much you care about her, you’re doing the right thing. Just let her know that she can always talk to you, and give her space when she needs it. Though this really is a horrible time, she’s really lucky to have a friend like you. —Ruby

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