beauty: blaming our mothers



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 slid001e 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.


my daughter and me — my mother and me

my daughter and me — my mother and me

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.

16 Responses

  • Andy Rose // // Reply

    Liz, I always thought you were very sweet AND pretty! It saddened me that your parents did not want us to grow up as close cousins and friends. At least, that what my father told me. Your article is, as always, eloquently written with a distinct voice. BTW, your mother intimidated me even critiquing my “poor table manners.” I must have missed something in your folks because you grew up very kind, thoughtful, loyal, and sweet. Also, Zoe is lovely and beautiful!

  • Sara Chase // // Reply

    Tears prickled as I read the last few lines.
    Yes: e.g., in grade school my mother firmly pulled my long hair into two (NOT stylish) pigtails [never did she use the word “braids” or “plaits” which others did]. And then, when the class photo of my fifth grade class was sent home, she commented that I looked “like a peeled onion.”

    Thin, too, was a problem. At age 12, I was 5′ 7″ tall and weighed 104 pounds. I recall being taken to a doctor to see “if something was wrong with Sara.”
    Then, somehow, at 18 I was off to college and weighed 130! My mother sent me in a dress I had sewn myself, to her design, “to conceal my weight,” she said. Oh, and by the way, the photo I treasure of my arrival on campus shows me in that dress — but — with my hair pulled back in a ponytail. Yet another of my quiet rebellions, I “peeled” my face still.

    • Elizabeth Marcus // // Reply

      The amazing thing is that no matter our shape or size, it’s always the wrong one! Do you still have the picture of your first day of college — I’d love to see it. I can’t believe you made it yourself!

  • Micheline Blum // // Reply

    How extraordinary– and how sad. I would have killed to switch bodies when we were 12 or 13. You were fabulous looking. How could you not know that? But, I know how, because I know your mother, and mine, could be harsh critics. Not only did they judge our looks, they felt they were judged by our beauty–or lack of it.

    I have spent a lifetime knowing– and being told– that I would never be as beautiful or as chic as my mother. Well, now that I am 70 and my amazing mother is about to be 96, it is still true. But, now that we have so little time left together, and I know how much I will miss her, I forgive her for her beauty, her taste, and even for her never ending emphasis on appearance. She comments on my beautiful granddaughters’ looks every time she sees them. My daughters and I have learned there is little point in telling her how smart, talented, sweet and loving her great granddaughters are. She is very pleased about those attributes, but their beauty comes first. She can’t help it. That is a message she got about her own value 90+ years ago. What a pity. My mother is so smart, and so much more than her looks. She founded and spent 50 years overseeing and raising millions for an amazing hospital that has helped thousands of children. But she was always valued more by her world– and by herself– for her beauty.

    Even if we finally elect a woman President, there will be comments about her looks and her clothes that would never come up with a man. I don’t know if it will ever change, but I fervently hope so. And I hope that my beautiful, and very accomplished, daughters and granddaughters — and your beautiful daughter — know they are valued, and value themselves, for so much more.

    • Elizabeth Marcus // // Reply

      Beautifully said. Your mother is the perfect example of what it is to be loved for your beauty. I was so dazzled by her, I never suspected she was also smart! And all this misery is self-inflicted. Perhaps our granddaughters will have an easier time of it — we can only hope.

  • Jane Rabe // // Reply

    Elizabeth, I also grew up feeling as though my looks were seriously wanting. My own mother was a real beauty, and I was the smart one, my younger sister was the pretty one. I remember thinking how pretty and stylish you looked when we met in 1976. I look back at my old photos and like you, I now find that they are not bad at all. But the truth is that I still do not like the way I look in my recent photos. Thank goodness it feels less important now.

    • Elizabeth Marcus // // Reply

      And I have always thought of you as a great beauty! And with a totally distinctive, unique look! It’s all such a terrible pity, isn’t it?

  • Cassandra Gordon // // Reply

    A very insightful and honestly written story about our perception of ourselves as daughters and the mothers of daughters.

  • Wilson Hughes // // Reply

    Hopefully the age of divisive mothers is over.

    • Elizabeth Marcus // // Reply

      What an optimist you are!

  • Barbara Kasman // // Reply

    I always thought you were both beautiful and elegant. I also thought you were kind and sensitive to others, and a very good friend. One thing that comes to mind is how after your piano lesson, you taught me what you had learned because my parents didn’t give me the lessons I so wanted. I would go home and practice on a paper keyboard. So, in addition to your external beauty, your inside beauty always radiated.
    My mother also valued physical looks and was very critical. The adult me understands that this was a reflection of her own lack of self-esteem (though she was beautiful and glamorous), but it took years for me to feel my childhood anger.
    A few years ago before she passed away at 97, in response to my probing, she said I was a very pretty little girl and almost took me for a modeling try-out…but she never (and I mean never) told me because she didn’t want it to go to my head. It certainly didn’t!

  • Ginna Vogt // // Reply

    I think a sad part of this that has not been mentioned yet is that our mothers’ generation was raised to compete with and feel threatened by other women and thus often felt their daughters to be usurpers, an experience that I think they were mostly unconscious of. As the daughter emerged into her beautiful womanhood, the mother was feeling her desirability waning, a loss that could be experienced as happening quite young in those days. I feel grateful for the second wave of feminism, the women’s liberation movement, that taught us women to ally with each other and enjoy each others advantages. It has been such a joy for me that I feel so allied to my daughter and step-daughter and (most of the time) don’t experience their development and successes competitively or as a threat. When I do, I can talk myself around it. I’m sure there were mothers who were exceptions, but for the most part I think in our mothers’ generation these feelings were unexamined because they had not yet been identified. I think that all this critiquing of daughters’ appearance was an attempt at making daughters more likely to find happiness and succeed. But I think it was also, in many cases, due to darker feelings that could not be understood and looked at in the light of day. I feel deeply sad for our mothers’ generation because allying with my daughter and step-daughter has been one of the greatest joys of my life. My gratitude for being born at the time I was goes a long way towards forgiving women who never had my chances.

  • Ronnie Scharfman // // Reply

    What painful memories, Liz, of how our mothers could undermine our sense of self esteem! You’re brave to go back there! I prefer not to go into them, but their effect remains! I did want to say, though, that in that photograph of you way back then, what struck me immediately was your tiny waist! It looks as if I could have gotten my hands around it. I would have died to have a waist like that! What a struggle for us as women to come to a healthy acceptance of who we were and are! I’m always amazed to look at old photographs of myself and realize I was actually pretty! All I could focus on were the “lamb chops” or the hair… I do find, though, that since becoming a grandma I’m much more at peace with all of that. There are some benefits to aging after all!

  • Heather Frank // // Reply

    I am re-reading this today as I get ready to come and see you, wanting to look pretty for YOU who is always so elegant and smart XO

    I was reminded that I have a photo of myself with Justice Ginsburg. She is beautiful in every way. And a super hero. Can’t wait to see you in just a few hours!

  • Carole Clark // // Reply

    I guess I was lucky to have been spared. My mother was neither beautiful, glamorous nor accomplished and she didn’t seem to have any
    such expectations for me! I was my own critic.
    Harsh enough!

    • Elizabeth Marcus // // Reply

      But my mother saw herself with none of those things, either. She was full of self-hate. And she saw her daughter as an extension of her and therefore doomed to serious imperfection. Maybe your mother was able to accept you as a separate person with full potential. Whatever — we end up in the same place, as you so succinctly point out!

Leave a Reply to Cassandra Gordon

Cancel reply