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The Gift of an Uncool Mom

My mother’s idea of a beauty regimen is Ivory soap and a slash of red lipstick.  She’s a frugal Yankee sort, never one to pore over the NYT style section or spend time gazing in mirrors, sucking in her cheeks and tummy.  I routinely find her wearing — and I kid you not — clothes I discarded in high school. It’s important to point out here that I am 54 years old.  There’s one shirt from eighth grade, carbon-dated and confirmed.  The recycled fashions also include, in no particular order, peasant blouses, Danskin shirts, ribbed turtlenecks, and an unfortunate pair of pleated, high-waisted pants. While pristine, they’re all so outdated that they’ve come back in — and out of — style twice since then.

I love my mother.  It doesn’t faze her when we say, “I broke up with Mark Dean in that shirt in 10th grade, Ma.”  She’ll just smile and quip, “It’s a perfectly good shirt, girls. I don’t know what all the fuss is about.” She is the Teflon don of moms at this point, with three overly critical and sarcastic daughters who adore her eccentricities.  Mostly.

Growing up, a part of me longed for a glam mom, one with a movie star vanity spilling over with atomizer perfume bottles and gobs of beauty products.  This fictional mother would unlock the mysteries of being a woman, teach me how to pluck my brows, and buy me earrings for newly pierced ears. Instead, I got a yoga-practicing, health food-cooking, literature-loving mother with a very clear message: Focus more on the interior part of your personal beauty equation and less on the outside packaging.

I wanted to be pretty just like every other teenage girl.  I dreamed about Bobby Sherman and David Cassidy kissing me — with tongue — all night long.  How would they resist my full metal smile, baby-blue eye shadow, and long, blonde Mod Squad hair?

In college, my roommates and I obsessed about our weight and figures, determined to define beauty on our own.  We were learning how to listen to our bodies and the extent to which we could bend them to our will.  We took turns starving, exercising, and shaping them into our desired appearance.  We were not always kind to ourselves.

It wasn’t until I gave birth to a boy and three girls that I felt the burden of responsibility that came with raising daughters in a visual world.  How would I help them navigate the outsized cultural pressures that reward physical beauty?  How would I give my children the tools to love themselves, and all their perceived flaws, while the universe celebrated perfection?  It was then that I began to study the blueprint my mother had created.

My children would take their cues from me, I understood, the way a mother bird imprints on her chicks.  Every word that came out of my mouth, critical or praiseworthy, would be absorbed, copied and internalized.

Think of the internal monologue that takes place when we look in a mirror, the various ways we articulate dissatisfaction with a body part or our physical insecurities.  “I hate my chin… Are you sure you need those calories? These pants give me a bubble butt… Look at my thunder thighs!  I’m such a hippo in this bathing suit.” The little radios in my daughters’ heads would be tuned in to my frequency, picking up every word.

I finally understood that the gift my own mom had given me lay not in what she’d said, but rather in what she hadn’t said.  She had protected us from cultivating a loud and critical voice in our heads, one that could grow powerful and strangling if fed.

Of course my daughters have found their own issues.  We are all human, after all.  My eldest thinks she’s too tall, one of the twins hates her freckles, the other says her hair is too thin.  Me?  I’d kill for those coltish legs and milky skin.  But I’ve worked hard to fuel family conversations around issues in the news instead of talking about the superficial things we’d like to change.


So here is where I have to give it to my mother, all 82 years of her.  The uncool mom wins in the end.  Without my realizing it, she taught us to expend our energy on the stuff that matters: friendship and knowledge, community and healthy living, the elements that make us shine from within.   That definition of beauty, my mother’s, has the same kind of staying power as the cantaloupe blouse she’s wearing as I write this, a 1985 Perry Ellis sample sale score that is now so “in” I just might have to poach it back.

As published on Yahoo

1 Comment

  1. Melissa Shaw

    November 6, 2014 at 1:47 am

    I enjoyed reading your book after the jw cole meeting in fl. I’m glad to have met you ahead of time, and visit with you in that lovely pink dress before I read your book. it was a pleasure reading your stories, and your ten tips for helping. well done lee.

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