When I was nine or ten, I brought my class picture home to my mother and asked, “Who do you think is the prettiest?” “You!” she replied. “I think Maura’s the prettiest. She’s prettier than me.” Mom would have none of that, and assured me that Maura had nothing on me. I’ve never considered myself pretty, but my mom has always given well-timed compliments and I know she thinks her daughter is beautiful. I’m certain she did not consciously try to instill positive body image in me, but I’m thankful she’s never done anything to harm it.
That’s why comment threads like this inspire such sadness and anger in me. That so many women have parents who’ve torn them down and even bribed them to lose weight or otherwise alter their appearances is tragic. Parents are supposed to be a soft cushion for their children, not the source of body hatred and rejection based on looks.
My mother’s love hasn’t stopped me from despising my appearance. I dislike the way I look because, well, I’m not attractive.* Last summer, when my mom and I went swimsuit shopping, she eagerly waited outside the fitting room, encouraging me to show her the styles I tried on. In the mirror, I saw a pale whale unfit for public view, but mom beamed and excitedly advised me to go with the blue one. Even if I can’t accept what I see in the mirror, it’s good to know my mom does.
What’s more, my parents didn’t tear other people down by disparaging their looks. People’s outsides were just not a factor in their worth as human beings. I know mom has some insecurities. I will never forget the time she cried on the way home from church because some jerk had scribbled “Crater face [our last name]” on a paper she’d found. She has acne scars on her face, but has never worn makeup or gotten wrapped up in beauty rituals besides coloring her hair. Nor has she ever pressured me to wear makeup (though I do).
I can’t remember my father ever commenting on my appearance, except to say “That looks nice!” when I’d model new school clothes or prepare for formals. He has certainly never insulted me or used scare tactics (“you’ll never get a man!”) to get me to slim down my waist or my nose. Both parents have warned that I better not have that extra cookie if I didn’t want to gain weight, but that’s because I’ve been known to complain about my fat whilst devouring heaps of rich desserts.
I do have a slightly fucked-up relationship with food. I see my grandma – my dad’s mother – in myself sometimes. She’d whine about being heavy whilst baking one of her delectable chocolate-chocolate-chip cakes. And she wasn’t merely self-critical. Once I hit puberty I dreaded the inevitable inspections she’d perform when we’d visit. “Oh, you gained some weight in your backside?” “No, grandma.” “Come inside and have a bowl of ice cream.” Sigh.
So not everyone in my family was sensitive or tactful. In fact, my younger brother tortured me throughout our childhood, calling me “BigSarah” and “thunder thighs.” I was a normal sized kid who tracked her leg circumference with a tape measure. Little brothers are known life-ruiners but it did hurt me that my parents never reprimanded him for taunting me like that, or for pretending he was experiencing an earthquake when I’d walk down the stairs. They knew he did it but their advice was to ignore it. The lesson he learned was that his behavior was OK.
Evidently, I have reached adulthood not completely unscarred. But I have had it pretty damn good. I wish everyone could think of their parents as safe havens from a superficial, judgemental world. My parents love me for who I am; my apperance is less than secondary to them. Now and then I’m reminded I may be in the minority.
*Only half serious.