I hadn’t worn makeup since the lockdown began, but I had two drive-thru ceremonies on Saturday morning and the prospect of not being photographed in a sweatshirt, with my tangled hair piled in a bun and my eye bags shining, appealed to my ego. Dolling up is like riding a bike. I applied eyeshadow and concealed my eyebags like I was getting ready for some 40-something prom and not a fifth grade graduation parade. When I stepped out of the bathroom, I felt attractive, polished, smooth, and like that fabulous side of me who’s got it going on. I slipped into my favorite coral springtime dress and walked out of the room, passing my husband on the way, a trail of Thierry Mugler’s Angel perfume in my wake.
“Wait,” my husband said. “Let me look at you.”
I instantly felt my fabulousness dissolve into dread.
“You are so beautiful.” He had that smile on his face, that beaming I’m-the-luckiest-man-in-the-world smile.
My ego had met its match, its nemesis: a compliment.
Ugh. Why’d you have to go and say that, huh? Why do you have to look at me like that? Now it’s ruined.
In return, I made a face—THE face, the one I make whenever anything positive is said about me. One needs to see it to truly grasp the pained expression, but it’s basically like constipated enthusiasm, whatever that looks like. It’s strained, slightly painful, but I know relief is coming if I just grin and bear it long enough to let my husband tell me how pretty I am.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve made this face. And what’s more, if you’re exactly like me, you don’t make that face because you don’t think you’re pretty. In fact, the face has little to do with being pretty.
As a kid, I ran the gamut on attention seeking. I put on shows for the (forced) amusement of my family; in high school, I was president of the drama club; and in college, I earned a degree in speech performance. Today, I’m the one you hate who raises her hand in meetings and makes them run long when everyone wants to go home. (Sorry!) Suffice it to say, garnering attention has never been a real issue with me. But somewhere along the way, there came to be a wrong kind of attention, a spotlight that didn’t feel natural anymore. When I was a kid and you told me, “You look pretty, Annie,” my response would have likely been eye batting followed by some sultry Madonna, “Vogue”-style posing. I’d have received that compliment like it was the award I deserved for being as fabulous as I knew myself to be. Today, however, I hide behind the face. So, what gives? When did a compliment go from fabulous to icky?
I’m unsure of the exact moment when my reflection first answered back negatively. Was it in junior high when I had my first experience with a broken heart because my best friend was “prettier,” or was it something no one told me but rather something I adapted to? When I was a kid and giving acceptance speeches for my fabulousness, my friends were flaunting their fabulousness in their own way:
“Look at my new pretty dress!”
“Bet I can do a one-handed cartwheel better than you!”
“Watch me cross the monkey bars in 10 seconds!”
“I got a 100 on a spelling test! Again!”
It seems none of us had a hard time accepting compliments because we gave them to ourselves first. But eventually it became more acceptable to focus on our cellulite, frizzy hair, and bad skin than anything good about ourselves.
“Does this dress make me look fat?”
“I can’t do anything right.”
“I hate my thighs (hair, skin, nails, toes, elbows).”
“What was your grade? Ugh. I’m so stupid.”
Not only did we stop sharing our success with others, we began to allow others to measure our success. Think about it. When was the last time you or any of your gal pals introduced something positive about yourself in conversation without waiting for someone else to bring it up first? Furthermore, when someone does say something positive about you, how do you respond?
My skin is the clearest it has ever been. I don’t even need foundation anymore, just a concealer for my pesky shiners. But if you were to compliment my natural, even skin tone, you would be the unlucky recipient of the following diatribe: “Well, thanks, but it didn’t come without work. I was part of a clinical trial to clear a bad case of adult acne I had in my late thirties. It was horrific. If you look closely, you can see pockmarks and scars on my cheeks. I’m still on a hormone suppressor to balance myself out and keep the acne at bay. Plus, I go through four steps every night to let my skin cells turn over. But, yeah, thanks.”
STFU, Annie! No one cares about your pockmarks and hormone suppressors or your four-step cell turnover. In fact, they wish they had never complimented you at all. Just say thank you, for the love of God!
But I can’t. I went from eye batting compliments to batting them away. And this pity party isn’t limited to body image. Compliment my outfit, and instead of saying thank you, I’ll tell you how cheap it was. Compliment something I cook, and I’ll tell you how I forgot to add the tarragon because who has tarragon hanging out in their spice rack on the regular anyway? Tell me my yard is beautiful, and I’ll tell you about the slop house that is my interior. And on and on. Even my work isn’t safe.
The other day someone congratulated my e-book, Hustling in Fuzzy Socks, an accomplishment and also a feat. (Laying out a book is a real pain in the ass. I raise my $7 rosé to the book formatters of the world.) But while, internally, I was proud of myself, Yours Truly—the poor pitiful pearl I am—replied to the compliment with a five minute explanation about how the book wasn’t a big deal because it was just the teaser before a real book is published next year, but even a real book isn’t a sure thing yet, so whatever. Holy hell, Annie! You need some water to wash down those worms you’re eating? You published a freaking book and are writing another, and you can’t even say thank you? What’s wrong with you?
Which leaves me to wonder if it isn’t as simple as something wrong with me, but rather something I don’t believe to be right.
If you were to compliment my children, I’d agree with your sentiment and go on about all the myriad wonderful things my children do and will do, even on the days when they are complete shitheads. If you were to compliment my friends, additional family members, or my husband, I’d nod my head and add to your sentiment. I’d even say such glowing remarks about people who I don’t even know. I believe in others. I’m inspired by others. Even if they are flawed, I recognize that their poor marks are nothing compared to their good marks. But Annie, who I know better than anyone? I get the face even though I’ve done some pretty amazing things and do a lot of things right. Why, then, am I uninspiring to the one person whose opinion of me matters the most?
According to my internet research, which we all know to be totally reliable, I have Imposter Syndrome. That basically means I doubt my accomplishments and have a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud. And while Dr. Google is convenient and cheaper than a real shrink, I call bullshit on this interwebs diagnosis—at least for me. For one thing, I don’t doubt my accomplishments. I know they exist. And secondly, if there’s one thing I can admit, it’s my flaws. I wear them like haute couture. There wouldn’t be a no-big-deal e-book or future books if I didn’t feel comfortable telling you just what a hot mess I really am. But I do think there is something noteworthy about the word “fear.” What if those of us who make the face aren’t afraid of flaws, but afraid of something else?
I confidently extend meetings because I appreciate my ideas enough to not just put them out there, but to back them up if need be. They’ve gotten the “Annie Stamp of Approval” because I believe my ideas are worth the attention they place on me. But the rest of it—my appearance, my home, even my beloved work—don’t go there with a compliment because how can I possibly allow you to approve of something about me that I haven’t even approved of yet? In doing so, I’d have to own it, and that degree of confidence is damn near terrifying. I know full well my accomplishments and attributes, but one day the jig might be up. I’ll have pimples again, an ugly yard, and a book that only my mom bought. It’s not that I’m a fraud, it’s more that I don’t deserve such praise in the first place because I don’t believe them to be worth my praise. So, if I don’t believe I’m worth it, how can I let you?
I know enough to know that humans are a fickle species. We want you to see our fancy feathers but keep your mouth shut about how pretty they are, please. Otherwise, we have to admit that there just might be more to us than we have the confidence to support. We might have to dig deep into our past and resurrect the child who knew how fabulous she was. In fact, we’ll have to go find her. We might have to admit that long ago we replaced her with imposter humility, a fake downplaying of ourselves that we hide behind so that others don’t think we’re smug, overly confident, and unrelatable. Or worse, we’ll find that we invented the face and phoney humility because it’s easier to write off our achievements than face their consequences. It’s far easier to respect someone else, believe in another, and compliment everyone but ourselves. And sometimes, when we are fabulous, the pressure to repeat such fabulousness is too hard, so we pretend the first time never happened.
Are we, then, frauds after all? Maybe, but only because we dare to put something lovely out into the world, only to allow it to dissolve into nothingness.