University of Baltimore Asst. Prof. and Bohemian Rhapsody Columnist Marion Winik wants to accept one of the biggest compliments of her life. So what’s stopping her?

The other day I received an email from a woman named Marjorie, who’d just read a short memoir I wrote, set in Austin back in 1981. She, too, had vivid recollections of the period and people described — a serious flood, a piano in a tree, a dog the size of a pony, a jazz musician the size of a Volkswagen, a suicide. Her letter was a surprise to receive and interesting to read, but there were two sentences in particular that knocked me over.

Once Mark and I were talking about women and weight and body types and he told me that you had a twenty-inch waist and that he found you so beautiful. I remember that you looked like the Shaktis in my Far Eastern Art History book.

This was like getting 32-year-old news from Mars. I could not take it in. I don’t mean the 20-inch waist, I know I had a decent waist, though this number sounds like it was rounded down somewhere along the way.

The impossible thing, the radioactive space rock, was the idea that at some point in history two people sat around talking about the beauty of women’s bodies and I was the example.

That the dark, ethereal boy, who was my good friend’s neglected boyfriend, who took me in his arms one night in the car, who with the terrible shortsight of youth and torment hung himself with the rope from a hammock later that spring, said he found me so beautiful.

That Marjorie, who rode her bike from Minnesota and lived in the big house with Mark and the others for four months and of whom I have no memory at all, said I looked like the Shaktis in her Far Eastern art history book. I picture them as concupiscent hourglasses: bounteous bosoms and tapered waists, brimming hips and jingling ankles, their third eyes radiating tantric allure into the hypnotized cosmos.

Just like me!

There are two kinds of praise. The kind you take lightly because you already know it is true, and the kind you ignore because it cannot get through your resistance to this information. For example, my friend Kim, a doe-eyed Italian beauty, is also very bright. You tell her she’s beautiful and she just smiles: she’s heard it before. Then you tell her, after she’s beaten you once again at Scrabble, that she is smart. She snorts. Come on, I’m a hairdresser.

Are we all impermeable to the thing we most need to know?

Some ancient turning away, some shrug, some no that still echoes off the walls of your skull. Your heart. What you wouldn’t have done to make them see. Who, you don’t even know, it was so long ago. These days almost everyone is very kind and complimentary. They love your smile. You look great in those pants. Your jokes! Hilarious. You are quick as quicksilver. You kill at Scrabble. The biggest bully left is the one in your own head.

The other day, in my mid-50s, I got an email. Mark said he found me so beautiful. Marjorie saw me on the wall of a Hindu temple. Is it too late to be a Shakti, do you think? What if my waist is 28 inches now, or 30, what if I wear bright blue reading glasses that make my daughter laugh, what if some sort of farm implement has rolled a trail over my skin?

So beautiful. I have been carrying those words around like pebbles, like chips of the rock from Mars. I keep them in the pocket of my Shakti pantaloons. What I want to do is hand them out to everyone.

Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.

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Marion Winik

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik is the author of "The Big Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her...

20 replies on “What If You Are Wrong?”

  1. Boy, did this one hit home! I think you gave me something to THINK about… Love the “ancient turning away”. Great Piece.

  2. I love it . It is a beautiful treatise on esteem that needs to be applied by the self in order to “get it.” I struggle with the same thing. I must have received one negative comment too many. Your piece makes me think about the ways we internalize negative messages, yet want to dismiss positive compliments faster than a cat can piss in a window box and cover it up. As Robert Holden notes in Shift Happens, we all need to make some adjustments in what we believe. To your question “What if we are wrong?” I answer, if we are wrong, we get to feel better about ourselves and get a chance to catch some of the happiness that we have chased away.

  3. This makes me wonder how many times a week might I be able to give a person a compliment that surprises him or her. Something to strive for.

  4. Thanks for the pebble sharing.
    I cried, smiling and nodding.
    Yes, while probably not the last bully, unfortunately, yet these inner critics remain the most salient bullies to put down, indeed. Concur.
    Probably, since other critics still do abound, we believe rationales to leave the inner ones as the Last Battles. Probably, this is unnecessary procrastination and we can take this reminder to finish some inward battles to stop the inner sapping of creative and energetic potential that would be better put to external use, henceforth.
    …Thus, pebbles from Mars, personally rendered as Mark and Marjorie did, or generally observed and shared, as you did in your column essay, are so very medicinal.

    Thanks, Marion!

  5. Lovely. I agree, the last paragraph is a killer. But your unique descriptions also kill me, “some sort of farm implement” rolling a trail over your skin! Just hysterical.

  6. It is always so easy to dismiss compliments whether it be because we don’t believe them or we’re simply shy about receiving them. This line resonated for me: “There are two kinds of praise. The kind you take lightly because you already know it is true, and the kind you ignore because it cannot get through your resistance to this information.” This succinctly describes why people can easily accept some praise but resist others. I’m so apologetic about praise and am learning to receive with a simple thank you which is harder than I thought.

  7. i always say that women don’t need anyone to put us down, we’re so busy doing it to ourselves. fabulous piece. as usual

  8. PS–my reminder to people about how the inner bully got inside our heads: other humans planted those seeds from birth onward, and the brain literally takes everything in. Speak very gently now to that inner child and heal her, I was taught a decade ago, and remember to speak gently to others to not plant bully seeds in anyone else. Women aren’t born as infants with these inner voices. We can do great gardening, however, and clear the weeds and use those farm implements to purposeful ends, indeed. 🙂 We can do this both in ourselves, and in others, especially children. Till it forward…

  9. Great article. So my question on your piece: what would it have done for you then? I mean , if you had heard this then as opposed to now? What weight would it have carried? I have been hearing quite a few of the “were” compliments as of late. “you were my biggest crush”, “you were such a good friend”, etc. And I say thank you, but what I really am thinking is “Thanks – my self-esteem could have really used that back in my 20’s. I’m in my 40’s now where I’m trying on that i-don’t-give-a-shit-what-other-peolple-think skin. So thanks but I don’t need it so much today” I have come to practice speaking my own compliments as I see them. Telling a stranger that their eyes are pretty. Commenting on a nice gesture. If I had heard that more often in my 20’s, I feel it would have given my self-loathing voices a kick in the ass.

  10. Marion,

    Thank you so much for the article! It is so moving and reached into my memory and my soul. I am a fellow Shakti, too. A much filled out Shakti these days at 55, but a goddess all the way. I am so glad you shared this! Reading the comments made me almost cry in my work cubicle. They are good tears, wonderful tears.

    Shakti Love,

    Marjorie-the one who was in Austin in 1981

  11. Marion:

    I love the article! I am a fellow Shakti–a more filled out one now that I’m 55. I am so glad you were affected by what I wrote in my email. Reading the comments, I held back tears in my work cubicle. They are good tears, wonderful tears.

    Shakti Love,

    The One Who Was There in 1981

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