Guest Post: “Generations of Women, Finding Fault with Themselves”

This post is one in a two part series on the Beauty Legacy we leave our daughters. As the holidays season brings families together, let us give pause to how we frame beauty and self-love around our girls.

A Guest Post: “Generations of Women, Finding Fault with Themselves”

My mom had recently been given some old family pictures. She found pictures of herself as a 16-year-old. We live far apart, so over Skype, she showed me the pictures of her teenage self. She was embarrassed to show them; her hair, which has always been thick and very curly, had been teased out into a giant approximation of an afro. All I could look at was her tall, long, lanky, muscular, and above all, thin body. How, I thought to myself, could she ever have seen herself as ugly? Then she found an old picture of me as a baby: a chubby little butterball.  I cringed. This was my mom and I in a nutshell: the tall, thin, athlete and the short, round, geek. The pictures represented everything we loathed about ourselves.

When I was pregnant and found out I was having a daughter, I fell into a deep depression. I dreaded every insecurity, every moment of self-loathing, every indignity I knew she would face growing up. And I had no idea how to make it so that these injuries would only sting, rather than burn, how to arm her against them, how to protect, or at least insulate her. I had no idea how to be a strong, confident woman who was proud of who she is, embrace how she looks, and celebrate her unique strengths, so how could I ever teach my daughter?

I know why my mother was so insecure about how she looked growing up. She was her current height (5’9”) when she was 12. She didn’t hit 100 pounds until she graduated high school. Her eyesight was poor and so she had to wear thick glasses. She also had terrible acne. Her hair was strange and unruly. Imagine growing up in the shadow of the 60s and being unable to have long, flat hair. Finally, she was athletic. She grew up in a time and place where being an athletic female was not celebrated or desirable.  Those abs that I zeroed in on in her picture would have been out of place when she was growing up. For me, though, at sixteen, I would have traded my body for hers, even if it meant bad hair, eyes, and acne.

I look like the exact opposite of my mother. I am shorter and rounder (ok, curvier). My hair is blond and flat. Although I need glasses, my eyesight isn’t nearly as bad as hers. I used to get one pimple every month. I do, however, struggle with my weight, that is, I struggle keeping it off. I have little grace or coordination. And while I’m a good swimmer, my body, with bad knees, big breasts, and short stature, wasn’t built to excel in any sport. I was smart, gifted even. But all I wanted to do was make the Olympics. After I gave up on that dream, it was hard to be taken seriously sometimes when all people could stare at was my chest; being smart didn’t seem to matter.

In my eyes growing up, my mother was perfect. And all she could do was find fault with the way she looked and who she was. All I could think was, if she thinks she’s ugly, what must she think of me? Of course, she thought I was perfect. Not only because I was her daughter, but because I represented everything she had ever wanted. But when you’re 15 and wracked with insecurities, it’s hard to see things that way.

My daughter came out as thin as a rail. You could already see the muscle definition in her legs (all that kicking my insides really worked). Her eyes were blue like mine, her hair blond, but springing up in adorable ringlets. I breathed a sigh of relief. She inherited the thin genes, not the fatter ones. But then I remembered how I saw my own mom growing up: everything I wasn’t, thus perfect. Would my daughter envy my curves and straight hair because Jersey Shore is the dominant image of female “perfection”?

I don’t know what kind of woman society will value when my daughter is a teen ten years from now. I do know that I have to somehow figure out how to love myself. Everything that I saw, everything that I still see as a fault, I have to learn how to embrace it as a strength rather than a liability.  I already think that she is perfect in every way, and that won’t really change. If I want her to see herself that way, too, I can’t just tell her, I need to model it for her. That way, maybe I can break the cycle of women who see perfection all around themselves and never in themselves.

Lee Skallerup Bessette has a PhD in comparative literature and currently teaches English and Writing in Kentucky. She also blogs about teaching, writing, and issues in higher education at collegereadywriting.blogspot.com.

Comments

  1. My four year old is thin and very muscular. She, too, has always been so. She’s always been in the 10-20th percentile for weight and the 50th for height. So, petite, but thin.

    I am not thin. Not by a long shot. I’m short and curvy. In high school and college I was athletic and played sports, including cheerleading, and I wasn’t “fat.” But at 5’1″ and 120 lbs, I wasn’t tall and thin like many of my friends, and I sometimes got teased about my curves. I was a size 4, but I still remember a comment one of the coaches made when she thought I couldn’t hear about me being to “big” to be a cheerleader.

    One day my daughter said she loved her “big, strong legs” because they helped her be “super-girl fast and super-girl strong.” I teared up and told her I loved her big, strong legs too. I have nixed all my negative body-talk, and I just hope and pray that she will continue to see herself as super-girl.

  2. Nice article !

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