THANKS, I THINK

It can be difficult to tell compliments from insults. You’d think it would be easy and obvious, but it isn’t.


As a child, my mother comforted me with her classic lines. Somewhere in my head, I can still hear her. A lonely (probably weird) child, as a teenager, it took me a long time to find my social self. But Mom could always reassure me in her own special way: “There’s someone for everyone,” she told me. “Even you.”

Photo: Garry Armstrong

And then there was the clothing my mother made for me. It was gorgeous, fashionable and of far better quality than the other little girls wore. The Mean Girls (those girls have been around forever and live everywhere) just said “Eww! Where did you get that ugly dress?” It wasn’t ugly. They were ugly.

Nicer, kinder people (adults mostly) would say, “Your mother must have made that for you. It’s so … interesting.”

As a young woman, I put on a lot of weight. Before I eventually got rid of that hundred and fifty pounds, there were some great lines from “friends” who knew just the right words to make me feel good:

“You dress really well for a fat girl.”

“I don’t think of you as fat. You’re just Marilyn.”

Later on, no longer fat, but still me, compliments have streamed in nonstop:

Photo: Garry Armstrong –

“I thought you were a nun. Don’t you own anything that isn’t black?”

My all time favorite, from the woman who never managed to get my first husband to the altar (though had he lived longer, she might have worn him down — she just needed another decade — or two) … and who couldn’t figure out the source of my continuing popularity with men.

“I’m very nice to them. I make them feel special and loved,” I said. There was more to it, but this was all I was willing to share.

“I do that too,” she whined. (No, she didn’t.) “But,” she continued, getting more nasal by the minute, “How come they marry you?”

And finally, after I published my book.

“It was much better than I expected.” What were you expecting?

44 thoughts on “THANKS, I THINK

  1. Backhanded compliments are really sinister! But I also confided in my therapist today that all the Weinstein business has made me wonder what was wrong with me that I was never abused by a boss — maybe it was partly because I worked in a female-heavy, gay-heavy profession, and thet emptations were not there!

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    • The only time it came up for me was once … and I quit and got another job. There was NO way I was going to live like that. I think it also helps if you aren’t blindly ambitious and willing to put up with anything to get ahead in your profession. Blind ambition makes us stupid.

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  2. I’ll never forget my mother admitting to me that, when a friend said at a school concert ” I didn’t know your son could sing”, she replied, “Neither did I”! She meant it as a compliment, I think. I took it to mean she was a mother who didn’t have much interest in her son!

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    • Maybe both? My mother didn’t “get” wit as an attractive feature for a woman. Different generations. But a lot of women couldn’t figure out why I never seemed to lack for men in my life. I think it was because I treated men like I treated women (other than in bed, obviously). As friends. I always believed if you didn’t LIKE the guy, you probably were going to make bad partners. Whenever I forgot that, it was a disaster.

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  3. Reflecting on comments made in the past which would even Hirt my feelings, in realise today how unimportant it was. Dad said “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”.

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    • Except that names really DO hurt and sometimes, more than sticks. True when we are young, we tend to be easily hurt because we are so young … but mean people can hurt you a lot and the pain can last a long time. Especially people close to us, like parents.

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  4. we never forget these things do we? But thankfully we are able to move on and embrace who we are despite the negative. and surround ourselves with people who love us just the way we are, perfect imperfections and all

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  5. oh yes. every word. When I was about 12 (which doesn’t get any awkwarder) I made the mistake of saying to my mother, “am I ever going to be pretty” and she said, after a dreadful hesitation, “beauty is only skin deep. people will love you for what you are, not what you look like.” that’s what boys are after, alright.

    I remember, long after I was an adult, encountering some 11 and 12 year old junior varsity cheerleaders– who tend to set up cheers almost anywhere–these girls were in a corner of the local mall, working out steps and rhythms, totally oblivious to onlookers. One of them was one of those dreadfully homely girls, thick glasses, braces, big ears. But I knew the family, and I knew they adored her. And it showed. She had no idea how homely she was, she was out there cheering and waving her arms around and having a wonderful time. And she was adorable. And I suspect she danced every dance, when it was time.

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  6. I became numb to the insults and teasing very quickly and even learned to laugh at them… which in turn, helped me learn to laugh at myself. And I have such thick skin myself, that I often say seemingly innocent things that bother other people and I don’t get why it’s such a big deal for them. I think one of the many factors that hurts me socially is that I don’t have delicate sensibilities in the least, and expect those around me to be the same way…

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    • You need a significant other with an equally tough skin. I was very sensitive as a girl, but I grew out of it. I do notice how other people react … I notice that instantly … but you have to be intentionally going after me to piss me off.

      I stay away from people who think being mean is cute. I can deal with unintentional crap, but not from those who are just plain mean. There are too many of them.

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  7. I had one of those back handed non compliments from an older gentleman (sort of gentleman). Women were either pretty and stupid or ugly and smart. Now that’s a no win situation.
    Leslie

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  8. Oh and there was that time my longtime boyfriend’s mother approached me, loving smile on her face, head slightly tilted, love in her eyes. She reached out, pulled my long hair back off my shoulders and said, “Oh Honey…won’t he let you cut your hair?” Talk about cycling through a variety of emotions! I ended on “let” me???

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  9. People are just strange. My aunt Madylene once wrote, “You’ve done very well in your life, considering.” That was so weird. But actually she was right. I didn’t have all that much going for me and made a lot of serious mistakes along the way. I decided she was actually praising me for overcoming a lot of shit. My theory was correct. She’s who she is and she is proud of my novels, and of me — and she said so. Again, surprising, given who and how she is. The fat thing? “You have such a pretty face.” I heard that a lot and I was only 20 pounds overweight AND I have a stocky build anyway. I decided I needed to develop a thicker skin and a smaller ego — AND to eliminate from my life people whose ONLY way of relating to me had an insulting edge.

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    • I eventually decided that a lot of women found me a bit scary. I didn’t think I was scary, but well … They had these kind of tepid personalities where the concept of speaking out about anything was terrifying. They had no special talents, but badly wanted them. I was a serious threat. Which, when I look at my life, is pretty funny because I never made much money. Never got the great book published. Never was even slightly “well known.” I did have friends, though. And I was smart.

      I sometimes think it’s the smartness that makes other people so uncomfortable. I had a GREAT boss in one job. He had a Ph.D. from MIT in Advanced Mathematics, so also not exactly a dummy. He told me I had to slow down because not everyone — including him — could jump from A to F to Y without explaining the stuff between. I didn’t even know I DID that. That was a great learning thing … because I learned to just SLOW DOWN.

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  10. I was told at a very young age (foster ‘mother’ – a worse misnomer I’ve never found) that I should always wear dark colors and be silent, because “looking like you do, dear, you’ll never marry”. I was six. My biologic mother ragged me ceaselessly as a teenager because I was “fat” (I weighed maybe 25 lbs too much..with my family’s bone structure, who could tell and Ma was pretty hefty herself) . Later, as a young woman (22) I had a teacher at the trade school I was attending advise me to move to Alaska “because there are no women there and you’d have no problem finding a man”. I finally married at 34 and it was the worst mistake I ever made. So I think, for some of us, those well meaning hypocrites with their oh so kind advice, ought to just shut up and leave a person alone. Sometimes a person is just fine as they are, whether that’s solo or with six or seven or more mates over their lives. Nobody should judge, but boy doesn’t humanity find that pastime all engrossing though?

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    • I think judging is built into a lot of people. Not everyone, but many. You know … it’s not that we judge. I think it’s more HOW we judge.

      I never understood why anyone found me attractive. I wasn’t pretty and was always mostly too heavy or too something. I was not intentionally sexy and was very uncomfortable in low cut clothing. I was more inclined to caftans than decolletage.

      Attraction isn’t necessarily physical and that is something no one teaches us. I watched over the years as the hot chicks wound up alone while the nicer ones found homes. The most popular woman I knew was probably the least pretty — but also one of the kindest. As we grow up, our elders should spend a LOT more time teaching us about just being NICE to each other.

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  11. As your email advice reminds us – never attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by stupidity (ignorance/unawareness). I think there are generally more stupid/unthinking people than intentionally vicious ones. (Certainly in my own life’s experience).

    I’m pretty sure all the hurtful things i have said to people in the past were largely not intended to be hurtful, the reverse in fact, but that that did not stop some people being hurt anyway and i was too busy thinking about my own issues to notice.

    love.

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