What We Got (or Not) from Our Mothers
Who was your first style icon?
If you’re like me, it was your mother. From the time I was a little girl, I watched her closely, observing how she chose and bought clothing and how she composed her outfits. Her many rules of how to dress were imprinted on me from a young age.
Whether you copied your mother's style or rebelled against it, your earliest exposure to fashion was likely influenced by her, as were your beliefs about your body. We now know that a mother's statements about what a female body should look like have an enormous impact on her daughter's body image.
The Awkward Teen Years
My own body-image loss of innocence came in my early teens during a conversation with my mother in front of my bedroom mirror. I remember looking at my reflection and complaining that I didn’t like my nose or my mouth. I can’t remember exactly what I said. But I’ll never forget what she said:
“They can fix that.”
She meant it to be encouraging. She was a believer in all things new: scientific discoveries and avant-garde art and re-inventions of all kinds. It was so like her to want to offer me the hope of “better living through science”! (Remember that old phrase from the 70’s?)
Unfortunately, what my teenage self heard was that my mother thought that I was not pretty. It didn't make me feel unloved; she showed her love generously in countless other ways. It was just a shock to my system that she agreed so quickly with my assessment.
From that day I became increasingly aware of the chasm between my mother’s life experience and my own when it came to our appearance. She was a fine-boned, Titian-haired beauty with refined facial features and perfect skin. Perfectly sized, graceful, and the kind of feminine presence that both men and women responded to with awe. Throughout my life, from the time I was a child, people would approach me, unsolicited, to exclaim:
“Your MOTHER is SO beautiful!!”
She certainly was.
The glaringly obvious and always unspoken second half of that conversation was that I looked nothing like her. Except for her blue eyes, I inherited all my physical genes from my father’s side of the family. I'm tall and big-boned, full-busted, with softer, lumpier facial features.
Mom taught me the basics of style and taste but had no idea how to advise me when it came to fashion. Her classically feminine style did not translate well to my body type. And my already large-ish bust on a too-tall frame was a source of bafflement to her.
I eventually made peace with my looks and got on with life, focusing on continuing my education and building a career.
In hindsight, I realized that the stark contrast between my mother's physical appearance and mine affected our relationship, and I admit I judged her harshly through many of my early adult years. Her beauty and my jealously of it was the root cause of many issues that I felt separated us:
I resented her for how easy I thought she had it because of being beautiful and delicate.
I resented her for the privilege and power I saw that her looks gave her.
I resented the fact that she didn’t understand the challenges I faced.
The Next Generation
I had mostly forgotten about that particular adolescent episode, or I thought I had, until decades later when it was brought to mind unexpectedly. By then I was married with children of my own. My daughter was in her late teens when suddenly an old familiar pattern presented itself, with a new twist. People were starting to approach her, unsolicited, to exclaim:
“You look SO much like your mother!”
Oh, the irony.
At first, all I could feel was the pang of my old wound. I felt sorry for my daughter for inheriting my genes, thinking that if she looked like me, that would have to mean she wasn't beautiful.
But when I look at my daughter, all I see is pure beauty! She is perfectly made, perfectly lovely, nothing to fix. I tell her that she is beautiful as often as I can because that's truly what I see, and I want her to know it.
And every time I do so, I realize there is someone else who needs to hear that. So I turn towards my wounded inner child and tell her, too, that she is beautiful.
She gives me the side eye but clearly feels a little better.
Suddenly I can feel compassion for my mother. I see how bound she was by the societal judgments of her own youth. She felt the pang of those old judgments on my behalf, too. And I can forgive her for all the perceived hurts she never imagined she was causing when she was only trying to help me become what I wanted to be.
It’s been many years now since my mother’s passing, and the fog of filial frustration has finally cleared. I find myself thinking of her now with gratitude instead of resentment. I count the myriad positive traits she passed to me, and I see more clearly what a unique and multi-faceted person she was. I owe more of my confidence and success to her than I have given her credit for. And I recognize how deeply and selflessly she loved me, pouring more goodness into me than was ever poured into her.
The natural fact is that most mothers have the best of intentions. We love our children beyond our own understanding and we try our best to give them what was lacking from our own childhoods. It’s not easy, we’re all complicated, and there’s a lot more to unpack than one day a year allows.
So that’s why I suggest celebrating Mother’s MAY instead of Mother’s Day. One day is really not enough to fully understand and recognize what our moms have given us. Consider taking a few moments every day throughout this month to reflect on something good about your life that came from your mother. Wherever we are in our relationships, even if we're struggling, by looking at where they started and what they lived through, we may see them with more compassion. If we’re fortunate, this process will eventually reveal hundreds of gifts, lovingly given, just waiting to be opened.