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.