You look beautiful.
My daughter does not like to be complimented on her looks – exactly like me when I was her age. She, like I used to, replies with a growl or a scream, and a swift retreat. It took me until adulthood to know how to get out of these situations without embarrassment or hostility.
A few weeks ago I tried to teach her my “out”; a quick “thank you” that should end the matter. I told her she could talk Shakespearian if she wanted and say, “Why thank you, sir – or madam,” but she rejected it – blech.
And then I started to think about how it felt to be complimented at that age. Many of these compliments were comments on my wearing properly feminine clothing – following the rules. It would feel as if the person had stopped me and handed me something odd that I didn’t know what to do with. It felt more like they’d stuck something sticky and unfamiliar on me – their own pleasure -- and their smiles expected something of me – I had no idea what – to take pleasure in their pleasure?
And so I’d growl and get away, and try to wipe their pleasure off, as if it was a piece of snot. They would be unhappy. They would be unhappy that I was unhappy with their pleasure, and then I would be unhappy I made them unhappy, but… I didn’t start the whole mess.
A compliment supposed to be a gift and we are supposed to be grateful. Why aren’t we? Why am I not grateful?
There is the expression learn to take a compliment. Why do we have to? Why do we have to learn it? Because it isn’t natural or nice? Is it something nasty disguised as something nice? Why are we supposed to take it? Is it just us girls? There’s also the expression don’t take it lying down. Knowing how to take it implies hardening yourself to some kind of nastiness or violence.
What is it? This “compliment” thing?
My daughter is beautiful. I find almost all children beautiful – their youth, their skin, the economy of their form, their energy, their bloomingness. It gives me great pleasure to look at them, to watch them run, scream, shout, and be.
Of course, this has nothing to do with them, with who they are as human beings, with what they love to do, and with the lives they lead. I get pleasure from my perception of them – and probably my aging mommy hormones -- and that’s what it is: my perception and my pleasure.
In a traditional compliment, the speaker (often a he) expresses his pleasure in your appearance, and you are expected to take part in his or her pleasure of looking at you. You are expected to be pleased, and grateful for the attention. Do boys get complimented like this? My son does by me now and then, and he is embarrassed by it also.
Why are we supposed to give a shit about other people’s pleasure?
The speaker claims a relationship of giving and receiving pleasure. The object of his pleasure cannot beforehand decide whose pleasure she is exciting or supposed to share. Sharing pleasure should be voluntary, and this is not, which is why compliments are extra creepy if they comes cold from a total stranger, or someone you aren’t close to. Sharing pleasure oriented around our physical beings is usually something we do with people we love and trust.
Perhaps much of the discomfort comes from the idea our self-concepts are based on what is reflected back to us in the eyes of others. Perhaps we don’t want this to be true. We are being told who we are and what we’re like, and we’re supposed to take it, be grateful, and illuminated as to ourselves?
And often, compliments aren’t very complimentary. How often is a girl told she is admired because she is strong or smart or quick? How often does the comment piece her apart? Does anyone consider “nice ass” a compliment? Compliments are often just comments, and run the spectrum from nice to abusive.
When I was in high school I got more abuse. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the school I went to was regarded as a “rough” one. I’m always surprised when I hear that not all girls went through the pervasive misogyny and sexual harassment that seemed to be common currency at my school. From about the age of twelve I could expect, every day, to be called a range of expletives, from “fat slut” to “fucking cunt” to “cock-sucking whore.”
Did the wealth of harassment mar my ability to “take” comments? Did I regard being noticed by others as a danger signal? How could I even attempt to believe anything that was complimentary when I was barraged with much more that was not? Did I need to push all of it as far away as I could because the evil words had such a strong effect?
Somehow, I don’t think so, because I can see my daughter reacting to compliments in the same way I did, and I’m pretty sure she hasn’t gone through that kind of harassment. But this is another story I have to tell her: that the speaker hates women, just as some people hate Jews or blacks or gays. These words are a form of violence that illuminates who the speaker is, not who their victim is.
Perhaps it’s also hard for me to take pleasure in my physical being because I was raised with all that Christian shame and misogyny. I thought it was better to be a spirit without a body.
And why do people, myself included, compliment others? What are we getting by sharing our pleasure? Are we trying to communicate love? Are we trying to tell others who they are? Boost their self-esteem?
And of course, a compliment is often just part of the male sexual strategy. Once in a deserted tunnel in part of the London Underground, a strange man told me what he thought of my waistline. I got away from him as quickly as possible. He made an additional comment, annoyed that I didn’t know how to take a compliment – and annoyed I was repelled rather than attracted.
I could retrospectively take pleasure in the compliment because I wasn’t worried about being alone with a strange man the deserted subway tunnel. Nothing bad was going to happen next, but I didn’t know it then.
This was, of course, a direct confrontation between subject and object, the observer and the observed, the see-er and the seen.
In times and places of purdah, for a woman to “appear” was (is) culturally regarded as a sexual tease, was her making the first move… so whatever happened after that was her fault. In the 17th century trial of Artemisia Gentileschi’s rapist, (at which she was tortured) she was accused by the rapist’s defenders of being seen at a window in her father’s house. So she must have been a whore, there at the window to advertise her wares… so the rapist was innocent, because women who sell themselves are common property, and don’t belong to their fathers anymore. That was the form of the trial: Gentileschi’s father suing the rapist for damage to his property. She was an object indeed.
Once, again in the London Underground, a man stared at me so blatantly, I got fed up. Women are not supposed to notice -- supposed to pretend they don’t see -- but I’d started staring back sometimes – as a kid, I was always good at staring contests -- and this time I started making weird faces.
He looked away, of course, and pretended not to notice.
Now that was a pleasure I enjoyed.
Learn to take a compliment?
Perhaps my daughter, as a young female of the species, is rebelling against her first encounters with being ‘the observed’ rather than ‘the observer’ in our culture: the object rather than the human being.
This must be quite a shock when you are nine and you are the center of your universe – the one who watches, feels, and acts.
But a few days ago, I observed my daughter overhearing her teacher and I discuss her progress and the work she was doing. She was listening to words like creative, working very hard, and smart.
What I saw on her face then was a wonderful secret smile – not a big smile, you understand: nothing anyone else was supposed to see or appreciate -- but a smile that only happened to show because it was glowing within, and radiating all the way through her, building on what she knows about herself.
And that was the most beautiful thing.
Toronto Globe and Mail,
“Bernice Friesen’s art is finely honed and gracefully wielded, her darkly beautiful images inseparable from her thematic purpose.”
“It’s said of some novels that they beg to be filmed. The pictures Friesen makes are a cinematographer’s dream.”
The Winnipeg Free Press,
“wholly convincing leaps of the imagination”
“a great success”
Pages and Patches
“Friesen is a master.”
Buy From Coteau Books
And The Book of Beasts is now in French Translation from Québec Amerique:
Le Bestiaire des anges
Translated by Lori Saint-Martin and Paul Gagné, 2011.
God was a little black-haired bastard named Charlie with wet sheet skin, bleeding gums, and fists full of iron oxide pebbles which he flung in James’s face, each sting becoming a freckle. His mother told him it was God who’d given him the freckles, and it was true because he couldn’t remember having freckles before Charlie started throwing stones. If freckles were so bad, at least they weren’t his fault. He convinced himself they were caused by wounds, like the blood he saw on Jesus’ side, flowing down the plaster of his mother’s crucifix like bubbled spit. It was easier to look at Jesus’ blood than at his own, and after he realized freckles were ugly -- except on his beautiful mother -- it wasn’t easy to look at himself at all.
Skinny, big ears, red hair messed like the knots of hay sticking out of a cow’s mouth. These were the things he heard about himself after he got into the habit of listening, when being seen and not heard became too boring. He told himself he didn’t care, began scratching his face. Get rid of the spots. Even if his mother said she liked them, that they were delicious, especially when she was a dog, and licked them off his nose -- see the freckles on her tongue? They tasted salty, she said, were delicate and crunchy like little potato crisps. Sometimes he was a dog, too, and so he scratched anyway. And then his father told him to stop that scratching, sit still, and he would, almost, until every adult eye was averted, and then his hand would strike like the tongue of a frog, and he would stuff another jaffa cake in his mouth.
Everything was alive to him. Not just the neighbor's cat and his grandfather's King-Charles' spaniel, not just the ladybirds and dragonflies and earthworms, but the turnips wincing as they were pulled from the ground in his mother's garden. He made little playful screams whenever his mother tore lettuce apart for a salad, said ouch, ouch, when she chopped onions, misinterpreting her tears as sympathy for the poor vegetables. He refused to eat the tiniest grape from the vine, even though his father told him it would perish anyway. He kept it in a little baby-food jar in the fridge, and took it out to hold it in the palm of his hand and pet it like a kitten.
His first word, as a baby, had been meow, and he was a cat-sneak behind doors and beneath the tablecloth. His grandfather called his father a senseless dreamer -- that acting, way back then, for God’s sake -- who should never have married a child who was such a harpy, whatever that meant. It seemed to mean an Irish woman who wore her red hair too loose, her blouses too tight, and who didn’t care what she said in polite company -- and Oxford was nothing if not polite in the late 1950’s....
Awards -Fiction Award, Saskatchewan Book Awards
-Globe and Mail’s top 100 and top 5 first fictions
-Longlisted, Rogers Writers Trust of Canada Fiction Prize
Prairie Fire, Tom Schmidt:
“reads like a freight train bearing down on you”
“ferocious feminist verse that chews up the patriarchs of western
civilization from Freud to Plato to the Pope and spits them out.”
CV2, Tanis MacDonald:
“intelligent and hilarious”
“not for anyone who wishes to keep their dogma chained up
in their mental backyard.”
“Friesen is a stand-up comic”
“uproariously, ribaldly funny”
“she has merged with the goddess Kali”
from “Bernice Friesen, Winner of the Vicky Metcalf Award for Best Young Adult Short Story in Canada:”
“Bernice Friesen calls it luck, but anyone who’s read her work could only call it talent.”
“clear, pared down, yet richly expressive prose.”
Quill and Quire, Maria Campbell:
“I thoroughly enjoyed and applaud”
“there are no cheap shots here, no easy observations, nothing that appears in uncrystallized form.”
“Friesen writes with the confidence of someone who knows she’s taken full advantage of hindsight, yet her narratives read as thought they’ve been written from ‘the inside,’ from the confines of a high school’s narrow halls.”
Purchase from Thistledown Press:
It sits on my desk in a sour cream container, in a nest of white and pink Kleenex. On it is a happy face, slightly screwy, and a squiggle of yellow marker on top for hair. The assignment is to carry an egg around for a week, pretending it’s your kid. Dad could hardly believe it when I told him Mrs. Bowman makes the Family Life class do this every year. He told me to do what I want - even scramble it and lose the ten marks if it would make me feel better. I don’t know why I’m taking this stupid class anyway. Just because Stephanie’s here and everyone else is doing it, I guess.
“...and at this point, the sperm meets the egg.”
Mrs. Bowman’s flabby cheeks get redder and splotchy. Reproduction embarrasses her almost as much as it embarrasses Stephanie. Stephanie’s only 16 like me, so it’s forgivable. Mrs. Bowman has three kids, so it’s not.
“Can you imagine Mrs. B. having sex?” I whisper, and point out Mrs. B.’s bulgy panty line. Stephanie once told me I was the funniest person in the world. She’s weird with jokes. She laughs the hardest at the dirty ones, but won’t tell them ; she absorbs them but then won’t let them escape.
“Shh, Lori,” Stephanie always blushes when she laughs.
“Our next topic is motherhood, the most important part of the Home Economics course,” Mrs. Bowman says, right after she skims over the pregnancy handouts with us. She’d been sick, so we were way behind in our notes. I think she got sick on purpose, just so she could skip over the sex part.
I squash the new heading under the scrawled notes on my last page, and wish I hadn’t been late for class so I could have gotten paper from my locker. I’d seen Stephanie, Lill and Faith whispering at the locked door, and when I’d got there, they’d stopped, guilty looks on their faces, especially Stephanie. At first I’d thought they were talking about me, but Mrs. Bowman was walking right behind me jangling her keys, so I couldn’t be sure....
The Vicky Metcalf Award for Best Young Adult Short Story in Canada.
(Title Story, The Seasons Are Horses, won, from the Book of the same name)
BERNICE FRIESEN was born in Rosthern, Sask. The life of her grandmother’s family has been published in The Mulberry Tree by Victor Carl Friesen and Anna Friesen.
She trained as a printmaker at the University of Saskatchewan, ending up with a B.F.A in visual art and a B.Ed. by 1990. She took creative writing courses with Elizabeth Brewster, Guy Vanderhaegue and Tim Lilburn, and attended the Banff Writing Studio. She has been an art studio lab assistant, art gallery educator, and has taught Sage Hill Writing Experience for teens, and Fiction Freefall through the Saskatoon Writers Coop.
Her writing and art has been published in Canada and Europe, and has twice been short-listed for the CBC Radio Literary Awards. Her writing has been included in two League of Canadian Poets winners anthologies, and Best Short Stories, 2002, (Oberon).
She has lived in England, New Zealand and British Columbia, has taught herself to read French and Italian, and is currently trying to understand quantum physics. Blame her for the art and design of this website.
She is the girl at the blackboard.
View the Shaw Cable interview of Bernice Friesen at