The Mother Who Criticizes Your Looks
Mothers are reacting to our grandmothers reacting to their own mothers. At any point in the chain, a mother may mix up beauty with economic security. After all, beauty attracts high-earning men.
A mother worries about a daughter who doesn’t look good enough to her. The concern backfires when she’s so critical the daughter rebels or gives up. “My grandmother was very negative with my mother,” Katz says, and in response, her mother didn’t take pride in her own appearance. “She never let me go out not looking perfect, but it bothered me that she didn’t take care of herself.” The two women bonded over the little girl’s beauty.
Fear frequently emerges as controlling and nagging. “I often hear from my patients that their mothers nagged them about their looks, especially their weight. They felt compelled to try to control their daughters’ appearance and were highly critical and intrusive about their daughters’ hair, weight, skin and fashion,” says Lisa Cohen, a psychologist in New York.
Sometimes the criticism continues long after the daughters are adults. As a teenager, Ellen considered herself ugly and gave up on the idea that she could look better. Her mother, who had four children and worked as a nurse, didn’t have time to help. “I learned to live from the neck up,” Ellen says.
Now the 48-year old single mother and teacher has gained an extra twenty-five pounds and dresses solely for comfort. “I just don’t care about my looks,” she says. She’s not interested in dating, and in her little spare time would rather write or go to art museums than shop.
Her mother complains bitterly about Ellen’s weight, while praising her daughter-in-law, a petite blonde home-maker, who never leaves the house looking less than perfect. “My mother wants me to be something I’m not,” Ellen says. Her brother, a banker, earns much more money, which her mother also admires. “She knows that they’re not very good people but that isn’t as important,” Ellen says angrily. Underlying the nagging is her mother’s fear that her daughter has made herself too vulnerable as a single mother—and in fact, the fights intensified when Ellen asked her mother for extra financial help.
A critical mom may be telling the truth, but going about it in the wrong way. Looking better can be good for you, whether it’s losing unhealthy weight or gaining confidence from a new haircut. “There are a lot of people who will say, ‘I look fine, I don’t need to change, that doesn’t matter to me,’ but when you put them through the process of a makeover, it’s transforming,” Cochran says.
The courage to change is more likely to follow acceptance than criticism. Cochran suggests that Ellen’s mother give her a gift certificate to a store with larger sizes or one where Ellen already likes to shop. “It’s a huge bonding experience for two women who have been at odds over appearance, when one of them comes up with a gift that honors the other, that says, I love and accept who you are.”
Bonding Over Beauty
Beauty activities can bond mothers and daughters as adults, especially when their lives have greatly diverged. “Me and my Mom are close but when it comes to beauty we are totally different. I understand her because she's a village woman,” a young woman wrote YouBeauty from South Africa. “She encourages me to do exercises and wear makeup, even though I only earn a little. She wants me to try.”
Angelique, 27, now a reporter, grew up in New York in an economically-pressed family from Thailand. Until she left home, her mother cut her hair, while Angelique sat on a stool in the bathtub. Once she became a teenager, she and her mother went for cosmetic makeovers once a year, favoring Clinique.
“Around the time that I turned 21, I saved some hard-earned cash and took her to a spa for the very first time in her life. Since it was her day, I didn't get anything done. As a spa buddy, I translated terms like ‘seaweed wrap’ and explained what the treatment would involve. For a moment, she felt comfortable in a country that still remains foreign to her,” Angelique says.
On Mother’s Day, why not take your Mom to a spa? Especially if she’s a mother who wishes you cared more about your looks—would it kill you to get a manicure for her sake? Or take a mother who won’t spend money on herself because your grandmother gave her a hard time. Even if you have a competitive mother, bonding over beauty treatments sometimes allows barriers to come down. Give it a try—it might end up being a good memory for both of you.
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