I blame my mother. Or I have for the last 60-odd years. I blame her for what I didn’t like about my childhood, for what I don’t like about myself, and especially for how I feel about my looks. Name it—it’s always been her fault.
After all, she did have a withering, critical eye and frequently alluded to the defects she saw in me that needed correction. She once arranged an ice cream date for me—something that never happened before or after—with an acquaintance of hers I barely knew, an elderly frenchman who ended our tete-a-tete with the suggestion that I stretch my purportedly too-short upper lip with my lower lip, a contortion he demonstrated for me. I couldn’t have been more than six or seven, but I knew weird when I saw it as well as who had put the gentleman up to his crazy proposal.
Let’s not talk about clothes shopping: a harrowing military campaign that recurred from time to time and was aimed specifically at strategic camouflage. I was sent off to college with a hip-reducing contraption that when strapped on and plugged in produced electric shocks that galvanized your glutes—like Galvani’s frogs’ legs—while you lay on your back trying to study.
The fix-it attempts only succeeded in making me permanently obsessed with certain body parts. Just recently, I came upon an old slide from my newly-wed days that caught me from the back in jeans; it stopped me short. It’s an unremarkable picture, which is what stunned me, since it is seared in my memory as the photo that revealed what I felt to be the gargantuan proportions of my rear end. I’d groan whenever the picture came up in a slide show. “You look fine!” my friends would insist “What are you worried about?” Well, what else could they say? Their words bounced off. But when I saw the photo again, now 40 years later, those words returned as my own thoughts. I did look fine! For my entire adult life, I’d been worrying—no, torturing myself—about what? Thank you, Mom!
Still, to be honest, as a mother myself, I know it’s not easy to turn a blind eye to a daughter’s appearance. It may be even harder for those of us who, unlike my mother, are hands-on. We bathe our little girls; we shop for them, do their hair, and dress them. We know every little freckle on their bodies, every little curl on their heads. All mothers watch their daughters grow and change before their eyes, and it can be a challenge to see them as they really are, not just as the inheritors of our thick ankles or thin hair, or whatever little thing we hate about ourselves.
Are there any mothers among us who don’t watch their daughters mature without hoping they’ll be pretty? Our society worships female beauty; we’re obsessed with it. We greet every little girl with, if not, “Aren’t you pretty!” then, at least, “What pretty hair/eyes/whatever,” a backhanded compliment we understand soon enough. There’s no way around it: if you’re female, you’re doomed to be judged—and made vulnerable—by your looks.
We take this for granted; certainly my mother did. She was a Macy’s executive who never set foot in the kitchen: a model of the liberated woman in the Mad Men era. But even so, when Ruth Bader Ginsberg was confirmed as the second female Supreme Court Justice and the first Jewish one, we had the following exchange:
me: Isn’t it wonderful about Ginsberg!
my mother: Yes, but what a meiskeit (Yiddish for an ugly person)!
me: What? She looks fine! And is Scalia so good-looking?
my mother: Who cares what he looks like?
I was shocked, but in fact what my mother said was true, and, sadly, 25 years later, despite all the advances of feminism, it still is: we don’t care how powerful, successful men look, only their female counterparts. As a result, no matter our accomplishments, we continue to torment ourselves over perceived flaws and support a multi-billion dollar cosmetics industry that coasts on false promises. Few of us can look in the mirror without angst.
The truth is, my mother was only the advance guard of a much bigger assault on my self-esteem. Movies, magazines and television finished the job. The media world, entirely populated with preposterously gorgeous women, pervades the mental space where our self-image takes shape. And it sets an impossible bar.
No one suffered more from a fractured sense of her appearance than my mother. The last of four failed attempts to produce a son, she was constantly told she didn’t have her sisters’ good looks. In family photos, you wouldn’t pick her out as the homely one—personally, I always thought she was glamorous—but she never questioned her ranking, and the sore festered all her life.
How can I blame my mother for what her mother did to her and for what society does to all women? I can’t. And the truth is: I no longer want to. I know just how hard it is to be the mother you want to be. I hope my (very beautiful) daughter is reading this.