I no longer recall the context, only that I was thirteen and that my mother’s intention was not malice but truthfulness, when she told me: “No, you are not beautiful.” I was seventeen and had been accepted to Cornell when she proclaimed: “If I didn’t know you were smart, I’d really wonder.” I’ve never dressed to her satisfaction and when I went to college and gained my obligatory 15-plus pounds, my weight became her fixation. Every visit home, she’d get her hairbrush and want to smooth my intentionally unkempt look until I finally cut off my hair. If she could, I’m certain she would still badger me to get braces; tell me that my jaw juts out unattractively. She never needed to voice her disapproval; I knew the look.
My mother also told me my freckles were angel kisses and that my birthmarks looked like the beauty marks celebrities pay to have tattooed. She made me a hot breakfast before school and packed a homemade lunch for me every day for 13 years. When my neighbor made me cry, my mother who never cursed or allowed us to, astonished me by calling her a “shitty head.” She taught me manners and poise. She taught me to be kind. She called me her precious angel. I knew I made her proud; I never doubted her love.
When I fell in love with a woman, my mother bravely owned her experience and told me that more than anything she wants me to be happy; that her discomfort with my choice was her own insecurity about what her peers would think and fear that my choice would make my life harder.
I don’t have my own children, but I’ve witnessed my sister and my friends struggle with the responsibility of raising healthy, happy children. The worry and fear; the self recrimination for mistakes real and imagined. The responsibility to get it right; to do your best; to be your best for them.
We are all human: each of us a unique composition of cultural, societal, family and community influences filtered through personal experience and blended with our own spirits and free will. We are also products of the time in which we live; part of a continuum of humanity evolving. Wiser than our ancestors; foolish in the eyes of our descendants.
With the perspective of maturity, I recognize my mother’s emphasis on beauty for what it was: a measure of her intense and protective love for me. Her precious child—her most creative act—she dreamed that I should receive all the happiness and success the world can offer, and to a woman born in 1933, that demanded beauty.
When my mother made me cry and I’d turn to my older sister for solace, she’d tell me to stop looking to my mother for approval; stop asking her what she thinks. Separating my mother’s opinion from her love took effort. I put a country’s width of distance between us for nearly two decades in order to discover and define my own version of myself free of scrutiny. With time, I learned to recognized how my mother’s judgments simply mirrored my own insecurities, and as I evolved, so did our relationship.
I possess a Chinese fortune slip that reads: Most success springs from an obstacle or failure. I am both compassionate and free today—a woman comfortable enough to call herself a babe and encourage others to do the same—because my mother gave me a challenge to rise to; an obstacle to overcome. My mother gave me my voice and my passion; she gave me the keys to my success. Not how she intended; but what.
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I wrote Mothers and Daughters: The Beauty of Love as a companion to an essay I contributed to Beth Bishop’s Safe Space Project.
Beth’s courage in writing candidly about her body image struck a nerve with her readers and catalyzed her sister, Harper Bishop, to respond with her own story. The piece I submitted, A Study in Beauty, I wrote over a year ago, then filed away and never shared—until now. Grateful to Beth for creating a place to publish my own revealing reflections in the company of other amazing women and men, I invite everyone reading this to make the leap, submit your own art, and free yourself.
“Playwright and activist Eve Ensler wrote the global theater phenomenon The Vagina Monologues after interviewing more than 200 women on the subject of their bodies. The production’s astounding success lead her to found V-Day, a worldwide movement to end violence against women and girls. In Ensler’s vision of the future we share the goal to become connected and healed through our vulnerability. She argues that striving for security makes us insecure. When we cling, with Taylor’s left hemisphere to what Ensler calls, hard matter identity, we close our minds to new ideas, new experiences, new people and ways of being. For Ensler, happiness exists in action, in sharing our truth and in giving away what we want most.” (Excerpted from a piece I wrote on women, desire, sex and self esteem.)
May our words—Beth’s, Harper’s, mine, yours—ignite a revolution to love and BE ourselves that snowballs into change.