Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Teach your children well

196 pounds
Some of my body issues come directly from my body—its imperfections and flaws—but most of them come from my childhood.

You see, I was raised in a house where one of us was considered pretty and one of us was considered smart.

I'll give you one guess which one I was.

As a result, it's taken me years to understand that it's possible to be pretty and smart and to have even an iota of objectivity about the way I look.

I might have mentioned this on the blog a while ago, but back in 2007, I had a bit of an epiphany about my looks. I was giving a reading and used a photo from myself at age ten for the publicity materials. When the advertisement went out via email, one of my students said something like, "I should have known you were always pretty."

The comment shocked me because until that moment I don't think I had ever thought of myself as pretty. Attractive, yes. Sexy, hell yes. But pretty? Not really. And I definitely hadn't thought of my childhod self as ANY of those things simply because of the dichotomy I was raised under ... Molly smart, Katie pretty.

For years I've thought about this dichotomy—wondered about it, analyzed it, written about it—and sometimes I find myself thinking, maybe it wasn't as bad as I remember. Maybe I'm being too hard on my parents.

But then, one of them slips up and says or does something that puts me right back at my ten-year-old insecure self.

This weekend that honor went to my mother.

I hadn't talked to her in a while, so I was catching her up on what's been going in my life lately. And when I told her that I was going to have a new author photo taken for my upcoming book, she said, "Make sure the camera isn't too close. It will look better from farther away."


I realized immediately I should have been wounded by this comment, but it was so offensive and so like my mother, that it was more laughable than hurtful.

Still, I didn't laugh.

Instead, I decided to send the message that—despite my parents' best efforts—I am no longer nervous about having a close-up photo taken. But my mother wouldn't let it go, insisting that "you don't want it to be too close."

At that point, I was fed up and explained—loudly, I might add—that author photos are never full body shots, that they are always, by definition, close-up.

She got the message—probably because of my volume—and backed off.

But later I kept thinking about it—does she really think I would look that bad close-up? Does she really think I'm that hard to look at? And is this why I thought I was unattractive until I was twenty years old?

It occurred to me then that my mother's comments were more about herself than they were about me. This is a woman who didn't want to join Facebook because she didn't think she had a good enough photo for her profile picture, a woman who looks stiff and unhappy in nearly every snapshot. She didn't want me to have a close-up taken because she never wants to have one taken of herself.

The truth is that it wasn't that my mother believed that only my sister was pretty when we were growing up or that she wanted me to look more like Katie. It was that she wished she looked more like my sister—more blonde and more thin. And she just assumed that everyone would have that same wish—including me.

Sure, it only takes me a few minutes to figure that out now, but when I was growing up, I lacked the critical thinking skills that allow me to understand this. So I walked through childhood believing I was gross.

I suppose that if I had a daughter—or even a son—I would be falling all over myself to make sure I didn't injure her self-esteem because of my own issues the way my mother did with me. But since I don't have any kids, I guess I'll just have to rely on all of you to take care of that for me.


  1. I can't even believe this. I'm dumbfounded.

  2. That was beautiful, and so are you. I'll bet you would be a great mom.

  3. Thanks, Denise! That's nice of you to say!

    Maciena—I should add that my mother was amazing in every other way. She just had serious body issues that were unfortunately passed on to me (though I know she didn't mean to pass them on).

  4. I have to agree with Denise. You would rock as a mom. I know this because you remind me of my mother sometimes, and I adore my mother. She's my world. It may be a little alien at first, but I know that you would inspire your child, and you're daughter/son would treasure you.

  5. It's me again, yep. :) Just realized that there's a big reason why this post touched me, besides your honesty and talent. My own mother did the same thing to me, only with sports. My older brother was talented in sports, and my parents were very supportive of him.

    My mother often told me that I "run like a girl" or "throw like a girl". I spend most of my childhood believing that I was awkward, clumsy and slow and avoided gym activities as much as possible. Then around the age of 13, I did well in a couple of races & even had the best time in my class one glorious afternoon, and it dawned on me that she was wrong.

    I told my mom what her what her comments had done to my self image, and she confessed that it was her attempt to take pressure off me. She'd always been teased about being the smallest kid in school (smaller than me), and any attempt at sports was a source of great pain to her. So, in a misguided attempt to help, she effectively hamstrung whatever self esteem I might have derived from physical activities while I was growing up.

    However, I think there was more to it than what she claimed. I do think there was a bit of jealousy involved, or whatever dynamic is behind when someone tries to break out of the mold and others try to hold them back. Like, how dare you think you can do better than me. That said, I know my mother loved me deeply, too. In a way, she identified with me too much.

    I've tried to keep my own various issues from affecting my children. I haven't been 100% successful, but I can guarantee they never heard any "you can't" or "you aren't" comments from me.

    And my daughter knows that I think she is the most beautiful girl in the world.

  6. Lovely comment, Denise. I'm so glad you posted it!

    It's interesting to me that you told your mother about how her words and actions affected you, and you learned something about her in the process. I almost never confront my mother about those issues. Simply put, I am afraid of hurting her. She is pretty sensitive. But maybe I should approach her. Maybe if I asked her about it in a non-confrontational way, it would help us both.

    And, yes, I know jealousy was an issue for my mother, so I'm sure it is for many mothers--your included. I imagine that must be one of the hardest parts about being a mom.

    So glad you wrote and you're working so hard to be a good mom yourself!