One writer on the judgments of others and finding internal peace.

By Mallika Rao
Updated: May 15, 2019
Anne Bentley

I grew up surrounded by aunties. Women—unrelated to me by blood, of my mother’s era and birthplace—seemed forever in our home or we in theirs, a makeshift family of Indians in Texas, where we all, improbably, lived. Many of these women grew up with wildly different options available to them than my friends and I had. Intergenerational, female-to-female judgment felt unavoidable.

In college, Facebook arrived. My adult life took shape in various cities, and online. Aunties I once saw and touched became part of a virtual, somewhat sinister chorus. When I began writing on the internet professionally, commenters told me what was wrong with my writing, and by extension my character—as an aunty might have commented on how I’d overplucked my eyebrows and thus shown myself a failure at basic tasks of femininity.

In 2007, a white friend, whose jury must have held her to different standards, posted a photo of me kissing a boy. “No big deal, but it would be amazing if...,” I emailed. She didn’t delete the photo in time. An aunty got to me, via her daughter. I felt I could see the mother speaking through the girl as the latter expressed how the photo surprised her. It didn’t seem like me. I felt a mix of emotions that reminded me of nights in college when I might take a hit of a joint and worry suddenly if all my friends merely tolerated me. Every spoken line felt like code for silent ones, a subtext that circled around a terrifying idea: I was an inexcusably awed person. Everyone knew.

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Soon after, Michelle Obama became a known personality. In an interview, Larry King asked if she was surprised by campaign life. She responded that she and her husband weren’t new to politics. A national campaign brought “more of the same, except more people are watching.” I saw a point of reference. “If you’re secure in yourself and you sort of know who you are,” she continued, before moving on to a new idea—as if that phrase held everything she needed to say.

Something clicked. Hadn’t Facebook only heightened a sense born when the aunties commented in person, or when I sat in a circle passing a joint? If Michelle Obama could withstand the judgment of every adult in the known world, perhaps so could I. The notion of self-security—of living up to a set of internal standards—seemed integral. As I worked on articulating and meeting these standards, I also changed my view of outside judgment. Overtly judgmental people can seem, more than others, to be imbalanced in their vision, scared themselves of judgment. The aunty whose daughter questioned my ethics after a kiss was known to look askance at every girl but her own. I realized I had only myself to rely on as a gauge of the quality of judgment.

To be able to assess it at all, though, I needed to be open. I began to see scrutiny as a gift—the internet not as courtroom but as laboratory. If I didn’t look my best, physically or metaphysically, it was a reflection of a current reality. I could pretend this reality wasn’t true, or I could think of ways to change what bothered me about it. Or I might decide nothing needed changing. In time, the judgment that seemed to matter most was my own.

Mallika Rao is a writer. Her work can be found in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and other outlets.

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