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Do you agree with your mom on what’s beautiful?

Do you agree with your mom on what’s beautiful?
By twenty-something. • Issue #52 • View online
Consider this an honest belated Mother’s Day think-piece.
by Bianca Smith
As the first child of three (and a woman) I was a victim of the “we’re going to keep you as restricted as possible because we’re afraid of what may happen to you if we don’t” style of parenting. This warped version of care was led by my dad, and my mom respected it—but she ultimately acted as my relief.  We had a short stint of butting heads in my tweens, but it ended before it really began. She and I moved into friend-dom and have never looked back. 
This came in handy frequently.
When I decided to have sex in high school, she took me to Planned Parenthood to get birth control. When I struggled after relationships ended, she cried with me. She cared little about merit-based successes and more about my happiness. I was—and still am—so grateful for how she shows up for me. There’s a warmth and honesty that has undoubtedly shaped how I work to move throughout the world.
But what are friends if they can’t be critical of each other’s shortcomings? 
Or, rather, when they don’t quite see eye-to-eye? 
And what does it mean to be a parent who’s also a friend? A daughter who’s also a friend?
It means it’s messy. 
Our disagreements are rare, but when they do happen, the sting is almost indescribable. The weight of parental disappointment is crushing. And in this parent-friend intersection, our specific recurring and enduring disagreement around beauty feels like betrayal.  
I spent all of my formative years working my appearance and style into something palatable—for almost everyone but myself, and very much for my mom. Be it an item of clothing or the length of my hair, her lens of approval was the ultimate signal of “pretty,” “beautiful,” and “good.” In hindsight, it did quite some damage. 
Her commentary was never malicious, and her intent wasn’t either. This was what she had endured, too. It became second nature to her to poke and prod at anything out of place. Any droop or sag or vein or crease was to be obliterated—replaced with muscle and polish and powder and a quiet, mangled pain. Whether it was fully conscious, I don’t know. But as a daughter and as a friend, I began to mimic these behaviors.
It took a bit of distance to feel so bold as to question what “beautiful” meant. Why did I come to decide the number on the scale couldn’t be over a certain number? Why did I shave every time I showered? Why were tattoos synonymous with “dirty,” “mistake,” and “embarrassment?” 
Once I started down that line of thinking, I pressure-tested those questions. I chopped my hair off in places and let it grow in others. I got tattoos without thinking, “would this be approved?” I started eating intuitively. I moved when I felt like it instead of after a long poking and prodding in the mirror. What I found was comfort in my own skin that I rarely felt prior. Fewer restraints ended up in less thinking about beauty…and just being. 
And guess what? I’ve never felt more beautiful.
But we still don’t fully agree.
I continue to hide new tattoos, afraid I’ll be met with “you’ll regret that when you’re older.” If I mention I’m in the process of growing my hair out, odds show she will let out an excited squeal. If a dress and make-up are on the table, I know I’ll be showered in praise.
Embracing myself but still keeping some bits hidden feels like a step forward. It’s not without disappointment or uneasiness. I bet one day we’ll see eye to eye—but today we just don’t. And I guess what I’m trying to say is that that’s okay. I have a better idea of who I am now. If I can find room for all the bits and bobs that might not fit that singular definition of beauty, I edge closer to invincibility. 
Glimmers of empathy for the spots and bumps and wrinkles and hairs. Mini celebrations for the tattoos and the haircuts and the weird style decisions.
They almost make the fight irrelevant.
Bianca is a writer and strategist from Chicago. She helps run a digital community called Distant, spends too much time cuddling her two cats Pearl & Norman, and refuses to acknowledge that pasta sauce can also be called gravy. You can find more of her work at www.biancapsmith.com and you can find her on Instagram at @biancapsmith and @distant.community.

 

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