When your mum is exquisitely beautiful

Picture posed by a model not related to the story.

Picture posed by a model not related to the story.

My mum was that girl. The one with the shiny hair that looks like a shampoo commercial, the little coordinated outfit, the cheekbones, and the small herd of wannabes trailing after her. I’ve seen the pictures, so I know. Her smile is perfect, her teeth gleam, in one photo she seems to be twirling, in another she’s leaning casually against a fence, totally comfortable in her radiance.

Her mistake, genetically speaking, was marrying my dad. A goofy, funny guy with a Jew-fro who was only barely her height, and whose family tree held a fantastic variety of bold, rebellious noses. Somehow, it worked out fine for my two brothers, who both inherited tall, manly genes from my mum’s side, and somehow also ended up with strikingly handsome faces. Gabe is tanned and gorgeous, with wild hair that the ladies love. Jake is playfully freckled, with dark, soulful eyes and lots of muscles. Family friends are always asking me to set him up with their daughters.

And then there’s me, the girl, the odd one out. It didn’t work out as well for me.

“She’ll be 5’9”,” the doctor promised my parents. But by the time I was sixteen I was only 5’3”, and the doctor said that he’d been wrong. My mother’s shoes were still huge on me when I tried them on. The hems of her dresses puddled on the floor around my feet. But all that was really fine. I had other things to worry about. My nose for one. It just kept getting bigger. It was long and wide and bumpy, all at the same time. It seemed to have taken an unfavorable characteristic from everyone in my dad’s family and molded them all together. My face was a smooth oval, like my mum’s, but I got my dad’s acne. It grew bored of my face and set off to explore my back and chest, trailing down my neck on its way. I got my dad’s thick eyebrows. And my breasts never really made an effort. I was still relatively flat when I left for university.


“You’re so smart and beautiful,” my mum would tell me. “I’m so lucky that you’re my daughter.”

When I was very young I believed her automatically. Later, when I saw the pictures of her at my age, I knew that she was prettier, and it seemed unfair. Everything was better on her. She had long legs, mine were short. She had wide, full lips, mine were a rosebud, out of place on my dramatic face. I thought, “Why can’t I look like her?” and for some reason it was comforting to think that maybe she didn’t know, that maybe she thought that I was just as beautiful, or even more so. That she saw something in my appearance that I couldn’t always see, some basic truth. 

It wasn’t just that my mum had been pretty, she was still pretty. As a teenager, when I introduced her to the boys I was dating they would whisper to me afterwards, “Your mum’s really good-looking.” Some said, “Your mum’s hot!”

My friends said, “You’re lucky that your mum’s so thin. You probably won’t gain weight when you’re older.”

I wasn’t convinced. Everything that my mum was, I wasn’t.

I was so aware of my mum’s beauty that it took me a long time to notice that she didn’t seem to care about it at all. She dressed in jeans and t-shirts. Sometimes she’d wear a long, loose dress. She wore flats and no makeup. She pulled her hair back in a ponytail or tugged it up into a bun. When I was really young, she cut it all off and it was sleek and short and accidentally stylish. She never got her nails done. She wore red flannel pajamas. She loved to garden, as she was always covered in dirt and bug bites. She loved to be outside.

Meanwhile, in my mid-teens, I had grown to care a lot about what I was wearing, and I spent hours dressing up with my friends so that we could take turns photographing each other. I almost always hated the way I looked in the photos, I thought my nose was ruining them, but I kept letting my friends take them, just in case one or two would turn out gorgeous one day. If that happened, I told myself, I’d get those printed, and I’d look at them all the time, and I’d remind myself that that was me. That was the real me. The one my mum had seen all along.

When I said something self-deprecating about my frustrating nose, my mum would quickly tell me that it was striking and beautiful. When she saw the photos, she thought that I looked good in them. She told me that I didn’t have to worry about being pretty, that I should think about other things instead. When I went to university and experienced a devastating low in my self-esteem, the fact that my mum saw my beauty and believed in it absolutely was like a rock that my self-worth was tied to.

And that’s why it was particularly hurtful and shocking when she casually let slip one day that I actually wasn’t that beautiful.

That’s not really what she said. And honestly, I forget the exact circumstances of the conversation. I think we were in the car, maybe over winter break, and I was talking about my friend who was a model, or something like that, and my mum said “Not everyone can be that beautiful.” And when I made a comment about how I definitely wasn’t, she didn’t disagree. Instead, she said, “You don’t have to be. You’re fine. You look good enough.”

I laughed and agreed. But I was stunned. And then I was deeply embarrassed for believing her, all those years. What a baby I’d been! Of course she didn’t think that I was the most beautiful girl in the world. She wasn’t blind. Of course she noticed the things about me that were awkward. As a beautiful woman herself, she could tell the difference. And now that I was an adult and we could talk candidly, she could be honest with me. These were her true thoughts. My beauty wasn’t some coded message that she could expertly translate, it was whatever was looking back at me from the mirror.

A few months later, when I told my mum that I was thinking about getting a nose job and had made an appointment to meet with a cosmetic surgeon, she cried and cried. She said, “I love your nose! That is my daughter’s nose. That is my beautiful daughter’s nose.”

And then she told me about being that girl. The shiny-haired one in the pictures, surrounded by adoring fans, leaning casually on a fence, radiant and cool at the same time. She told me that everyone had always told her that she was pretty and that it didn’t seem to matter when she did well in school. It felt like she didn’t have to do anything except for be pretty. She began to feel like she didn’t matter. Like all that mattered was her surface. She didn’t like the attention she got on the street. She was offended by the catcalls and the whistles. She decided not to try to go to college, which she always regretted. She became friends with my dad because he thought that she was smart at a time when no one else seemed to know that about her. At a time when she felt completely insecure and was nervous about having an opinion. And when they got married and eventually had children, she wanted to protect her kids from the kinds of expectations that come with putting some girls in the pretty box and some in the smart box in some in the lame box and some in the popular box. She wanted to set an example of a strong, intelligent woman who didn’t have to wear makeup and dress up to be liked. And besides, she was more comfortable in her jeans.

I listened, not knowing how to react. I’d assumed that looking the way my mum looked as a girl must have been the best feeling in the world. I never would have guessed that she saw it as a burden. I had always known her as a competent, self-taught, knowledgeable person and couldn’t imagine a time when she hadn’t believed in her own intelligence, or felt insecure about who she was.

My mum’s story touched me, but I had the nose job anyway. By then, I was too convinced that I was irredeemably unattractive to turn back. But something went wrong in the surgery and when my nose healed it looked almost exactly the way it had before, only the bump was a little farther down the bridge. Instead of having it corrected, I decided to try something else. I decided to try to like the way I looked- not because I have potential for a sleek, obvious beauty, but because of all of the ways that I look like myself. Every day, when I looked in the mirror in the morning, I pointed out something about my appearance that was interesting and cool, not because it made me look more like my mum, but because it made me different.

Now, years later, in my mid-twenties, I am sort of surprised at how well it’s worked. I catch myself feeling unexpectedly lovely at random moments. I notice myself feeling proud of the way I look. And even more importantly, I like who I am. I know my own intelligence. I trust my own skills. I was given a chance to grow up in an environment where I could be more than one thing at once.

I understand now that of course my mum thinks that I am beautiful. She knows I’m not a supermodel. I’m not going to be a movie star. My face is a creative combination of my dad’s witty Jewish family and my mum’s strong-boned Slavic one. I am a mixture of priorities. I am interestingly complicated.  I am what my mother hoped for: a daughter who gets to be so much more than her looks.

Kate Fridkis blogs at Eat the Damn Cake. Follow her on Twitter.


  • I was that girl (the girl that the writer above became after her nose job) for a decade or so. Well, now, at age 47, never having been married or even close to it, never even having had a man I've loved love me back, with people actively looking away on the street because I'm homely, well, I've given up on the whole "just fine the way I am" self-acceptance thing that I had been just fine with for the prior decades of my life. That's part of this Gen-Y/Millenial culture that deludes people into thinking that iANYTHING they can do to improve themselves is not worth the bother.

    Because while *I* may be just fine with my looks (and I am, because they express my own Slavic and British heritage), I recognize painfully that others are not, and that I lose all sorts of opportunities because of it.

    Part of "owning" that I'm just homely and will face only more limited opportunities in the world because of it, is making plans for, and saving up for, lots of medical procedures - the facelift my blocky, mannish shaped face has needed to get a feminine jaw line since I was 10, the nose job I've needed since before then, the brow lift I could do with as a 40-something woman, and orthodontia to correct the teeth I was born with. Why? Because 90+% of the time, the people who have them done think they were worth the money and more, in terms of improving their lives.

    Date and time
    October 17, 2012, 8:42AM
    • this is so sad - you should consider spending the money on therapy and learning to love yourself instead

      Date and time
      October 17, 2012, 9:46AM
    • Carole

      Hope all your choices work out for you and give you a wonderful range of experiences.

      All the best.

      Date and time
      October 17, 2012, 10:43AM
    • sadly, this does not sound like you're fine with it.

      Date and time
      October 17, 2012, 11:00AM
    • You're 47, why are you blaming gen-y? People 20 years' your junior have nothing to do with it.

      Date and time
      October 17, 2012, 11:19AM
    • I'm reposting this as a comment directly to Carole, because I disagree with these other comments...

      Kate's story was wonderful, but it's Carole's comments that have affected me really deeply. I have a small daughter and she is a very pretty girl. Already she is responding to the comments that come every day, from family, friends and strangers, telling her how pretty she is. I can see her basking under the glow of these comments, and I want to tell people to stop -- don't make her see herself through this one prism!

      What I really want for her is that she will grow up to be articulate, thoughtful, intelligent and switched-on, like Carole clearly is. I'm very inspired by your honesty, Carole, and by your sense of self worth. No matter who my little girl grows up to be, I'll be proud of her, but if she grows up to be even just a bit like you, I'll be very happy -- for her, more than anything.

      And if you do get those procedures done, yay for you, because you most certainly do deserve it. Thank you for giving me something special today and very best wishes to you.

      Date and time
      October 17, 2012, 11:24AM
    • No, please, no! Do not even THINK of doing anything to yourself for anyone BUT yourself. Any form of surgery should only be done because you want to do it to make yourself feel better about what you see. It is a very dangerous thing to try and change yourself physically for others. It will backfire and you will deeply regret doing something you - YOU - did not want to do in the first place. Please, think very, very carefully. I speak from personal and the very close experience of others.

      reality bites
      Date and time
      October 17, 2012, 11:28AM
    • What opportunities do you lose?

      Of course, you're not going to attract that successful good-looking investment banker or lawyer. But that doesn't stop you from being a successful investment banker or lawyer, yourself. It just means you're not arm-candy. It doesn't mean the world will end.

      Date and time
      October 17, 2012, 11:37AM
    • To the other commenters telling Carole that she is "sad" and "not fine with it", seriously, if you are truly plain (and not just insecure), it doesn't matter a damn whether or not you are happy with your appearance in terms of how others react to you. Numerous studies have shown that people automatically respond more favourably to photos of attractive people (women in particular) and that more positive adjectives (such as honest, friendly, trustworthy etc) are used by subjects to describe them. The flip side of this is that who are more homely are burdened with negative perceptions that they are somehow less open, honest etc. Furthermore, people who are deemed empirically more attractive (and those who are taller), have higher average earnings and better career opportunities. http://cornell-students.experience.com/alumnus/article?channel_id=salaries&source_page=additional_articles&article_id=article_1156540837808

      Frankly, it sucks, but all the self love in the world won't get you through society's prejudices if you are truly plain. You can be OK with it yourself, but you'll still lose out because of it. I therefore completely understand Carole's decision to have some work done. I hate that it's necessary, but if you are in a position to do something about your looks, is it really worth having to fight your way through the arbitrary barriers you'll find in your way as a homely person?

      Date and time
      October 17, 2012, 11:52AM
    • Carole - At the moment you sound like a barrel of laughs to be with. Haven't you ever met drop-dead gorgeous looking women who have trouble keeping a man because they are so vacuous. (As opposed to the physically gorgeous one who are also wonderful company and have good character).

      Have you ever seen a photo of Wallis Simpson - a king gave up his kingdom for her - definitely not a beauty and just one example of "plain" women who have won the hearts of powerful men over women with classic beauty.

      Get a life, an interest, a list of wonderful things to do on your own or with a friend - and stop hanging out with these dumb women who only talk about their lipo, tummy tucks, face-lifts etc. etc. BORING.

      Date and time
      October 17, 2012, 12:00PM

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