As I wondered what my next essay would be about, the answer came to me in a most unexpected, even unpleasant manner.
As she leafed through a photo album full of pictures of me as a baby, my mother made an extremely hurtful comment, albeit not one she hadn’t made previously: that I, who used to be adorable, have gotten “uglier” because I “don’t look after myself“.
The latter, being a criticism of my lack of interest in enhancing my physical appearance through makeup, and of my body which, though healthy, isn’t rail thin. Over 30 hours have passed, and her words still hurt.
She appears to have forgotten all about the incident, but I can’t seem to stop replaying it in my head. Each time I replay it in my head, I am left feeling a little smaller, a little less valid, a little uglier… All in all, like a colossal disappointment.
Unfortunately, however, I’m not the only girl to inherit such a toxic legacy from her mother. Over the years, I have noticed that this vicious pattern repeats itself in every household where mothers and daughters coexist.
In her feminist masterpiece titled The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes that after a relatively large number of women won the vote, the right to choose their partners, and a degree of financial independence, the patriarchy, in a last ditch effort to maintain the hierarchy that is so integral to its very survival, assaulted us with unrealistic, mostly Eurocentric beauty standards.
And it has been splendidly successful in this sinister undertaking: every woman I know or know of is, to put it mildly, desperate to meet these standards.
All women, from Manhattan’s wealthiest socialites to young girls from villages in third world countries, aspire to emulate this mythical ideal, and often push themselves to unhealthy extremes to achieve it.
From crash diets and over exercise to using potentially carcinogenic skin lightening products, no measure is deemed too extreme.
What’s even more sickening is the fact that our mothers, who ought to be our safe spaces in a world that is fundamentally against us, are often ruthless in their criticism of our physical appearances, and push us to be taller, thinner, and fairer—by hook or by crook!
While it can be argued, and not unreasonably, that they are themselves victims of the Beauty Myth as perpetrated by patriarchal industries and institutions, and resort to projecting their own insecurities as a coping mechanism, I find it hard to be forgiving.
Having established that the rot is systemic, I also cannot deny that my experiences have been real and painful… Really painful.
Although an empowered woman by all standards—a successful, high paying career, and all the independence that comes with it—my mother, like most mothers, lacks independence of the mind.
Having long established herself in the traditionally masculine role of her daughters’ protector against the big bad world, despite her best intentions, she has failed to protect us from the insidious Beauty Myth.
On more occasions than I can count, she has herself done the dirty work of the patriarchy. My sister was adjudged too “tiny” and I, too “large”. Our facial features, far from perfect. Our skin, blemished.
Both of us abject failures at occupying the perfect amount of space, and by extension, at life itself.
Despite being an affectionate and supportive parent, she has left painful, enduring scars on my psyche, and done lasting damage to my sense of self worth… Damage that even a potent combination of feminist literature, appreciative peers, and therapy sessions has been unable to repair in its entirety.
Although an expression of pent up hurt and a profound sense of injustice, this essay is not an attempt to defame my mother. It is, however, an expression of the anguish well meaning mothers often inflict on their own daughters.
I suspect that mothers do this out of an urgent, albeit twisted, sense of protectiveness towards their young. Far too many mothers do it, to far too many daughters.
Having been shamed for their own appearances all their lives, mothers try their hardest to protect their daughters from the pain, humiliation and ostracism that almost invariably comes with womanhood.
The purpose of this essay is to make them introspect, and to let them know that their efforts, though earnest, are horribly misguided.
Their earnest but misguided efforts to be protectors of their daughters, do little more than turn them into the very tormentors girls need protection from.
I don’t intend to perpetuate the cycle of shame and judgement that is, unfortunately, alive and kicking. What I do hope to do is show my readers, particularly mothers of daughters, the mirror so that they can see the error of their ways and themselves become active participants in ending it.