“You are not beautiful. You are smart.”
My mother used to always tell me this, or a form of it, even drastically act upon making sure I knew that looks weren’t everything, so that I would grow up to be a strong woman. Here are some examples:
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When I was 5 years old and started receiving compliments on my beautiful long raven colored hair, my mother and her sister decided to chop it off. ”You wouldn’t want to waste your energy growing hair,” they would justify to me. “All the calcium you consume should go into your teeth and bones.” I would get many styles of short modern haircuts that would make up for not having my once long flowing hair. I first got the Mia Farrow haircut of her Rosemary’s Baby character, because the movie happened to be showing on television and it made an impression on my mother and aunt. I would also get countless reinventions of the Dorothy Hamill Olympic-winner “wedge/mushroom” haircut. I looked more like Shaggy or, worse, Velma, from the television cartoon series, Scooby Doo, Where Are You? Apparently Dorothy hated it, too. In the 1980s, I became a Sheena Easton hairstyle victim, with the top portion of my hair permed purposefully while the sides and back were cut super short. The kids at school would mistake me for a boy from the age of 5 until the age of 15, when my hairbrush and comb were taken away from me by my mother.
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“You are too dark,” my grandmother would tell me.
“Don’t listen to her. You are beautiful,” my father would tell me. “You have my skin.”
“She looks like a farmer girl who worked out in the rice fields all day,” my mother would chime in. “Why can’t you be like your brother and sister?”
My mother was referring to the porcelain skin tone her half-Chinese heritage blessed my siblings with.
“Stop it,” my father would tell her.
“No. She needs to know that she will have to rely on being a good girl who is smart, nice and does good things for others, because that’s all she will ever have. People will always look at her and think she’s dirty, ugly and so she’ll have to overcompensate elsewhere.”
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“You are too tall and skinny,” my mother’s friends would often tell the 8 year old me.
“Yes, and that is why she is giving herself a hunchback,” my mother would reply. “Stand up straight, and be grateful for not being as short as these women’s children.” (Insert Dragon Lady Fire Eyes darting flames to her friends here).
“She’ll never marry. No one will ever want to marry someone who will grow to be as gigantic as a streamliner.”
Jump forward to when I become 12 years old.
Christy, one of the mother’s best frienemies, showed my parents photos of me taken in front of the church altar after her daughter’s First Communion.
“She takes great pictures. With that smile and her height, she can become a model.”
“Hmm, I don’t see it,” my mother responds.
“I do,” my father replies. “I’ve always seen it.”
“That’s because she looks like you,” my mother replies. “She has a boy’s body. She has no shape, has no boobs and she doesn’t like dresses. Ugh, just look at her hair. It is too straight and lifeless. Christy, can you do something to it? She looks like a boy.”
Christy then shows me a picture of Madonna and promises me to give me the same haircut.
She doesn’t. Instead, I get a really tight poodle perm. I don’t look like a boy anymore, but I don’t look 12 years old, either.
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This went on all my life.
Unsurprisingly, hearing all this throughout my childhood helped shaped my self-image, the distortion of which I carried with me throughout my adult life.
While I became a college graduate and supplemented my adult self by becoming an office worker, coffee barista and fit model, I also became the pleaser, the quiet wallflower, the overcompensating “good worker” with no where-with-all when it came to my adult pain and frustration.
I never knew when to walk away when a boyfriend, for instance, treated me badly. I didn’t want to walk away because I felt lucky that someone wanted to be with me. This went on six times before I finally met my husband of almost 12 years.
I always made myself available to the girls of my barhopping days who would ask me to go with them to the bars so they would “hook up” with guys or “get too drunk to drive” so that I could be there to help them, just in case they needed saving.
I quietly endured sexual harassment at the workplace for 2 years because I had to “please” my boss and “service” his clients with the great office work I was paid to do. I mistook the appreciation of these clients, who were sexually harassed victims themselves, for love. I also mistook the lawyer’s advances as some self-imposed mind-game, that somehow my intelligence and goody-two-shoes demeanor would always get me through.
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I finally decided to stop being a victim of my childhood and take control of my adult life.
I decided to take one year off from dating.
I decided to end friendships with the women who refused to spend quality time with me outside of the bar or club scene.
I decided to walk away from my job, even when I had no backup plan, in the hopes that things would work out somehow.
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I’m ok, right?
At first, no. I was alone. It was so lonely, and scary, to be alone. The silence was deafening.
Solitude became my saving grace. I learned to love myself without anyone propping me up. I learned to love even my imperfections, because no one is perfect. I learned to love the silence of being alone.
I read, took classes, hung out at coffee shops and bookstores to engage in small talk with strangers. I also buried myself into soul searching.
More destructive behavior would ensue in my romantic relationships, my family dynamics and in my work life after my year of solitude before I got my act together and met my husband.
He didn’t make me do things. By being himself, and by teaching through example, he showed me how to be an honest, healthy, unapologetic, strong, self-loving person.
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Fast forward to my wedding day.
I am to marry the man of my dreams, the man who loves all of me.
I am elated that 115 people have decided to attend my wedding, two-thirds of which were my guests.
My best friend’s husband, who is a hairdresser, is styling my now long-flowing raven hair. It looks great.
My cousin, sister and Matron of Honor help me put on the dress that my mother commissioned one of the neighborhood seamstress to make.
“You are beautiful,” my cousin exclaims.
“Breathtaking,” my Matron of Honor exclaims.
“Your boobs are still too small. I had the seamstress pad the dress especially, to make up for your problem, but I guess that problem will never be fixed,” my mom opines.
I look at my sister, who reacts to my mother’s statement and, coupled with her own disdain for being forced to be part of my wedding party, by smiling smugly at me, offering no saving words that my father would often give me in time of my mother’s/grandmother’s/aunt’s attacks.
The happy bride was silenced. The little girl of my past, along with her perceived shortcomings that I supposedly banished years ago during my year of silence and solitude, suddenly came back to haunt me.
The wedding was beautiful. Everyone had a great time. I married him and was lucky to be surrounded by people who mattered to us.
All the congratulatory words, well wishes and compliments to the bride, however, fell onto my deaf ears.
I tried my hardest to quiet the little girl from the past. “Not now,” I would tell myself. “This is supposed to be the happiest day of my life.”
She refused to be silenced. She would cajole me into looking down at my dress, taunt me whenever my dress strap would fall off my shoulders, would point to my husband’s ex-girlfriend who attended the reception and say, “Look, even she has boobs bigger than yours.”
And then he took my hand.
“Dance with me,” he whispered.
Nothing else mattered. We were alone, together.
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I severed ties with my family soon after the wedding. It was drastic, dramatic, hurtful, but it was necessary for me to embrace the little girl of my past, and to help her heal from the perverted confidence building of my childhood.
Six years would pass before my firstborn came into our lives. He would become the bridge that would lead me back to my family.
My grandmother has since passed, but her daughters – - my mother and aunt – - are still with us. They no longer offer their opinions about my shortcomings, and they do not say hurtful things to my husband and my children.
I suppose we all learned from the six year silence.
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There’s been a lot of talk recently about not telling their daughters that they’re pretty. This blog post points out that other attributes outside of appearances should come to the forefront when speaking with impressionable little girls:
What’s wrong with “You’re such a smart girl”? “You’re so creative”? “You’re so good at drawing”? “You know so many words”? Sure, tell her she’s pretty, because she is… because all children are. But don’t leave it at that.
The blog post goes further, that:
There are enough messages lurking out there in the world for our little girls about appearance, prettiness, skinniness. There’s enough emphasis on it in the media and in society and in everything they’ll see and hear and read. Must they hear it from their family, their friends, their role models, that what matters most to us, and therefore to them, is the curl in their hair or the length of their eyelashes?
While the context of the blog post differs vastly from my own childhood experiences, the message, along with the readers’ comments that followed, resonated with me. Why can’t we celebrate ALL that is great about a little girl, beauty included?
I then happen upon this open letter from a daughter to her mother. It was the insight I needed to becoming more cognizant of what my mother was going through, what I have become because of her own insecurities, and how I have the power to break the chain now. It was the slap in the face I needed so that the next time my family and I are at the beach, I will finally remove my harem pants and chambray shirt to expose the Linea Nigra on my belly that never faded, along with the stretch marks and cellulite on my thighs. Because it is not just the 41 year old that has arrived, it is the little girl in me finally owning up to her history and choosing to grow up and embrace the pain and welcome the self-acceptance that would soon follow, so that my own daughter will never own the ill-placed shortcomings of the women that came before her.