Rosalyn D'Mello: Who's that in the mirror?

Apr 06, 2018, 06:12 IST | Rosalyn D'Mello

Accepting a compliment, I have learnt, is tough when one is constantly weighing the motives of the one giving it

To complicate the matter, my difficulty in accepting compliments also relates to the gender of the person giving me a compliment. Representation pic
To complicate the matter, my difficulty in accepting compliments also relates to the gender of the person giving me a compliment. Representation pic

Rosalyn D'MelloJust accept the compliment, Rosalyn," my bestie Mona's sister Bhanu said to me one evening a week or two ago, when we had been chilling together at their place. I was wearing a dress, I think, and she and her bestie, Nusrat, both commented that my legs looked amazing. Instead of graciously accepting what seemed like genuine, well-intentioned flattery, I found myself constructing some kind of word salad mumbo-jumbo explanation as to why, though my legs were arguably well toned, they constituted a problem, because the rest of my body wasn't proportioned well enough, and so my legs seemed to stand out. That's when Bhanu sagaciously commanded me to just accept the compliment.

Later, I thought about how that wasn't an isolated incident. It was part of a larger pattern. I do, indeed, have great difficulty accepting compliments. You could even say that I don't quite know how to. I always doubt the authenticity of the compliment, or am suspicious of the motives of the person bequeathing upon me such unsolicited attention, or, feel this need to be modest, as if I felt the compliment in question had nothing to do with me, like it was purely circumstantial. I know for sure that I grew up with terrible self-esteem issues, which continue to be responsible for my discomfort with any form of praise. However, as I age, I also feel I exhibit symptoms of what is popularly called "The Imposter Syndrome", which, simply put, is a concept describing individuals who are plagued by an inability to internalise their accomplishments and simultaneously have a persistent fear of being exposed as a 'fraud'.

It feels silly, but it's actually more alarming than all of this, because somewhere I realise that I am not alone in this inability or inadequacy about receiving compliments, because, like most women I know, I'm often more focussed on what is wrong with me than what is astonishing. I don't have enough fingers to count my imperfections, and can, even in my sleep, enumerate the many, many things I would love to change about myself; both about my demeanour and my physical appearance. It can be compulsive, my own lack of appreciation for my personal accomplishments and for how I own my body, however imperfectly so. Any compliment I receive throws me off a little. I am always a bit surprised, always a little shocked that so and so should even read my work, that so and so is admittedly a fan, that so and so has been following my career.

To complicate the matter; my difficulty in accepting compliments also relates to the gender of the person giving me a compliment. I almost never take anything a man tells me seriously. I'm always convinced there's an ulterior motive; a hidden agenda, one that might, unsurprisingly, contain an element of mockery.

I have this memory of being around 14 or 15 and wearing this long black dress with subtle gold sequins to a Christmas Midnight Mass, and this boy from my colony seeing me and saying, "Oh, it's you, Rosita, I couldn't see you in that dress!"—a reference to the fact that since I am dark, the black dress camouflaged me, or my skin camouflaged the dress. I felt so ashamed I never wore that dress again, even though I secretly loved it and thought I looked great in it. Since that experience I doubt and severely mistrust anything a man says to me in the region of a compliment or even an insult. I have learned to see how what men say about you often reveals more about them than you, and is often reflective of an underlying cruelty. It always shocks me that most men never imagine wanting to change a single thing about themselves while women almost always have a readymade list at the tip of their tongue about their flaws. This is not necessarily the fault of men. It's one of the clear pitfalls of centuries of patriarchal conditioning where women are held up to intimidating standards of beauty and perfection.

"We have to fix this," Mona said to me later that evening, when I was preparing to sleep over at hers. I realised that given the severity of my inferiority complex, I probably would have diminished myself to the point of extinguishing any possibility of its radiance were it not for my female friends; the ones who see me for who I really am, who are able to perceive me in all my invisible glory, who have no doubt about my talents, my limitless possibilities, and my enviable ability to endure against all odds. Their gaze, their way of soaking me in, of revelling in my successes and contextualising my failures, is what gives me the audacity to review myself through their eyes. I never come up short.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com.

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