Your self-image, your feelings about beauty and the way you take care of yourself may still be influenced by your mother’s response to your first efforts to win attention.
Small girls put on Mom’s jewelry and lipstick, hoping for approval and admiration from both parents. By the tween and teen years, some of those girls beg to go public in seductive garb, while others forget to wash their face (and parade their intelligence or athletic ability instead.) Usually, just as we’re becoming teenagers, our mothers are easing into middle-age. Their comfort with that change can profoundly affect how comfortable we are with ours, says San Jose therapist Margaret Cochran.
Secure mothers are more likely to let their daughters develop. “If I’m secure in myself, I see you as a unique individual who needs to find your own way,” Cochran says, “even if I’m a beauty queen mom and you’re sports oriented and not into girly stuff.”
Uncomfortable moms often become anxious about a daughter’s looks and criticize her. Others distrust our culture’s emphasis on sex and appearance, and fight with daughters who want to fit in. Mothers and daughters can compete. Some bond over beauty activities, even though their lives are otherwise vastly different. Do you see yourself—as mother or daughter—in any of these scenarios?
The Mom Who Calls You Vain
Suzanne’s* mother, a former nun, didn’t own a full-length mirror. Growing up, Suzanne had to stand on the toilet seat to see herself in a small mirror her father used to shave. Makeup was forbidden and she didn’t have much cash, so she got creative. A black magic marker became mascara. She used blue chalk for eye shadow and red chalk for blush. She made herself up in the woods on the way to her morning bus stop, with a shard of a broken mirror she hid in her underwear drawer.
One day, “I got busted,” Suzanne says. Her mother said she’d become “vain” and “I had to wipe it all off and surrender my stuff.”
Her mother was tough on her in many ways, and today, Suzanne, a 54-year old website designer, describes herself as “chronically, deeply insecure.” But she understands her mother’s reasons. “She thought that if I became all about my looks, I wouldn’t have anything when I got old or got hit by a car.”
If the two had gone to see Cochran, she’d have supported Suzanne. “A mother who won’t let a daughter look in the mirror is denying her the chance to grow. Adolescence is about figuring out who you are,” she says. “Your appearance is your calling card to the world.”
Suzanne has been careful with her own 15-year old never to criticize. “One day she had really heavy eye make up on before school. I said, ‘You have such beautiful eyes. That’s a really good look for evening, not so much for the day.’ When she took some of it off, I said, ‘Don’t forget how to do that evening look, that was awesome. You’ll have to show me how to do that.’”
The Glamorous Mom
Every so often, we see photos of a beautiful celebrity with an ordinary-looking child. Most people can’t help but think that it must be hard on the child to have such an attractive mother.
Erika Katz, a former child model and the author of “Bonding over Beauty,” a book for mothers raising teens and tweens, has some advice for mothers who see their daughters looking at them enviously or wistfully: at those key moments, turn the spotlight on the child. “The mom should ooh and ahh over the daughter,” she says. When her brunette nine-year-old has asked her, “Why can’t I have blond hair like you?” she answers, “I wish I had shiny hair like you. If my hair was as pretty of yours, I would never dye it.”
Daughters may be ambivalent about a mother’s beauty, or the attention it attracts from the world. Katz frequently appears on television. Her daughter doesn’t like to watch her appearances. “She won’t kiss me until I take off all my makeup when I get home,” Katz says.
The Competitive Mom
Competition at home is painful, whether a daughter is comparing herself to her mom—or Mom with her daughter. “I’ve seen so many people who are competitive with their mothers, and it’s devastating,” says Katz.
When a mother competes with her daughter, she blurs an important boundary. “Sometimes Mom isn’t comfortable becoming an older woman, and in middle-age she’ll say, ‘I can wear my daughter’s jeans,’” Cochran notes. “That’s competition.” Cochran believes that daughters need their mothers to be an authority figure who sets rules—not a competitor like a peer at school—even if she’s also a companion.
Sharon, 30, says competition badly damaged her tie to her mother. Both are beautiful, and her mother often compared them. “She’d say things like, ‘Your legs are so much fatter than mine,’” says Sharon. “She didn’t want me to think I was beautiful at all.” When Sharon was a teenager and wanted to wear sexy clothes, they had screaming fights, setting a pattern in all conflicts. In her twenties, Sharon screamed at her, “I’m beautiful, I’m beautiful, I don’t need you!” She hasn’t spoken to her since.
Sharon takes exquisite care of herself, but she doesn’t want her looks to define her. In her marketing work for an art auction house, she says, “People don’t talk to you if you don’t look good. I’ve learned to milk it.” She plans to earn a graduate degree in psychology, a profession where looks won’t be so essential. In her private life, she makes sure to surround herself with people who are interested in her for other reasons. “I can tell immediately if someone only wants to be with me because of the way I look. It’s disgusting.”
Stay protected from harmful UV rays with this season's newest sunscreen launches.
Are you addicted? Learn how to break the habit.
Amp up your summer wardrobe with these flattering finds.
We'll help you pinpoint what's triggering those weird eyelid tweak-outs.
Get moving for a firmer and better toned behind.
Return to the Mobile Site